When I moved here people would ask why I left the states, and I inevitably replied Because I wanted to live in a place where everyone has equal access to medical care.
Americans understood this point, even if they did not agree with my conclusions. British people, without exception, were bewildered by not just the nuances but the core of the claim. Until the recent public debates about reform, they had some kind of fuzzy notion that a nation so rich, so wonderful, offered some provision for health care. They had heard, vaguely, about Medicare and Medicaid, and assumed those would help everyone in a tricky bit of trouble. They didn't get it that an overwhelming majority of citizens do not qualify for those programs. That most people are insufficiently insured, and that, given freedom of choice in services twinned with enormous medical bills, falter. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the states, not because people are profligate, but rather because they want to stay alive.
This is called a free market.
Love it, loathe it, or leave. I choose all three.
Education functions in much the same way. To offer a brief description: while each state and county differs in funding and provision of resources, the principle of choice is a significant factor everywhere. In all the places I lived, it was the choice of the parent where and how to educate children. Neighbourhood schools, open schools, magnets, charters, gifted-and-talented, performance academies, homeschooling - it was the choice of the individual family.
Individual choice remains the primary controlling principle if students decide to go to university. Admissions are handled like the Oklahoma Land Run - kids apply all at once to wherever they want to go. It is a mad frenzy, and when the dust settles, people attempt to make rational choices according to what has been offered. Often, this is about money: tuition, fees, scholarships, and loans are wildly divergent depending on your residency status, perceived excellence, and similar factors.
People shop for a deal, depending on their own idiosyncratic needs. I went to the best place I could afford to go, hoping that was where I belonged, and in that I was no different than millions of peers.
Here in the UK the education of the young is conducted in a fundamentally different way, from the youngest ages. Free public education is available, but determined by catchment area. Neighbourhood schools are as good or as bad as the neighbourhood, and people choose postcodes accordingly. The only alternative is private school, and many families choose that partly through a reckoning that tuition fees are lower than the mortgage on a house in the 'right' area.
The grammar school system is theoretically dead but children are still tested at around the plus-eleven age, and put on tracks of achievement. Secondary schools are determined by catchment, and like the primaries, the excellence of the facility matches the area. Kids are rated and specialised between eleven and sixteen, when general education ends. The next step is sixth form, where young people study a more formal but more restrictive set of speciality topics. This choice is critical, as it determines your university career. This does not equate to the US system, though you could vaguely think of sixth form as a sort of mandatory community college.
Now pay attention to this tricky part: the track of achievement you are placed on in a subject (say, maths) determines the highest possible grade you can receive. If you are put in a higher class at age thirteen you might achieve a higher grade, and apply to more selective sixth form schools. If you are in a lower class you cannot achieve the higher grade. You need both the higher grades and the sixth form to apply to the top ranked universities. Etc.
Are you following? Essentially, our imaginary child, aside from being far more obedient and scholarly than most children are inclined to be, has to hit it lucky in terms of neighbourhood, teachers, aptitude, and whatever other cosmic forces come to play in early adolescence. If you are perceived as both bright and obedient, you will be fine. Otherwise, well, too bad.
If you have done everything exactly according to the script up to age eleven, you have the opportunity to spend a couple of years drilling for standardised tests that will allow you to enter the next stage of education at sixteen, where you drill for more standardised tests.
Students who are expected to do well on these tests are given the option of applying to Oxford or Cambridge (but only one, not both). Those applications happen several months before admissions open at the other schools. This makes it especially easy for the 'best' students, because while there are not enough slots for all of them, they will at least know. If they don't get a place at Oxbridge, no worries, they still have a superior chance at the next tier of schools. An American would not call this competition, but whatever.
General admissions are handled by a single agency, UCAS. All students go through the same process at the same time, choosing their top five schools. Spots are allocated according to grades, with a few minor deviations for other criteria. If you are not accepted by one of your ranked schools, you are put in a paper bag called 'clearance,' shaken briskly, and assigned whichever institution still has open spaces. Functionally this means: the shitty schools nobody wants to go to.
From my perspective neither system is preferable, because they are both too extreme. One is too open, the other too closed. One functions like the most unpleasant sort of shopping mall, the other is rather Soviet. My own children? They are demonstrably top-tier and not at all obedient, so obviously, they do not participate in such things. It doesn't much matter. If you do not consent to play, you do not have to follow the rules.
When all UK university degrees were free or cost a low flat fee, the education system appeared rather benign. Students were students, not clients or consumers.
If you charge people for the privilege of education, then you need to acknowledge market forces. Duh!