UK School & Education System: Expat Guide

education system in the uk

The United Kingdom has one of the oldest and best-developed education systems in the world.

From Early Years to Higher Education, you can be certain that high-quality options are available throughout the country. The education systems differ in each of the devolved nations – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – so you will want to be sure to thoroughly research schools depending upon where you plan to move.

This guide is to help families moving to the UK understand how the education system in the UK works and the different options available at each stage of schooling within the four nations.

 

How does the education system in the UK work?

Education in the UK is split between Early Years Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Further Education, and Higher Education.

Within Primary Education and Secondary Education, the educational phases are further broken down into Key Stages, as follows:

Eduation phase

Key stage

Primary School Key Stage 1: 5 to 7 years old
Primary School Key Stage 2: 7 to 11 years old
Secondary School Key Stage 3: 11 to 14 years old
Secondary School Key Stage 4: 14 to 16 years old

 

Schools are open five days a week, full-time from September to July.

The school year is divided into three terms with a half-term break between each term in the winter, spring, and summer.

Education is compulsory until the age of 16 in the United Kingdom.

In general, the education system is organised between state schools and private (or independent) schools.

State schools are the tax-payer funded, government-run schools all students can attend without cost as part of their right to an education. Private schools are selective, fee-paying schools that often have specific admissions criteria.

There is also a difference between State schools in the selectivity of pupils. Non-selective State schools are known as comprehensive schools. Selective State schools are known as grammar schools. Grammar schools are only available in certain parts of the country. Entry for grammar schools is determined by conditions such as passing an entrance exam.

In England, there are also Academy Schools. These are publicly funded but independently run by a voluntary organisation. Academies have greater control over the kind of education they provide. They operate under fewer restrictions from local authorities, can alter the structure of school terms and school days, have the freedom to set staff conditions and pay rates, and the right to choose large portions of curriculums.

Each of the devolved nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland administer their education systems, qualifications, and exam schemes, so the ages and specifications of each level for the specific nation are outlined in detail below.

 

Early Years Education in the UK – Optional

England

Early Years Education in England is guaranteed for 15 hours a week for children ages 3 and 4. Early Years education is varied and can take place in facilities such as state-run nursery schools, reception year classes within primary schools, childminders, and privately run nurseries.

 

Scotland

Early Years Education in Scotland is guaranteed on a part-time basis from the age of 3. This stage of education can take place in various formats, such as local authority centres, private education centres, and voluntary education providers. All children are guaranteed a full academic year of Early Years Education before beginning Primary Education.

 

Wales

Early Years Education in Wales part of the Foundation Phase from ages 3 to 7. This stage of education is guaranteed by the Welsh Government and all 3-year olds are entitled to a place in a form of Early Years Education – these can include formal schooling, childminders, or informal playgroups. This differs from the other nations of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

 

Northern Ireland

Early Years Education in Northern Ireland is available for children ages 3 to 4. The Northern Irish Department of Education ensures that at least one year of Early Years Education is available to every family that wants the option.

 

Primary Education in the UK – Compulsory

England

Primary Education in England begins at the compulsory age of 5 and lasts until the age of 11. The schooling is full-time, five days a week. English schools vary significantly depending upon their location, but the National Curriculum focuses on subjects including English reading, writing, maths, and science. At the end of Key Stage 1 of primary education, students are given a standard attainment test (SAT) to test their knowledge of core subjects. At the end of Key Stage 2 of primary education, students are given another SAT on reading, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and maths.

 

Scotland

Primary Education in Scotland begins at the compulsory age of 5 and lasts until the age of 11. The schooling is full-time, five days a week. The Scottish primary education system offers greater flexibility than in the rest of the UK in terms of start dates. Students in Scottish State primary schools follow the Curriculum for Excellence, focusing on health and wellbeing, literacy, and numeracy. There are minimal formal assessments for primary age children, but some teacher assessments of literacy and numeracy in Primary Years 1, 4, and 7.

 

Wales

Primary Education in Wales begins at the compulsory age of 5 and lasts until the age of 11. The schooling is full-time, five days a week. It combines the Foundation Phase from ages 3 to 7 and Key Stage 2 from ages 7 to 11. Students in Welsh primary schools are required to learn the Welsh language and can choose between English-medium schools where Welsh is a primary subject or all Welsh-medium schools. All students undergo teacher assessments in the final year of the Foundation Stage at the age of 7 and the end of Key Stage 2 at the age of 11 before Secondary Education.

 

Northern Ireland

Primary Education in Northern Ireland begins at the compulsory age of 4 and lasts until the age of 11. The schooling is full-time, five days a week. Unlike England, Scotland, and Wales, your child’s age on 1 July is the determining factor of what school year they are in and when they start school. Students in Northern Irish primary schools are taught the Irish language, and there are 35 Irish language primary schools in the nation. Primary schools are largely religious schools, with Protestants and Catholics often being educated separately.

 

Secondary Education in the UK – Compulsory

England

Secondary Education in England is from the ages of 11 to 16. Students must study the core subjects of English language, mathematics, and science and can choose between many non-core subjects such as history, foreign languages, music, and religious education.

Students in English secondary schools study for the compulsory General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations from Years 9 to 11, with examinations taking place in Year 11. Students generally take up to 10 or 12 GCSE examinations. The scoring on these exams ranges from grades from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest.

These formal qualifications allow students to go on to the non-compulsory further education stages of A-Level or BTEC qualifications. Students may also choose to end their compulsory education at the age of 16.

 

Scotland

Secondary Education in Scotland is distinctly different than in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland due to its separate set of examinations and qualifications. Students follow the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework examinations.

Secondary schools in Scotland also have a different naming system than the rest of the UK, with the majority of secondary schools called high schools and academies. Students in Scotland take a series of qualification exams called Nationals at the age of 15/16 which cover the compulsory subjects of English and maths, and an additional 4-6 optional subjects such as chemistry, history, or geography. These formal qualifications allow students to go on to the non-compulsory further education stages. Students may also choose to end their compulsory education at the age of 16.

Those who choose to pursue university studies will generally undertake the final two years of schooling post-Nationals in the same secondary school they had attended before to study for Higher and Advanced Higher examinations. These qualifications allow for direct entry into Scottish universities or universities throughout the UK.

 

Wales

Secondary Education in Wales is divided into two stages. Key Stage 3 covers Years 7 through 9, or ages 11 to 13. Key Stage 4 covers Years 10 and 11, or ages 14 to 15. Students must study the core subjects of English language, Welsh language, mathematics, and science and can choose between many non-core subjects such as art, information and communication technology (ICT), and physical education.

Students in Welsh secondary schools study for the compulsory General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations from Years 9 to 11, with examinations taking place in Year 11.

Students generally take up to 10 or 12 GCSE examinations. The scoring on these exams ranges from A* to G, with A* being the highest possible score. These formal qualifications allow students to go on to the non-compulsory further education stages of A-Level or BTEC qualifications. Students may also choose to end their compulsory education at the age of 16.

 

Northern Ireland

Secondary Education in Northern Ireland takes place from the ages of 11 to 16 in Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. Students must study the core subjects of the arts, English (and the Irish language in Irish medium schools), environment & society, mathematics, modern languages, physical education, science and technology, and religious education.

Students in Northern Irish secondary schools study for the compulsory GSCE examinations, with exams taking place in Year 12 at age 15 or 16. Students generally take up to 10 or 12 GCSE examinations. The scoring on these exams ranges from grades A* to G, with A* being the highest. These formal qualifications allow students to go on to the non-compulsory further education stages of A-Level or BTEC qualifications at a secondary school or further education college.

Students may also choose to end their compulsory education at the age of 16.

 

Further Education in the UK – Optional

England

Further Education in England comprises a range of optional learning and training programmes, including Sixth Form Colleges, Further Education Colleges, and specialist institutions. These programmes can provide both academic and hands-on educational experiences, depending upon students’ desire to follow a specific career path or university studies. Students in English Further Education can take AS and A-level exams in Years 12 and 13 to apply for a place at university or pursue qualifications such as Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) diplomas or certificates in vocational subjects.

Many secondary schools have a designated Sixth Form College to allow students to continue their schooling in the environment where they spent the prior years. These various options allow students to enter the world of work with the qualifications needed to succeed.

 

Scotland

Further Education in Scotland differs from that in the rest of the UK due to its different structure of qualifications and examinations. Generally, Further Education programmes in Scotland are reserved for students who are not seeking to pursue university at the age of 18 but rather a series of vocational qualifications or training.

Vocational qualifications such as Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas are provided through a network of Further Education Colleges throughout Scotland. These colleges also facilitate modern apprenticeship programmes to promote on-the-job learning of specialist trades.

 

Wales

Further Education in Wales comprises a range of optional learning and training programmes, including Sixth Form Colleges, Further Education Colleges, and specialist institutions. These programmes can provide both academic and hands-on educational experiences, depending upon students’ desire to purpose a specific career path or university studies.

Students in Welsh Further Education can take AS and A-level exams in Years 12 and 13 to apply for a place at university, or pursue higher level qualifications such as Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) diplomas or certificates vocational subjects.

Many secondary schools have a designated Sixth Form College to allow students to continue their schooling in the environment where they spent the prior years. These various options allow students to enter the world of work with the qualifications needed to succeed.

 

Northern Ireland

Further Education in Northern Ireland comprises a range of optional learning and training programmes, including Sixth Form Colleges, Further Education Colleges, and specialist institutions. These programmes can provide both academic and hands-on educational experiences, depending upon students’ desire to follow a specific career path or university studies.

Students can take AS and A-level exams to apply for a place at university or pursue qualifications such as Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) diplomas or certificates in vocational subjects.

Most secondary schools have a designated Sixth Form College to allow students to continue their schooling in the environment where they spent the prior years. Each region in Northern Ireland has a Further Education College for vocational training. These options allow students to enter the world of work with the qualifications needed to succeed.

 

How much does school education cost in the UK?

School education in the UK ranges from nil to £30,000+ per year. Public schools can range from £2,000 per year to more than £30,000 per year, depending upon their location, prestige and facilities. These costs could be significantly greater if you opt to send your child to boarding school. State school education is free for every child and family as it is funded by taxpayers.

 

How should I pick a British school for my child?

The choice of British school for your child is a holistic decision that has broad impacts on the future, therefore great consideration must be taken.

British schools can vary enormously in terms of student experience, academic results and performance, so you will want to conduct a large amount of research.

You should first consider whether you would like to send your child to a non-selective State school (comprehensive school) or a selective State school (grammar school), a Public school (boarding or non-boarding), or alternative educational arrangements such as home education.

If you are sending your child to a State school, this will need to be in your local administrative area. If you want to send your child to a Public school, this can be anywhere in the country.

When shortlisting school options, factors to consider could include your child’s interests and talents, the quality of teaching staff, extracurricular opportunities such as sport and music, distance from your home, and other various considerations.

Finally, you should speak with the school and teaching staff to determine how they can best accommodate a student coming from abroad and integrate them into the school community.

 

State school or private school?

In most cases, the choice between a state or private school will be determined by financial factors, since state education is free while private schools are fee-paying. Some schools may offer scholarships or bursaries, which are managed by the schools.

Many public schools will offer the option of living part-time or full-time on school grounds – these are known as boarding schools. State and Public schools are available at each stage of education within the UK, and careful thought should be given by your family to decide which kind of school is right for your child.

 

Can I send my child to a religious school?

You can send your child to a religious school in the UK. Both State and Public schools in the UK can be religious schools, with a third of schools in England and Wales being religious schools. These are called faith schools in Britain. Most schools include some religiosity in daily teaching such as Religious Education lessons. The majority of faith schools are Christian and are run by denominations such as the Church of England, the Catholic Education Service, and the Anglican Church in Wales. There are additionally Jewish, Muslim, Quaker, Sikh, and Hindu faith schools throughout the country.

 

Can I home educate my child in the UK?

For a variety of factors, some families may want to home educate their children. In the UK, you can electively home educate your child full-time or part-time. As a parent, you have rights regarding home education but also important responsibilities. Parents who choose to home educate must ensure that their child receives an efficient, full-time, and suitable education until the age of 16.

 

Higher Education in the UK – Optional

England

Higher Education in England is typically 3 years in length for undergraduate degrees, with some exceptions such as medical degrees and those undertaking a foreign exchange year.

Postgraduate courses include taught and research Master’s degrees, doctoral-level PhD programmes, and postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

Other than a small number of private institutions, the vast majority of Higher Education providers are state-financed and open to the public.

Institutions of Higher Education in England are broadly fee-paying and a cap of £9,250 in annual tuition fees was introduced in 2016. Students can take out government-backed loans for their tuition fees and living costs.

There are more than 100 universities in England. Institutions range from the world-renowned University of Oxford and historic University of Cambridge to cutting-edge and modern universities such as the London School of Economics and the University of Manchester. These universities provide options for every preference and academic interest.

 

Scotland

Higher Education in Scotland is typically 4 years in length for undergraduate degrees, with some exceptions such as medical degrees and those undertaking a foreign exchange year.

Postgraduate courses include taught and research Master’s degrees, doctoral-level PhD programmes, and postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

The devolved Scottish Government funds the majority of first degrees for ordinarily resident Scottish students. The government additionally provides maintenance grants. There are 19 Higher Education institutions in Scotland, ranging from the four ancient universities – University of St Andrews (1413), University of Glasgow (1451), University of Aberdeen (1495), and University of Edinburgh (1583) – to modern institutions such as Glasgow Caledonian University and Edinburgh Napier University.

 

Wales

Higher Education in Wales is typically 3 years in length for undergraduate degrees, with some exceptions such as medical degrees and those undertaking a foreign exchange year. Postgraduate courses include taught and research Master’s degrees, doctoral-level PhD programmes, and postgraduate diplomas and certificates. There is a special emphasis on the Welsh language within the Welsh Higher Education system.

There are 8 publicly-funded Higher Education institutions in Wales, such as Cardiff University and Bangor University.

Welsh universities are broadly fee-paying with a cap of £9,000 in annual tuition fees. The Welsh Government provides a combination of loans and grants to students.

 

Northern Ireland

Higher Education in Northern Ireland is typically 3 or 4 years in length for undergraduate degrees, with some exceptions such as medical degrees and Sandwich (combination) degrees.

Postgraduate courses include taught and research Master’s degrees, doctoral-level PhD programmes, and postgraduate diplomas and certificates.

Residents of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland pay a maximum of £4,530 in Northern Irish Higher Education institutions, but these fees are dependent upon residency status at the time of matriculation.

There are 3 universities and 2 university colleges in Northern Ireland, including the high-ranked Queen’s University Belfast.

 

UK Education System FAQs

How does the education system work in the UK?

The education system in the UK is split between five different stages – Early Years Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Further Education, and Higher Education. You can choose between sending your child to a State school (either comprehensive or grammar), a Public school (either boarding or non-boarding), or home education. Your child must be educated until at least the age of 16 under UK law.

Is the UK education system good?

The UK has an excellent system of publicly funded and fee-paying schools, colleges, and universities. It has a literacy rate of 99% and there are good options for schools in many cities, towns, and rural areas. While education quality will vary drastically throughout the UK, the British education system is one of the best in Europe and the world.

Is education free in the UK?

State schools in the UK are free at the point of use for students and families. While there may be occasional fees such as school trips or uniforms, state-funded education in the UK is free. Conversely, Public schools in the UK are generally fee-paying unless your child is eligible for a scholarship or bursary due to financial need or exceptional talents.

 

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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