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The UK Education System Explained

The UK education system can seem impossibly daunting, and if you are moving your family into the UK for the first time the choices may appear, at first, overwhelming. We have tried to present the facts clearly and simply in our series of ‘Education Explained articles to help you navigate the system and make the best choice for your child and your family.

Choice of School

In the UK, over 90% of children attend state funded schools; you can read more on these schools in State Schools Explained. However around 7% attend fee-paying schools ranging from well-established, elite ‘public’ schools to the more accessible independent schools  charging slightly lower fees.

There are also fee-paying International Schools offering a wide and varied curriculum ranging from the American and British system to the full International Baccalaureate programme. These schools are often logical choices for relocating families from overseas as they offer greater flexibility of study, are used to settling children in quickly and painlessly and often offer support for families whose first language is not English.

However, if you are planning a long-term or permanent relocation to the UK, you may find that choosing a local school either state or fee-paying will be the best choice, as your child will benefit from integrating into the local community. And of course state schools have the added benefit of being free!

Basic Facts

It is a legal requirement in the UK for all children to be in full-time education between the ages of 5-16 (this will rise to 18 in 2015). Pupils usually attend primary school from 5-11 and secondary school from 11-16. There are further education options from the ages of 16-18 either at specialist further education colleges or within, what is known as, the ‘sixth-form’ at secondary school.

The school year runs from early September to the end of July. The year is usually broken into three terms: the autumn term (early September to late December), the spring term (from early January to March) and the summer term (from April to July).

School holidays are taken between each term and, it is important to note, there is a long summer holiday between the summer and autumn terms from end of July to early September.

The school week runs from Monday to Friday and can start around 8.45am and finishes at around 3.15pm for primary and around 4pm for secondary. Many schools also offer after-school clubs and classes, these often carry a fee.

School uniform is common and most primary schools and secondary schools require pupils to wear one.

School Curriculum and Teaching Systems

State Schools

State schools are required to teach the National Curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland until pupils are 16, with the exception of Free Schools and Academies which are state funded but independent of local authority control and allowed to devise their own curriculum – you can read more on these in State Schools Explained.

Broadly speaking the National Curriculum covers the following subjects: English, mathematics, science, design and technology, information and communication technology, history, geography, modern foreign languages, music, art and design, physical education, and citizenship. Pupils are divided into year groups from Year 1 to Year 11 and within that are broken down into 4 ‘Key Stages’ of learning.  More detail can be found in The National Curriculum Explained.

At the end of the secondary education pupils usually take exams in a range of subjects at the level of General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE).

If they choose, pupils may continue state funded education and take the exams known as ‘AS’-Levels after one more year of study and after that, pupils may take ‘A’-Level (Advanced Level) exams, which form part of the admissions requirement for university entrance in the UK. There are further choices of qualification and study available - these are explored in more detail in UK Qualifications and Examinations Explained.

Independent and International Schools

Independent and International Schools are not required to follow the National Curriculum and are free to devise their own teaching systems, although many Independent schools do choose to follow the curriculum set by the state and also offer a similar examination programme i.e. GCSEs and A-Levels. Some also offer alternative examinations and qualifications systems such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), International GCSEs (iGCSE) and the Pre-U. More detail can be found in UK Qualifications and Examinations Explained and our dedicated IB section.

International Schools are free to offer a wide range of international programmes from the IB to the American education system.