The UK Education System

Introduction to the UK Education System

In the UK, it is a requirement that children attend school from the age of 4 to 16. “Education” is actually compulsory to age 18, though these final two years can be academic or vocational. The National Curriculum of England and Wales is a programme of education which all schools follow.

Types of School

State Schools (also known as Comprehensive schools)

State schools are government-funded and therefore free. All children living in the UK are entitled to full-time, state school education from the age of 4 to 18. Children start full-time education in a primary school from the September after their 4th birthday. Some Primary schools have a Nursery class attached, offering 15 hours of free childcare per week to children aged 2 ½ – 4. After primary school, at age 11, children progress to a secondary school where they stay until 16. Some state schools have a sixth form for 16-18 year olds, or you can study at a state-funded Sixth Form College.

State schools vary in performance and quality of education. All state schools are assessed by education inspectors on a regular basis and you can find the school’s inspection report online.

Some schools are judged as “outstanding”, some “good” and others are satisfactory or below standard.

You can also look at National League Tables which compare the performance of UK state secondary schools. A top-performing state school will most likely be over-subscribed, so do your research early in case you need to put your child on a waiting list.

Grammar Schools

These are highly selective state secondary schools with a strong emphasis on academic achievement, so you will generally find them at the top of the league tables. Your child will need to pass an entrance exam called the 11+ in order to gain a place. Competition for places is high and children start preparing early for the entrance tests. Some grammar schools offer a late transfer test called the 12+ or the 13+.

Private Schools (also known as Independent Schools)

These schools charge a termly fee, though they do offer income-related bursaries and academic, sports or music scholarships. Around 7% of UK children are educated in private schools.

Fee-paying preparatory and secondary schools appeal because class sizes are relatively small, with a focus on developing individual talents, and they offer an extensive range of extra-curricular activities.

Prep school children move on to their secondary school at the end of Year 6 (age 11) or the end of Year 8 (age 13). Some private secondary schools are academically selective and require students to pass an entrance exam, whilst others are non-selective. Entrance exams include the 11+, Common Entrance and the 13+.

Special Schools

Many special schools are government-funded and each specialises in a particular type of disability.

Special schools provide small class sizes and a tailored education for children who have been assessed to have a specific disability that cannot be catered for effectively in mainstream school.

The different stages of education and testing

The education system in England and Wales is divided into age-related Key Stages:

Early Years Foundation Stage is for 3-5 year olds. They start in Nursery and move on to Reception Class in the September after their 4th Birthday.

Primary Education​ is for 5-11 year olds. They start in Year 1 and progress through to Year 6.

Key Stage 1 = Year 1 and Year 2. Near the end of Year 2, children take the SATs test in reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar. This is an informal test that gives the level your child is working at. No preparation is needed.

Lower Key Stage 2 = Year 3 and Year 4

Upper Key Stage 2 = Year 5 and Year 6. Near the end of Year 6, children take the SATs test in English, Maths and (often) Science. This is regarded as a more formal test of your child’s ability and some parents help prepare them for it. The 11+ exam is also taken in Year 6 for grammar school places.

Secondary Education ​is for 11-16 year olds. Children start secondary school in Year 7 and progress through to Year 11.

Key Stage 3 = Year 7, Year 8 and Year 9

Key Stage 4 = Year 10 and Year 11. A 2 year course studying for important qualifications called GCSE’s. Students normally take GCSE’s in 8 to 10 subjects which must include English and Maths.

Post-16 Education

At 16, students can either progress to Sixth Form in school (Key Stage 5), or go to a Sixth Form College. They will typically take academic exams called AS-levels after 1 year, and A-levels after 2 years. Many Sixth Form Colleges offer more vocational routes as an alternative to A-levels, including BTEC Diplomas and work-based apprenticeships/traineeships.

Higher Education

After A-levels, young people can opt to go to University to take a 3 year academic course which leads to a Bachelor’s Degree. Universities offer places based on GCSE and A-level results.

Universities are not free and generally charge tuition fees of £9000 per year

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