Home Education Children's Education The UK education system
Last update on August 15, 2020

Here is a brief introduction to the education system in the UK, including primary schools, secondary schools, and university preparation in the UK.

The British education system may seem bewildering at first glance, but it is based on long-lived traditions and follows a strict code of rules. Education principles differ slightly in the four countries which constitute the UK, so we will provide you with the basic information on school institutions.

Rosetta Stone

Give your child the gift of language with Rosetta Stone! One of the world's leading online language learning websites has a range of courses and resources for young learners! With over plenty of languages to choose from, with Rosetta Stone you'll soon find the right course for your child.

Primary education in the UK

In England and Wales, the law states that all children aged five to sixteen must receive full-time education. In Northern Ireland, the compulsory age for starting school is four. For children under age of five, publicly-funded nurseries and pre-schools are available for a limited number of hours each week.

Children leave primary school at the age of eleven, moving on to secondary school. Parents can choose to educate their children at state or private schools. All children in the UK between the ages of five and sixteen are entitled to a free place at a state school, in contrast with the private education sector, where taxes are quite expensive.

A useful piece of advice is for all parents to apply to the school where they wish to enroll their child. Even if your child’s current primary or nursery school is linked to the school you want them to attend next, you won’t be considered for a place unless you apply. Making an early start means that you will be less likely to miss key deadlines. You can start your search from the online school finder tool. All you have to do is type in your post code and you will have access to all the schools in your area. You can also contact your local authority in in the UK and ask for a list of schools in your area.

In the UK there are four main types of state schools. First is the community school, which is run by the local authority and has strong links with the local community, sometimes offering use of their facilities and providing services like childcare and adult learning classes.

There are also foundation and trust schools. Foundation schools are run by their own governing body, which employs the staff and sets the admissions criteria; while a trust school is a type of foundation school which forms a charitable trust with an outside partner. Voluntary-aided schools are mainly religious or ‘faith’ schools, although anyone can apply for a place. As with foundation schools, the governing body employs the staff and sets the admission criteria. Voluntary-controlled schools are similar to voluntary-aided schools, but are run by the local authority.

Secondary education in the UK

At the age of eleven, children start their secondary-school education. From the age of eleven to fourteen, students in British state and private schools study a broad range of 10-15 subjects. Among them are: English, Maths, Science, Design and Technology, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), History, Geography, Modern Foreign Languages, Art and Design, Music, Citizenship, Physical Education. Careers education and guidance, Sex and Relationship Education and Religious education may also be included in the education curriculum.

Secondary school graduation covers the period from age fourteen to fifteen. After this two-year period, students take GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) state examinations. The GCSE is a single-subject examination, set and marked by independent examination boards. Students usually take up to ten (there is no upper or lower limit) GCSE examinations in different subjects, including mathematics and English language. After this examination, students may choose to either leave school or continue with their education. They may continue at vocational or technical colleges, or pursue higher education in a university.

University preparation in the UK

At the age of sixteen, following two years of study, students may take A-Levels (Advanced Level examinations) required for university entrance in the UK. Over these two years following secondary school education, students specialise in three or four subjects that are usually relevant to the degree subject they wish to follow at university.

At the end of the first year, students take AS level examinations. They continue with three or four of these subjects in the second year and convert them into full A level qualifications at the end of the year. A-Levels are state examinations and are recognised by all UK universities, and by institutions worldwide.

Schools in the UK do not generally rank pupils within their year; currently, the principal standards are the GCSE, SCE and AS and A-Level examination results.

18 Plus

Once a student has been through all the misadventures and hardship of compulsory education, it is time to decide his or her own fate. The first three years of a university education will be in an undergraduate degree programme. An undergraduate degree may be a BA (Bachelor of Arts), BEng (Bachelor of Engineering), and BSc (Bachelor of Science).

On completion, a student may also apply for a postgraduate programme and a PhD. What makes higher education so appealing is that — unlike school — students are at university or college because they want to be, learning more about a subject or job they really enjoy.

Choosing a university or college is an important decision, so examine all of the options. Here is a useful link that will provide all the information you need before making up your mind: UCAS website.

In addition to academic achievements at university, students also gain many social advantages. They will be involved in various out-of-school activities, find new friends and gain insight into future careers.

And, since higher education is optional, expect to finance your Bachelor’s degree by yourself. Check out this section of the UK government website, dedicated to university funding.