Education in the UK


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Education is a human right and the foundation of economic and social advancement. It allows for understanding and empathy between people and benefits entire communities. Understanding the education system in the UK is essential to ensure the education of you and/or your children.

Education systems in the UK

The application of education in the UK is a devolved matter with separate systems under each of the respective governments (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). However, the fundamental principles remain the same.

    • Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged between five and 16 years inclusive (ages four to 16 in Northern Ireland).
    • Can be provided by state schools, independent schools, or home-schooling.
    • As parents or guardians, you are legally responsible for ensuring your children attend school.
    • All children, regardless of gender, nationality or status, are entitled to a free place at a state school funded by the government.
    • Independent schools charge fees.
    • Refugee and asylum-seeking children have equal access to the full curriculum appropriate to their age, ability, aptitude, and any special educational needs.
    • Most schools follow the national curriculum.
    • The school year is from September to July and is 39 weeks long.

Schools and education

To get full details on sending your child to school, as well as financial support and dealing with the school, go to GOV.UKSchool and Education.

National Curriculum

    • A set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools.
    • It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.
    • The “basic” school curriculum includes the “national curriculum”, relationships, sex and health education, and religious education.
    • Other schools, like academies and private schools, do not have to follow the national curriculum.
    • Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum, including English, maths, and science. They must also teach relationships and sex education, and religious education.
    • Faith schools must follow the national curriculum, but they can choose what they teach in religious studies.

Education stages

Across the UK, there are five stages of education. You can find full details on this UK government site.

    • Early Years – Key Stage 1
      • Compulsory for children aged 5-7 years.
      • Includes school years 3 to 6.
      • At the end of this stage, pupils may take informal testing to measure their English, maths, and science knowledge development.
    • Primary Years – Key Stage 2
      • Compulsory for children between 7-11 years.
      • Includes the first two years at primary school.
      • At the end of this stage, pupils undertake national standard assessment tests (SATs) in English and maths. Teachers independently assess level of improvement in science.
    • Secondary Education – Key Stage 3
      • Compulsory for students aged 11-14 years.
      • Includes school years 7 to 9.
      • At the end of this stage, some students may take their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or other national qualifications.
    • Further Education (FE)
      • Not compulsory.
      • Any study after secondary education is not part of higher education (i.e., not taken as part of an undergraduate or graduate degree).
      • Provided by further education colleges and Higher Education (HE) institutions.
      • Offers Access to Higher Education Diploma as a qualification to prepare people without traditional qualifications for study at university.
      • Courses range from basic English and maths to Higher National Diplomas (HNDs).
      • FE also includes three types of technical and applied qualifications for 16 -19 years.
    • Higher Education (HE)
      • Not compulsory.

      Covers studies beyond the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A Levels) or their equivalent.

    • Provided by universities and other institutions that award academic degrees, such as university colleges and liberal arts colleges.
    • Access the UCAS website for a helpful guide in understanding different terms relevant to higher education.

    Choices in education

    As parents, you have a choice on which primary and secondary school your child attends. There are a variety of schools that you can choose from.

    Finding the right school

    Selecting the right school for your child is a critical decision that can significantly impact their future. There may be competition for places at high-performing schools, and you may not get your first choice, so make sure you have checked more than one school and have a few to consider. Some factors to take into account.

      • Visit the school – most schools have open days.
      • Read the school’s most recent Ofsted reports – a government-mandated review of schools.
      • Check school performance tables – considering academic results and league tables.
      • Accessibility – travel time and means of transport.
      • Talk to other parents about what they think of the school.
      • For secondary schools, in addition to the full national curriculum, do they have speciality focuses, such as performing arts, science, sports etc, which match your child’s needs?
      • Know the closing dates for applications and ensure you meet the deadline with a fully completed application.

    Exams in the UK

    There are several levels of testing in the UK.

    • Standard Assessment Testing (SAT) Key Stage 2
      • Year 6 when children are ages 10-11 years (school year 6).
      • SATs cover English, maths, and science.
    • General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)
      • Taken when students are 15-16 years (school years 10 to 11).
      • Taken in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
      • Three core subjects, English, maths, and science, are compulsory, along with citizenship and PE.
    • AS Levels
      • AS Levels are taken in optional sixth form as a stand-alone qualification or as the first level of an A Level course taken the following year.
    • Advanced Levels (A Level)
      • The final school exams for students aged 18 in Year 12.
      • A Levels are used as entrance grades for universities.
    • Scottish Highers
      • Scotland has a slightly different testing system than the rest of the UK.
      • Scottish Highers are one-year courses, unlike A-levels which take two.
      • Scottish students can use a second year of study to complete Advanced Highers, an additional qualification.
      • Scottish Highers are equivalent to A Levels and used for university entry.
      • Highers are considered the same as AS levels, while Advanced Highers are the same as A Levels.
      • Scottish universities generally require Highers, but many English universities prefer an Advance Highers qualification.

    Applying to university in the UK

    All UK-based university applications are made through the University and Colleges Admissions Service (“UCAS”). When choosing a university and degree programme, consider these key points. Also, check Discover Uni an official source of information about higher education in the UK.

      • Ensure the university offers the degree programme of your choice and whether it includes a work placement.
      • Ensure the university and degree programme are accredited by a professional body or government agency.
      • Financial situation – cost of tuition fees, accommodation and other factors vary per university.
      • Research the university’s reputation and rankings, and student reviews.
      • Consider the university’s location – some universities are better connected to major cities or have a more vibrant student life.
      • Rate of graduate employment.

    Studying in the UK as an international student

    The UK education system offers many opportunities for international students of all ages. You can apply for a student visa to study in the UK if you are aged 16 or over and you:

    Cost for international students

    When applying to study in the UK, as well as tuition fees, you should consider accommodation and general living and transport costs. According to the British Council, international student fees are in the following ranges at the time of writing.

      • International undergraduate tuition fees vary from £11,400 – £38,000. The average cost is estimated to be around £22,200 per year.
      • Typically, undergraduate degree courses in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland last three years (four years in Scotland).
      • International postgraduate tuition fees vary from £9,000 – £30,000. The average cost is estimated to be around £17,109 per year.

    Further information and helplines

    Last updated August 2023