The British education system: An overview


One important decision, if you’re moving to the United Kingdom with family, is how to ensure that your children have the best possible education. The OECD reports that the United Kingdom overall has above average levels of pupil attainment in science and reading, and average levels in maths. However, within this, there are wide varieties in school structure and quality, and the legislation around schooling is slightly different across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There’s been significant change in the UK education system in recent years, with many English schools operating as government funded, but independent academies. These academies can set their own curricula, which means that many specialise in certain subject areas, and the range of options for families has increased significantly.

As an expat, you might choose to enrol your child into a local state run school, or choose a private or international school instead. You can compare the standard of education in the United Kingdom with that available in your home country, with the PISA assessment framework from the OECD.

So, whether you’ve already got your British work visa and have your move fully planned, or are just starting to think about life overseas, it helps to know a little about the education options in the United Kingdom. Here is a quick guide.

The British education system

There are slight variations in the education system between the different countries of the UK. In most places, schooling is mandatory from age five, but in Northern Ireland children must start school at age four. Education then runs through to 16 on a compulsory basis, with further studies offered to age 18 at either academically focused schools or more vocational institutions.

| Pre-school (also known as nursery) | Optional from age 3There are government funded places for children aged from around 3 to attend pre-school on a part time basis, or fee paid places are available |
| Primary School | Compulsory from age 5 for all children (age 4 in Northern Ireland)Primary school is often split by age, into infant and junior sections, and runs to age 11Education at primary level is free in the state sector |
| Secondary School | Secondary school is mandatory to age 16, after which students can choose to stay on for further study, attend vocational training or leave education entirelySecondary school is free, apart from some miscellaneous fees (usually asked for on a voluntary basis) |


Pre-school in the United Kingdom isn't compulsory, but the government is committed to making part time places available for all children from age three. Exactly how this scheme is implemented varies according to the region of the UK you’re in. Pre-schools are often attached to primary schools, and pupils progress into the primary class after completing the early education programme, subject to application procedures. If you live in the UK you’ll be invited to apply for a place at a pre-school by your local education authority when your child is old enough.

Aside from the government run pre-schools, there are private nurseries and kindergartens, for which fees are applied. It’s possible in some cases to take the government funded pre-school place, for 15 hours a week, and pay to ‘top up’ attendance to full time at the same school.

Primary School

From the age of five (or four in Northern Ireland), it’s compulsory to attend primary school in the United Kingdom. This stage of schooling is provided free of charge. Usually primary schools include classes for children aged from four or five through to 11, and in Scotland 12 years old. Rarely, local authorities choose to operate a middle school system, but more usually, the infant classes (age five to age eight) are split out from the junior classes (eight to 11), with teaching all happening on one site.

The primary school curriculum intends to encourage literacy and numeracy, and children are regularly assessed. It‘s usual to have a benchmarking test upon entering the school system with more, formal national testing happening every few years.

Secondary School

The British secondary school system includes some variations in structure, largely driven by location. Comprehensive schools admit all students, usually from a given area, without selection on the basis of ability. In some areas of the UK, this is the main form of secondary school, but other counties have a parallel grammar school system. Grammar schools select students on the basis of ability following testing, but are still state funded. Finally, in England there are also an increasing number of academy schools which are state funded but free to set their own curriculum, holidays and timetable. Outside of the state system, there are also private and international schools, which might offer boarding options.

Students must remain in school until they're at least 16 years old, at which point they take national exams. Usually, students follow a fairly broad curriculum at first, and are streamed according to ability for many subjects. As they come closer to exam years, students might drop some subjects they're less confident in, in order to focus on other areas.

After 16, students can attend further education, which might be vocational or academic in preparation for university. Many secondary schools have a separate section for further education, or teenagers can opt to attend a specialist further education college instead.

What’s the typical school calendar and hours?

The school year in the British state system is usually arranged into terms, although the exact dates vary slightly according to the specific school preferences. It’s worth noting that academies have the power to set their own calendar and hours, and so might not follow the traditional pattern. The first term typically runs from September through to Christmas, with a break for Christmas of around two weeks. School opens again in January through to the end of the term around Easter time in March or April. There’s another break before the summer term which typically runs until the middle of July. Schools close for public holidays and usually have a ‘half term’ break mid way through each term.

The school day generally runs from 8.30 or 9am to around 3.30pm, although there are variations, and students will often stay later to attend optional activities or classes.

What’s the cost of education?

Education in the state system in the United Kingdom is free, although parents will have to cover costs for uniforms, transport and school materials. In academies it’s not allowed to charge directly for tuition but some schools charge miscellaneous fees, which may be on a voluntary basis, for things like building repairs or academic trips. If you don’t choose the state system and decide to find a private or international school, the costs are high.

The United Kingdom has a broad range of fully private or international schools, offering a variety of different curricula and exam systems. The quality and cost of private schooling varies enormously. The best schools are typically competitive, with testing and interviews to secure admission. You can expect the fees to vary widely depending on the specific school and the programme they offer.

Whichever route you decide is best for your family, there will be costs involved, and you don’t want to pay over the odds. If you’re funding your child’s education from your account back home, use Wise to get the real exchange rate and cut out those expensive international bank transfer fees.

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