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Education in the UK

The UK’s education system is renowned worldwide for its quality, and its higher education offering attracted over 556,625 international students in the 2019/20 academic year.

Education is a devolved system in the United Kingdom, which means that each of its four countries – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – have autonomy over their national curriculums, exams and institutions. Nevertheless, similarities persist, particularly between England, Wales and Northern Ireland. If you’re considering a move to the UK and you’re interested in how your child will fit into the education system there, read on for our comprehensive guide.

The UK’s education system – an overview

In England and Wales, the school year begins in early September and runs until mid-to-late July, depending on location. It’s divided into three terms – autumn (September to December), spring (January to April), and summer (May to July) and each term is itself divided by a half-term holiday of either one or two weeks, again location-dependent. In Scotland, the year starts in the third week of August and continues until the following June, and in Northern Ireland, the year runs from 1 September to 1 July.

Wherever you are in the UK, holiday prices rise steeply when the schools are off, so bear this in mind if you have children in UK education and you’re planning to book a break!

The national curriculum

All state-run schools in England and Wales follow the national curriculum, which the government defines as "a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things”. Scottish schools follow the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), and Northern Irish schools follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum.

The role of each country’s curriculum is the same – to advise on the compulsory and optional subjects to be taught, and to provide a way for the educational attainment of pupils across the UK to be benchmarked.

The National Curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is divided into ‘key stages’ – each of which corresponds to one or more school years. The Scottish curriculum sets guidelines that allow schools to have some flexibility in teaching and delivering their subjects. In Scotland, stages of learning are split into levels (first to third/fourth) and a final senior phase.

Learn more about the stages and levels of learning below:

Primary school

Children in England and Wales begin primary school in the reception stage, aged four or five. After this introductory year, they proceed through the school years until they are 11 years old. The separation between reception and the following years is sometimes strengthened by a split into an ‘infant school’ and ‘junior school’. In Scotland, this introductory year designated as P1 (Primary 1) and falls under the Early Level learning stage, while in Northern Ireland Years 1 and 2 of primary school both fall under the Foundation stage.

Secondary school

Secondary education in England and Wales begins aged 11 and finishes between the ages of 16 and 18, depending on location and whether the child opts to carry on and complete Key Stage 5, either at secondary school or a specialist sixth-form college. In Scotland the terminology is slightly different, with years S1 (Secondary 1) to S3 designed third/fourth level, and S4 and S5 described as ‘senior phase’.

Further education

Post-secondary school education is for students who wish to continue their learning and complete an additional set of qualifications (such as A Levels, Scottish Highers or vocational courses – read more about exams and qualifications below) at either a secondary school or specialised sixth-form college. This definition of college refers to a pre-university tier of education, with its outcome informing university admissions. In England and Wales this stage is referred to as Key Stage 5, in Scotland Senior Phase and in Northern Ireland Key Stage 5/6.


Numeracy and literacy assessments

In England, children in primary school take exams called Standard Assessment Tests (SATs). These tests assess children’s understanding of maths and English (reading and writing) against The National Curriculum to determine if their knowledge is above, below or as expected.

In year 2, they’ll sit their Key Stage 1 (KS1) SATs, which will be marked informally by their teacher. In year 6, they’ll sit their Key Stage 2 (KS2) SATs, which will be sent away to be marked by an external professional.

The overall usefulness of standardised assessments is a topic of some debate in the UK, with as many detractors as advocates. On the plus side, it’s generally felt they’re a good way of checking pupils’ progress in a way that doesn’t come with a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ attached. However, pupils may still feel a degree of stress and pressure from these tests that can be difficult to cope with at such a young age.

Wales phased out SATs in 2005. Children now take annual online personalised assessments to test their numeracy and reading from Year 2 to Year 9. Schools can choose when the tests are taken and whether they are completed in larger or small groups. They are called personalised assessments as later questions are automatically chosen based on previous answers, providing a tailored test for each child.

The Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) take a similar approach. Pupils take the SNSAs in P1, P4, P7 and S3 to test their numeracy and literacy. Results are available to their teachers but are not generally shared with students in a bid to reduce the pressures surrounding testing.

Children in Northern Ireland don’t take SATs. They are provided with a Level of Progression (LoP) in maths, communications and information communication technology (computer skills –commonly abbreviated to ICT) in Year 4, Year 7 and Year 10. LoPs are determined by teachers based on what the child can do in each subject.

General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSEs)

England, Wales, Northern Ireland

Pupils take their GCSE exams in the summer term of Year 11 or Year 12 when they are 15 or 16. The exams are the culmination of two years of study of between ten and twelve subjects – some of which are compulsory, and some of which are chosen by the pupil. Some subjects are partly assessed on assignments known as coursework.

As of 2021, the core compulsory subjects are:

  • English Literature and/or Language
  • Mathematics
  • Science (either as ‘Combined Sciences’, the equivalent of two GCSEs, or ‘Separate Sciences’, with Biology, Chemistry and Physics earning the student one GCSE per science subject)

Also compulsory are the foundation subjects listed below:

  • Computing
  • Physical Education
  • Citizenship

In addition, it’s required that schools offer optional subjects covering all of the four following areas. Depending on the school, there may additionally be requirements to take a subject in one or all of these areas.

  • Humanities, such as geography or history
  • Foreign languages – often French, German or Spanish
  • Arts, such as drama, music or fine art
  • Technology, such as food technology/home economics, design technology/woodwork or textiles


In Scotland, National 5 qualifications (also known as N5 or Nat 5) are broadly equivalent to GCSEs. There are a wide range of Nat 5 subjects and most universities will expect pupils to have taken English N5.


Following completion of GCSEs or N5s, and depending on when in the school year they turn 16, there are a number of routes open to UK pupils.

All pupils are allowed to leave school when they turn 16, although the precise point in the school year at which this can happen depends on when their birthday falls.

In England, it’s compulsory to choose one of the following options:

  • Continue with full-time education until the age of 18, either at school or by joining a sixth-form or further education college
  • Embark on an apprenticeship, internship or traineeship
  • Continue with education or training on a part-time basis, combined with working or volunteering

These options are the same in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, with one difference – it’s not mandatory to continue with education on either a full or part-time basis like it is in England.

Advanced Level qualification (A-levels)

England, Wales, Northern Ireland

Following GCSEs, pupils can either stay in school for Years 12 and 13 (known as Sixth Form) or choose to attend a college to study their chosen AS-level and A-level subjects. A-level exams are taken at the end of Year 13, and unlike in previous years, there is no coursework component – the pupil’s grade is entirely based on their exam performance in that subject.


The system is a little different in Scotland. Instead of AS and A-levels, pupils study for Scottish Highers. They will typically take four or five Highers, with the option to take Advanced Highers if they plan to apply to a particularly competitive university degree course.

Higher education

Universities in the UK

Home and international students alike flock to the UK’s universities, which enjoy a strong reputation across the world for both undergraduate and postgraduate study. The UK is home to the prestigious Russell Group, comprising 24 leading UK institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, and there are hundreds of other excellent universities and colleges to discover. All UK applications to higher education institutions are dealt with by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Undergraduate study

England, Wales, Northern Ireland

Undergraduate degree courses typically last three years, though some may include a year abroad or a year in industry, taking the duration to four. Degrees conferred will usually be Bachelor of Arts (BA), Sciences (BSc), or Engineering (BEng), and students can expect tuition fees of £9,250 a year.


A typical undergraduate degree course in Scotland will last four years, and if you’re a home student (that is, from Scotland), you will not be charged tuition fees. You’ll also go fee-free if you’re a student from the European Union (EU) and you’re coming to Scotland to begin or continue your higher education studies.

Postgraduate study

There are several types of postgraduate degrees offered in the UK, namely:

  • Masters (either taught or research-track for those intending to embark on a PhD)
  • Masters of Business Administration (MBA)
  • PhD/Doctorate
  • Postgraduate diploma

A full-time student in the UK could complete a Masters course in just a year and broaden their future job opportunities immeasurably. There will also usually be an opportunity to study the same course on a part-time basis. Doctoral students studying for MPhils or PhDs may spend between two and six years researching and writing their thesis.

Types of school

State schools

State schools in the UK are funded by the government or a local authority and provide free education to all who attend.

There are several different types of state school in the UK:

  • Comprehensive schools are open to all, paid for and run by local authorities and follow the national curriculum
  • Free schools and academies are funded directly by the government and are not strictly bound to the national curriculum
  • Selective grammar schools (England and Northern Ireland only) require prospective pupils to sit an 11+ exam, testing literacy, numeracy, verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills
  • Faith schools follow the national curriculum apart from religious studies, and faith academies are not bound to the national curriculum

Private schools

Also known as ‘independent schools’, because they don’t have to follow the national curriculum, private schools in the UK are fee-paying schools. School facilities are typically of a very high standard, and there are likely to be a good range of subjects on offer beyond what the national curriculum requires, as well as extracurricular activities, clubs and field trips.

Perhaps confusingly, in the UK, a ‘public’ school can also refer to a particular type of private school – usually very traditional, expensive, and eminently prestigious – where pupils often board. Examples of famous British public schools are Eton, Harrow, and Winchester. Despite only educating a tiny minority of the population, many pupils schooled at these institutions end up in influential positions in UK politics, media, law, and business.

International schools in the UK

There are 128 international schools in the UK, of which 25 are in London – these include Spanish, Greek, Norwegian, French, German, Swedish, American, and British schools. Many use English as the teaching language. As a type of private school, international schools are fee-paying.

Learn more about Britain and Northern Ireland in our expat guide to living and working in the UK.

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