Education in UK is compulsory for all children between the ages of five (four in Northern Ireland) and 16. In England, compulsory education or training has been extended to the age of 18 for those born on or after 1 September 1997. A variety of education options, from government, private and even homeschooling options are available in the UK!
The UK National Curriculum (NC), established in 1988, provides a framework for education in England and Wales for students between the ages of 5 to 18. The National Curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools, covering what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject. Though the NC is compulsory in government schools, some private schools, academies, free schools and home educators may choose to design their own curriculum that differs from the NC.
With the enforcement of this National Curriculum, you can be assured as parents that your child will learn the same thing – regardless of where in the UK they receive education from. We’ve gathered everything you need to know about the education in UK, from details about various school types to various curriculums, right here!
Schools in UK
Education in UK is divided into four stages: primary education, secondary education, further education and higher education. Children in the UK have to legally attend primary and secondary education, which begins from around five years old and runs until the student is 16.
The age breakdown for each education stage in the UK is roughly as follows:
- Primary education (Year 1 to 6): 5 to 11 years old
- Secondary education (Year 6 to 11): 11 to 16 years old
- Further education (Year 11 to 13): 16 to 18 years old
- Higher education: 18 onwards
Of course, a myriad of school options exists in the UK. Here’s our in-depth breakdown of each type of school in greater detail.
1. Government schools
All children in the UK between the ages of 5 to16 are entitled to a free place at a state-owned (or governmentally supported) school. These state schools receive funding through their local authorities or directly from the government. Whilst a variety of government schools exists in the UK, the most common ones are:
|Type of school||Details|
|Community schools/Local authority maintained schools||Not influenced by businesses or religious groups and follow the National Curriculum.|
|Foundation schools/Voluntary schools||Funded by the local authority but have more freedom to change the way they do things, sometimes are supported by representatives from religious groups.|
|Academics/Free schools||Run by not-for-profit academy trusts and are independent of the local authority. They have more freedom to change how they run things and can follow a different curriculum.|
|Grammar schools||Can be run by the local authority, a foundation body or academy trust. They select their pupils based on academic ability and there is usually an entrance test for admission.|
All government schools are funded through national and local taxation. The broad National Curriculum (which we will go into greater detail about below) covers English, mathematics, science, arts and design, humanities, computing, amongst many more subjects. A number of state-funded schools may be specialist schools, receiving extra funding to develop one or more subjects in which the school specialises.
State schools may request payment from parents for extracurricular activities such as swimming lessons and field trips, however, these charges are voluntary and based on an ad-hoc basis. Whilst uniforms are not compulsory, most government schools in UK do strongly encourage your child to purchase and wear school-based uniforms. Check if your local council provides help with the cost of school uniforms and PE kits if you need them here.
More details regarding the different types of schools in your area, as well as information regarding how to admit your child into a government school, can be accessed from the British Government website here.
2. Private schools
In the UK, private schools (also known as independent schools) charge fees to attend instead of being funded by the government. Pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum, and instead, study a specially developed curriculum by each private school. All private schools must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly by either
All private schools must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly by either Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate. There are over 2,600 private schools in the UK, educating over 600 thousand children. Many of these schools benefit from gifts, charitable endowments and charitable statutes in order to procure funding. Generally, the average annual cost for private schooling is around £14,102 for day school and £32,259 for boarding school. As most private schools are also boarding schools, other additional costs may be incurred for day-to-day spending and uniforms.
As compared to government schools, private schools are characterised by more individual teaching – meaning that the pupil-teacher ratio can be as low as 9 to 1, teaching hours are longer and school terms are generally shorter. There is also more time for organised sports and extra-curricular activities, more emphasis on traditional academic subjects such as maths, classics and modern languages as well as a broader education than the NC.
As mentioned, most private schools are also boarding schools and hence are fully responsible for their pupils throughout the term. Many schools teach their distinctive ethos, including social aspirations, manners and various school traditions. These schools also tend to offer sports, musical, dramatic and art facilities – sometimes at extra costs.
3. International schools
Aside from private and government schools, education in UK also expands to include international school options. International schools can be the ideal choice for an expat student prone to moving, given that many international schools provide similar standards of schooling around the globe – meaning that an easy transition between schools is possible whether your child studied in Australia or the US.
Student demographics of international schools in the UK generally varies, with a good mix of both local populations as well as a diverse international school body. Schools may follow a curriculum model from the US, France, or other school systems. The primary instruction language may differ (and multiple languages are usually taught in international schools), but the most prevalent one is definitely English. In terms of accreditations, most international schools provide globally recognised certifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB).
Admission and enrolment processes vary from school to school. Do note, however, that space is often limited in international schools and preference may be given to students based on nationalities. Annual range fees range from £20,000 to upwards of £30,000 for higher grades. This price may seem hefty, but standards of learning at international schools are generally higher given their smaller class sizes, first-rate facilities and extracurricular activities. Like private schools, boarding facilities are available at some schools, but most only provide day classes.
4. Special needs schools
Education in UK emphasises inclusivity and as such, provides alternative educational needs for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Special schools with pupils aged 11 and older can specialise in one out of the four areas of special educational needs:
- communication and interaction
- cognition and learning
- social, emotional and mental health
- sensory and physical needs
Schools can further specialise within these categories to reflect the special needs they help with, for example, Autistic spectrum disorders, visual impairment, or speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Although the curriculum may more or less remain the same as government schools, special schools are designed in terms of infrastructure, classroom sizes, staffing and resources. They employ specially trained teachers to communicate to all types of students who may have intellectual disabilities, autism, might be deaf or have hard of hearing, or sport any other special needs.
If you think your child may have special educational needs, contact the Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) in your child’s school or nursery. You can also opt to contact your local council if your child is not in a school or nursery. In addition, your local Information, Advice and Support (IAS) Service can give you advice about special educational needs and disabilities.
Home-schooling is an option for education in UK. However, there are several requirements you have to ensure that you meet before opting to home-school your children. If your child is currently at school, you have to inform their school regarding your plan to educate them at home. The school must accept if you’re taking your child out completely and can refuse if you want to send your child to school on an ad-hoc basis. (Note: Some parents do opt for elective home-schooling, which means that the child attends government or private school on some days of the week. This arrangement has to be made in tandem with agreement from each school.)
Although you do not have to follow the national curriculum, you must ensure that your child receives a full-time education from the age of five. Your local city council can make an ‘informal enquiry’ to check if your child is getting a suitable education at home. They can serve a school attendance order if they think your child needs to be taught at school.
Be sure to read the elective home education guidance to find out more about your council’s and your own legal responsibilities when educating your child from home.
Curriculum in UK
There are mainly two curriculums in the UK – the National Curriculum and the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
1. The National Curriculum
First introduced by the Education Reform Act of 1988, the National Curriculum for England is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children across the United Kingdom learn the same things. Aside from covering what subjects are taught, this curriculum also covers the standards students should reach in each subject.
The National Curriculum, as released most recently in 2014, is set out for all year groups for pupils aged between 5 and 16. Within these ages, the curriculum is structured into four “Key Stages”, for each of which a prescribed list of subjects must be taught. The table below sets out the list of subjects to be taught at each Key Stage:
The British Curriculum is one of the most popular curricula in English-speaking international schools. In fact, the National Curriculum is recognised by schools, academies, universities, and employers worldwide.
Exams and certifications
Starting at age 14, students prepare for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams that are taken after two years. Students study between 9 and 12 subjects under the National Curriculum, with a portion of these being compulsory (for instance, English, Maths, Sciences and History) and others being electives chosen by the student based on abilities and preferences. At the end of the two year GCSE programme, each student will receive their GCSE certificates.
The chosen subjects and the GCSE results are very important for their Further Studies (whether it be A Level or IB) and for their University admission.
The IGCSE programme (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) prepares international students for the A-Level exams and/or IB. Instead of 9 and 12 subjects, students study between 5 to 7 subjects – including key pillars of English, Maths and Science. The IGCSE is generally available for international schools, with each school offering their own set of available subjects that fall under examinable IGCSE subjects. Like the GCSE programme, students take exams in each studied subject and receive IGCSE certificates at the end of their studies.
GCE Advanced Level
Once a student reaches 16, they can opt to begin a two-year programme which leads to the GCE Advanced Level (A-Levels) examinations. Students specialise in three or four subjects that are generally relevant to the degree subject they wish to follow at university. A-Level examinations are state exams and are recognised by all UK universities and by institutions worldwide.
2. International Baccalaureate
An alternative to the National Curriculum or specialised curriculums, the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme is a global programme of study slowly gaining traction around the world. Globally, IB is offered in over 5,000 schools and 156 countries. Currently, there are 130 IB World Schools in the UK, with 95 of these schools authorised to teach the IB Diploma. You can find out more about the list of IB schools in the UK here.
In the UK, the International Baccalaureate programme is studied mainly by young people in Years 12 and 13 as an alternative to A Levels. The IB Diploma Programme comprises of six subject groups studied over two years. These groups are language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics and the arts. Students tend to study three subjects at an advanced level, and three at standard level. They also do a theory of knowledge component to develop critical thinking and a 4,000-word extended essay. The resulting diploma is widely recognised by most universities in the world.
For younger students, the IB also offers a Primary Years Programme for three to 12 years old students and a Middle Years Programme for 11 to 16-year-olds.