This fact sheet summarises the key aspects of the education system in the UK and the best ways of finding an appropriate school, college or university.
EDUCATION IN THE UK
This information sheet summarises the key aspects of the education system in
the UK and the best ways of finding an appropriate school, college or
The factors covered are:
1. Overview of the UK education system
2. Finding a state school
3. Finding a private school
4. Finding an international school
5. Finding a college or a university
6. Further information
1. OVERVIEW OF THE UK EDUCATION SYSTEM
The UK has an internationally renowned education system that provides
education opportunities from pre-education nursery through to world-class
Provision of education in the UK is generally through the state system (over 90
per cent of people go to state schools). However, there is a strong private
school sector (?independent?) and a wide selection of high-calibre international
schools. Full-time education is compulsory for everyone up to the age of 16
(rising to 17 with effect from 2013).
The main stages of education in the UK are as follows:
a) Pre-school education
Three and four-year-old children have state-funded pre-school education
in state nursery schools or classes attached to primary schools. Parents
also have the option of sending pre-school children to private or
voluntary providers. Some children below three years old may also
attend nursery classes or playgroups. For further information, please
b) Primary education
?Primary school? education is for children aged five (four in Northern
Ireland) to 11. Most children attend co-educational state schools which
are financed by the Government. Some state schools are provided by
voluntary bodies such as churches, while others focus on supporting
children with special educational needs.
c) Secondary education
?Secondary school? education is for children aged 11 to 16. Secondary
schools may be either single-sex or co-educational. All secondary
schools, both state and independent, teach pupils until the age of 16
and prepare them for taking the appropriate qualifications. After
completing compulsory education, students may legally leave school and
start work, although the majority undertake further education.
d) Further education
Most students in the UK decide to continue to post-16 education by
studying appropriate qualifications as ?sixth-form? students in a school,
sixth-form college or college of further education (FE). There are over
600 FE colleges in the UK (both state-funded and independent) that
offer a wide range of educational and vocational programmes and
e) Higher education
?Higher education? refers to education and training that takes place at
universities, colleges and institutes offering studies at degree level and
higher. The UK has approximately 170 universities and higher education
colleges that offer a wide range of courses, most of which lead to
degrees, postgraduate qualifications or MBAs. Universities and most
other higher education institutions enjoy complete academic freedom to
decide on the subjects to teach and the degrees to award.
2. FINDING A STATE SCHOOL
In the UK all children aged between five (four in Northern Ireland) and 16 are
entitled to a free place at a state school. However, while the education system
across the UK is broadly similar, there are differences between the systems in
England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which can include, for example,
both the curriculum followed and the qualifications obtained.
In England there are four categories of mainstream state schools which
differ in matters such as ownership of land and buildings and control of
admissions. All, however, are self-managing and are funded by the Local
Education Authorities (?LEAs?). The categories of state schools are:
? voluntary aided, and
? voluntary controlled.
Within the four main categories there are also:
? specialist schools which specialise in a particular subject area (such
as technology, sports, languages and the arts), and
? special schools for children with special educational needs.
In addition to mainstream state schools, some local authorities operate
a selective secondary school system using grammar schools. Pupils in
these areas sit a test at the age of 11 to determine whether they can
gain entry to the local grammar school. There are approximately 160
state grammar schools in England.
The Government has also supported the establishment of ?academies?
(which are state-funded and free to students but have much more
independence than most secondary schools) and City Technology
Colleges (which are state-funded and offer a wide range of vocational
Reports on the performance of individual schools can be obtained from
the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) at: www.ofsted.gov.uk
The National Curriculum is taught in all state schools. For further
information please see: www.nc.uk.net
The four main types of qualifications that pupils work towards are:
? General educational qualifications: GCSEs (General Certificate of
Secondary Education), AS (Advanced Subsidiary) Level and A
(Advanced) Level examinations,
? General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) and GCSEs in
Vocational Subjects, which combine general and vocational
? National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), which are related to
specific occupations, and
? Diplomas, which involve practical, hands-on experience as well as
classroom learning, and are designed to encourage students to
develop work-relevant skills.
For further information on the English education system, please see:
? Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF):
? DCSF also provides contact details for all LEAs in England at:
www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/_contacts/ and attainment
tables for all schools in England:
The education system in Wales is very similar to the system in England
(see above), although there are some minor differences. For example,
about a quarter of schools in Wales operate through the Welsh
language, and all children study the Welsh language as part of the
For further information on the Welsh education system, please see:
? The Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills
at the Welsh Assembly Government at:
? The Welsh Joint Education Committee at: www.wjec.co.uk
c) Northern Ireland
The education system in Northern Ireland is similar to the system in
England (see above), although there are some differences. For example,
there are several categories of schools in Northern Ireland, which
? Controlled: under the control of the local Education and Library
Boards and mainly attended by Protestant children.
? Catholic Maintained: under the control of the Council for Catholic
Maintained Schools and mainly attended by Catholic children.
? Grant Maintained Integrated: funded directly by the Department of
? Irish Medium: controlled by the local Education and Library Boards
and attended by children whose parents wish to have them educated
in the Irish language.
? Voluntary Grammar Schools: funded directly by the Department of
Education and providing grammar school education for children
selected on the basis of their academic ability.
Schools in Northern Ireland follow a curriculum set by the Northern
Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment
For further information on the Northern Ireland education system,
please see The Department of Education at: www.deni.gov.uk/
The education system in Scotland differs substantially from England,
Wales and Northern Ireland with, for example, a flexible curriculum
based on guidelines prepared by Learning and Teaching Scotland on
behalf of the Scottish Executive. This flexibility is also reflected in the
management and funding of schools, which have been largely devolved
to head teachers.
Scotland also has its own system of educational qualifications known as
National Qualifications. Towards the end of the fourth year of secondary
school (at the age of 15 to 16), students take Scottish Certificates of
Education at Standard Grade or, in some instances, Intermediate Grade.
Each Standard Grade course is normally taken across two years. In the
fifth and sixth years (at the age of 16 to 18) students can take further
subjects at Higher or Advanced Higher Grade.
For further information on the Scottish education system, please see:
? Scottish Executive Education Department:
? Learning and Teaching Scotland: www.ltscotland.com
? Scottish Qualifications Authority: www.sqa.org.uk
? Her Majesty?s Inspectorate of Education: www.hmie.gov.uk/
3. FINDING A PRIVATE SCHOOL
The UK has around 2,600 private (?independent?) schools, with a total of
628,000 pupils (approximately 6.5 per cent of all UK school pupils).
Independent schools range in size from under 50 pupils to over 2,000 and
include some of the most academically successful schools in the UK, as well as
specialist subject schools such as music, drama and dance, and schools for
special needs children.
The Independent Schools Council provides a single point of contact for the
majority of independent schools in the UK. For further information please see:
Further details of independent schools in the UK can also be found at:
www.indschools.co.uk or www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk
4. FINDING AN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL
There is a strong network of international schools throughout the UK, reflecting
the large numbers of international executives who relocate to the UK each year
with their families.
International schools in the UK offer a variety of educational programmes such
as standard USA college-preparatory and/or a standard UK education. Many
offer an international curriculum ? the Primary and Middle Years Programmes
of the International Baccalaureate Organization ? followed by preparation for
the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate, a credential recognised
worldwide for university entrance.
For further information about international schools in the UK, please see the
European Council of International Schools at: www.ecis.org
5. FINDING A COLLEGE OR A UNIVERSITY
Over three-quarters of school leavers in the UK continue their studies in
further education. There are hundreds of further education colleges across the
country providing a wide range of academic and vocational courses for adults
of all ages. For information about further education, please see:
For higher education courses, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service
(UCAS) co-ordinates applications for places on most full-time first degree and
diploma courses. UCAS holds up-to-date information on over 50,000 courses at
325 member institutions. For further information, please see: www.ucas.ac.uk
UK colleges and universities have a long history of welcoming international
students. Of the 2.4 million full-time and part-time students in the UK,
approximately 370,000 are international students. For further information,
please see: www.educationuk.org or www.ucas.co.uk/students/nonukstudents/
6. FURTHER INFORMATION
This information sheet was updated in March 2010.
As information changes from time to time, please contact the organisations
listed or UK Trade & Investment to confirm any item that you intend to rely on.
This information sheet was produced by the Marketing Group of:
UK Trade & Investment
66-74 Victoria Street
Tel: +44 (0)20 7215 4957