Education in the UK

An Expert's View about Educational and Community Associations in the United Kingdom

Posted on: 25 Aug 2010

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 university. 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 university programmes. 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 see: 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 qualifications. 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. a) England 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: ? community, ? foundation, ? 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 qualifications). Reports on the performance of individual schools can be obtained from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) at: The National Curriculum is taught in all state schools. For further information please see: 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 education, ? 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: and attainment tables for all schools in England: b) Wales 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 National Curriculum. 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: 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 include: ? 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 Education. ? 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: d) Scotland 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: ? Scottish Qualifications Authority: ? Her Majesty?s Inspectorate of Education: 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: or 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: 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: 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: or or 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 9th Floor Kingsgate House 66-74 Victoria Street London SW1E 6SW Tel: +44 (0)20 7215 4957 Email: Website:
Posted: 25 August 2010

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