The British Education System

The British Education System

Education in England may differ from the system used elsewhere in the United Kingdom .

Basically, there are two systems: one covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland and one covering Scotland. The two education systems have different emphases. Traditionally the English, Welsh and Northern Irish system has emphasised depth of education whereas the Scottish system has emphasised breadth. Thus English, Welsh and Northern Irish students tend to sit a small number of more advanced examinations and Scottish students tend to sit a larger number of less advanced examinations. It should be noted that local English practice can vary from this general picture although Scottish practice is well nigh universal.

Nowadays education in Wales differs slightly from the system used in England. The statutory national key stage tests in Wales were, until 2000, the same as in England and were managed by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA). In 2000, the National Assembly for Wales took responsibility for these tests in Wales, at which point they were developed by test agencies on behalf of the Awdurdod Cymwysterau, Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru (ACCAC), whilst the tests in England were developed for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). In 2002, the Welsh Assembly decided to cease the tests at Key Stage One. Instead, optional teacher assessment materials were provided to schools in 2003 for use in English, mathematics and Welsh . These had been adapted from materials that had originally been developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the other test agencies to be used as statutory assessment materials for 2003. At the end of 2003, the Daugherty Report was commissioned by the Welsh Assembly to undertake a review of the country's assessment procedures. The interim report by the committee was perceived by the media as supporting a complete abolishment of the assessments at key stages two and three.

In general, the cut-off point for ages is the end of August, so all children must be of a particular age on the 1st of September in order to begin class that month.

  • Primary Education
    • Infant School or Primary School
      • Reception, age 4 to 5
      • Year 1, age 5 to 6
      • Year 2, age 6 to 7 (KS1 National Curriculum Tests - England only)
    • Junior School or Primary School
      • Year 3, age 7 to 8
      • Year 4, age 8 to 9
      • Year 5, age 9 to 10
      • Year 6, age 10 to 11 (Eleven plus exams in some areas of England, Key Stage 2 National Curriculum Tests)
  • Secondary Education
    • Middle School, High School or Secondary School
      • Year 7, old First Form, age 11 to 12
      • Year 8, old Second Form, age 12 to 13
      • Year 9, old Third Form, age 13 to 14 (Key Stage 3 National Curriculum Tests, known as SATs (Standard Assessment Tests))
    • Upper School or Secondary School
      • Year 10, old Fourth Form, age 14 to 15
      • Year 11, old Fifth Form, age 15 to 16 (old O Level examinations, modern GCSE examinations)
    • Upper School, Secondary School, or Sixth Form College
      • Year 12 or Lower Sixth, age 16 to 17 (AS-level examinations)
      • Year 13 or Upper Sixth, age 17 to 18 (A2-level examinations. Both AS-levels and A2-levels count towards A-levels .)

In some regions of England, pupils attend a Lower (Primary) School before going to, a Middle School between 8 and 12 or, more commonly 9 and 13, and then a High School or Upper School. Other, more vocational qualifications offered including GNVQs and BTECs .

Education in Scotland differs from the system used elsewhere in the United Kingdom . Basically, there are two systems: one covering England , Wales , or Northern Ireland and one covering Scotland . The two education systems have different emphases. Traditionally, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish system has emphasised depth of education whereas the Scottish system has emphasised breadth. Thus English, Welsh and Northern Irish students tend to sit a small number of more advanced examinations and Scottish students tend to sit a larger number of less advanced examinations.


In general, the cut-off point for ages is the end of August, so all children must be of a particular age on the 1st of September in order to begin class that month.

  • Nursery School
    • Year 1, age 3 - 5.
  • Primary School
    • Primary 1, age range 4 - 6.
    • Primary 2, age range 5 - 7.
    • Primary 3, age range 6 - 8.
    • Primary 4, age range 7 - 9.
    • Primary 5, age range 8 - 10.
    • Primary 6, age range 9 - 11.
    • Primary 7, age range 10 - 12.
  • Secondary School
    • First year, age range 11 - 13.
    • Second year, age range 12 - 14.
    • Third year, age range 13 - 15.
    • Fourth year, age range 14 - 16.
    • Fifth year, age range 15 - 17.
    • Sixth year, age range 16 - 18.

Note that the age ranges specify the youngest age for a child entering that year and the oldest age for a child leaving that year. Also note that children may leave school at the end of any school year after they reach 16 years of age and that they may attend Scottish universities when they are 17. Therefore two sets of national examinations are held. The first set, the Standard Grade examinations, take place in the Fourth year of secondary school and show basic education level. The second set, the Higher examinations take place in the Fifth and Sixth years. A third level, Advanced Higher, is sometimes taken by students intending to study at an English university, or those wishing to pass straight into second year at a Scottish university, and covers the gap between the Scottish "Higher" level and the English "Advanced" level courses, although there is not always a one-to-one mapping.

Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly from the system used elsewhere in the United Kingdom . The Northern Irish system emphasises a greater depth of education compared to the English and Welsh systems. The majority of examinations sat, and education plans followed, in Northern Irish schools are set by the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment ( CCEA ).

School holidays in Northern Ireland are also considerably different to the rest of the United Kingdom . Northern Irish schools generally only get 1 day off for the half term holiday (in February, May and October. Christmas holidays usually only consist of a week or so, the same with the Easter vacation, compared to Englands two weeks. The major difference however is that Northern Irish summer holidays are considerably longer with the entirety of July and August off giving a nine week summer holiday.


In general, the cut-off point for ages is the end of August, so all children must be of a particular age on the 1st of September in order to begin class that month.

  • Primary Education
    • Primary School
      • Primary 1, age 4 to 5
      • Primary 2, age 5 to 6
      • Primary 3, age 6 to 7
      • Primary 4, age 7 to 8
      • Primary 5, age 8 to 9
      • Primary 6, age 9 to 10
      • Primary 7, age 10 to 11 ( Eleven plus exams to determine secondary school placement.)
  • Secondary Education
    • High School or Grammar School
      • First Form, age 11 to 12
      • Second Form, age 12 to 13
      • Third Form, age 13 to 14
      • Fourth Form, age 14 to 15
      • Fifth Form, age 15 to 16 (old O-Level examinations, modern GCSE examinations)
    • High School, Grammar School, or Sixth Form College
      • Lower Sixth, age 16 to 17 (AS-level examinations, where applicable)
      • Upper Sixth, age 17 to 18 ( A-levels )

Primary or elementary education is the first years of formal, structured education that occurs during childhood. In most Western countries, it is compulsory for children to receive primary education (though in many jurisdictions it is permissible for parents to provide it).

Primary education generally begins when children are four to seven years of age. The division between primary and secondary education is somewhat arbitrary, but it generally occurs at about twelve years of age ( adolescence ); some educational systems have separate middle schools for that period. Primary and secondary education together are sometimes (in particular, in Canada and the United States ) referred to as " K-12 " education, (K is for kindergarten, 12 is for twelfth grade).

Typically, primary education is provided in schools , where (in the absence of parental movement or other intervening factors) the child will stay, in steadily advancing classes, until they complete it and move on to secondary schooling. Children are usually placed in classes with one teacher who will be primarily responsible for their education and welfare for that year. This teacher may be assisted to varying degrees by specialist teachers in certain subject areas, often music or physical education. The continuity with a single teacher and the opportunity to build up a close relationship with the class is a notable feature of the primary education system. Over the past few decades, schools have been testing various arrangements which break from the one-teacher, one-class mold.

The major goals of primary education are achieving basic literacy and numeracy amongst all their students, as well as establishing foundations in science, geography, history and other social sciences . The relative priority of various areas, and the methods used to teach them, are an area of considerable political debate.

Traditionally, various forms of corporal punishment were an integral part of early education in the UK. This practice has now been outlawed in the UK.

The German expression kindergarten usually refers to the first level of official education , according to the K-12 educational system. Kindergarten is usually administered in an elementary school .

The equivalent in England and Wales is reception . The Australian equivalent of this is the preparatory grade (commonly called 'grade prep' or 'prep'), which is the year before the first grade. In the state of New South Wales , however, it is called kindergarten. At least in Victoria , kindergarten (distinct from grade prep) is a form of, and used interchangeably with, pre-school .

The first kindergarten was opened in 1837 in Bad Blankenburg , Germany by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel .

The first kindergarten in the United States was established by Margarethe (Margaretta) Meyer Schurz (wife of activist/statesman Carl Schurz ), in Watertown, Dodge County, Wisconsin .

Youngsters , usually aged 4-6 attend kindergarten to learn the finer points of meeting friends (and enemies), professional authority (in the form of a teacher ), playtime , naptime , drawing , music , sometimes the basics of reading and writing , and various other activities. For children who previously have spent most of their time at home, kindergarten often serves the purpose of training them to be apart from their parents without anxiety.

The youngster continues to Grade 1 after kindergarten.

The actual word "kindergarten", as one may guess, translates to "children's garden". Many private businesses in the USA name their day-care businesses 'Kindergarten' or 'Kindergarden'. Kindergarten establishment (day-care) in Germany are for pre-school children of all ages and are often run by churches, city or town administrations. Kindergartens (German plural Kindergärten ) in Germany are not a part of the actual school system, such as in the USA.

Kindergartens often last only for half a day (morning or afternoon), though in many locations there are full-day kindergartens.

The elementary school consists of the first seven years of school, that is, grades 1 through 5 or 6, as well as kindergarten , a preliminary year of school before grade 1 (known in England and Wales as ' Reception '). Originally, however, it was studied after primary school in the 19th century, (some schools that have only the youngest students are called primary schools to this day). Also known as grammar school in the United States it is a major segment of compulsory education. Until the latter third of the 20th century, however, grammar school (or elementary school) was grades 1 through 8. After grammar school, one usually attends high school . (In many districts, grades 5-8 or 5-9 were called " middle school ", or further separated into " intermediate school ", "middle school", and/or " junior high school ".)

Secondary education , or secondary school , is a period of education which follows directly after primary education (such as intermediate school or elementary school ), and which may be followed by tertiary or "post-secondary" education. The purpose of a secondary education can be to prepare for either higher education or vocational training . The exact boundary between primary and secondary education varies from country to country and even within them, but is generally around the seventh to the tenth year of education, with middle school covering any gaps. Secondary education occurs mainly during the teenage years. Primary and secondary education together are sometimes (in particular, in Canada and the United States ) referred to as " K-12 " education, ( K is for kindergarten , 12 is for twelfth grade).

In education in the United Kingdom , a grammar school is a secondary school attended by pupils aged 11 to 18 to which entry is controlled by means of an academically selective process consisting, largely or exclusively, of a written examination . After leaving a grammar school, as with any other secondary school, a student may go into further education at a college or university .

The examination is called the eleven plus . Partly due to the failure to fully implement the tri-partite system prescribed by the 1944 Education Act, the examination came to be seen as delivering a pass/fail result with the academically selected pupils passing and attending grammar schools and the remaining pupils being deemed to have failed and being consigned to the poorly funded schools euphemistically designated Secondary Modern Schools .

This arrangement proved politically unsustainable, and, over the period 1960 to 1975, non-selective ("comprehensive") education was instituted across a substantial majority of the country. The eleven plus examination had been championed by the educational psychologist Cyril Burt and the uncovering of his fraudulent research played a minor part in accelerating this process.

To understand grammar schools in the UK, some history is needed. After World War II , the government reorganised the secondary schools into two basic types. Secondary moderns were intended for children who would be going into a trade and concentrated on the basics plus practical skills; grammar schools were intended for children who would be going on to higher education and concentrated on the classics, science, etc. This system lasted until the 1960s, at which point changes in the political climate led to the general acceptance that this was a discriminatory system which was not getting the best out of all children. This was partly because some authorities tended to prioritise their budgets on the grammar schools, damaging the education prospects of children attending secondary moderns.

The decision was taken to switch to a single type of school designed to give every child a complete education. That is why this new type of school is called a comprehensive school. However the timetable of the changeover was left to the local authorities, some of whom were very resistant to the whole idea and thus dragged their feet for as long as possible. The result is that there is now a mixture. Most authorities run a proper comprehensive system, a few run essentially the old system of secondary moderns and grammar schools (except the secondary moderns are now called "comprehensives"). Some run comprehensive schools along side one or two remaining grammar schools.

The Labour government that came to power in 1997 instituted measures that allowed parents to force a local referendum on whether to abolish grammar schools in their area. The form of this referendum depends on whether there is still a full two-tier system running, in which case all parents with children at primary schools in the area are eligible to vote, or whether there are only a few grammar schools in the area, in which case only those parents with children at primaries that regularly send children to the grammar school are eligible. By 2003, only a few referenda had taken place and none of these had delivered the requisite majority for conversion.

The debate over selective education has been widened by other measures introduced by the Labour government, allowing schools to select a portion of their intake by "aptitude" for a specific subject. There are many who think that selection allows children to receive the form of education best suited for their abilities, while "one-size-fits-all" comprehensives fail everybody equally. One of the greatest attacks on the comprehensive system is that it leads, in essence, to selection on the grounds of wealth as the good schools are generally located in areas with expensive housing, so children from poor areas are denied the possibility of attending them. Conversely, there are many who think that the selection of children at 11 divides them into "successes" and "failures" at that age, and is therefore wrong. The current Labour government, from the party that originally championed comprehensive education, appears to favour the first of these groups, and their introduction of local referenda on grammar schools has been attacked by opponents of selective education as an unworkable system designed to give the semblance of choice while maintaining the status quo.

Private schools generally give the same sort of education as grammar schools, but there are exceptions; Gordonstoun for one. In areas where the local authority provides a comprehensive education – which some parents don't like for various reasons – independent schools are particularly common.

Higher education is education provided by universities and other institutions that award academic degrees, such as university colleges, and liberal arts colleges .

Higher education includes both the teaching and the research activities of universities, and within the realm of teaching, it includes both the undergraduate level (sometimes referred to as tertiary education ) and the graduate (or postgraduate ) level (sometimes referred to as quaternary education). Higher education differs from other forms of post-secondary education such as vocational education . However, most professional education is included within higher education, and many postgraduate qualifications are strongly vocationally or professionally oriented, for example in disciplines such as law and medicine.

There is a three-level hierarchy of degrees ( Bachelor , Master , Doctor ) currently used in the United Kingdom.

A graduate student (also, grad student or grad in American English , postgraduate student or postgrad in British English) is an individual who has completed a bachelor's degree (B.A., B.S./B.Sc., or another flavor) and is pursuing further higher education , with the goal of achieving a master's degree (M.A., M.S./M.Sc., M.Ed., etc.) or doctorate (Ph.D., Ed.D., D.A., D.Sc., D.M.A., Th.D., etc.) In the United States, graduate education can also refer to those pursuing a post-master's Educational Specialist degree or post-master's Certificate of Advanced Study. The term usually does not refer to one in medical school and only occasionally refers to someone in law school or business school .


Admission to do a research degree in the UK typically requires the sponsorship of a professor. Admission to do a master's degree (based on coursework) depends upon having an undergraduate degree, generally in a related subject.


Postgraduate work at universities in the UK is very intense.


It is very difficult to obtain funding for postgraduate study in the UK. There are a few scholarships for master's courses, but these are rare and dependent on the course and class of undergraduate degree obtained. Most master's students are self-funded.

Funding is available for some Ph.D. courses. There is more funding available to those in the sciences than in other disciplines

The costs for a normal education in the United Kingdom are as follows:

  • Primary: No Charge
  • Secondary: No Charge
  • Further (Secondary) Education in either a sixth form or college: No Charge if under 19 in that particular academic year or on a low income.
  • Higher / Tertiary Education (University): A tuition fee per year (varies from £1,000 to £9,000).

Primary and Secondary education can also be charged for, if a fee-paying (public) school is attended by the child in question.

A public school, in common British usage, is a school usually prestigious and historic, which charges fees, does not restrict admissions, and is financed by bodies other than the state, commonly as a private charitable trust. Often but not always they are boarding schools. Confusingly to a non-native English speaker a public school is actually a private school! In British usage, a government-run school (which would be called a 'public school' in other areas, such as the United States ) is called a state school in the UK.

Many of the independent schools in the UK do not refer to themselves as public schools . Many choose to use the term independent school. In part this is due to a sense that some 'minor' public schools have many of the social associations and traditions of public schools but without the quality of teaching and extracurricular activities.

The term 'public' (first adopted by Eton) historically refers to the fact that the school was open to the paying public, as opposed to, a religious school that was only open to members of a certain church, and in contrast to private education at home (usually only practical for the very wealthy who could afford tutors).

Public schools played an important role in the development of the Victorian social elite. Under a number of forward-looking headmasters leading public schools developed a curriculum based heavily on classics and physical activity for boys and young men of the upper and upper middle classes. They were schools for the gentlemanly elite of Victorian politics, armed forces and colonial government. Often successful businessmen would send their sons to public school as a mark of participation in the elite (it was Martin Wiener's opposition to this tendency which inspired his 1981 polemic "English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980", which became a huge influence on the Thatcher government's opposition to old-school gentlemanly Toryism and, by default, a key reason for the recent upsurge of privately-educated pop singers in the UK).

Public schools often relied heavily on the maintenance of discipline by older boys, both to reduce staffing costs and as preparation for military or public service.

While under the best circumstances the Victorian public schools were superb examples of education, the reliance on corporal punishment and the prefect system could also make them awful. The classics-based curriculum was criticised for not providing skills in sciences or engineering.

The public school system influenced the school systems of the British empire to an extent. Recognisably 'public' schools can be found in many Commonwealth countries.

Today most public schools are highly selective on academic grounds, as well as financial grounds (ability to pay high fees) and social grounds (often a family connection to the school is very desirable in admissions).

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) has a searchable list of independent/public schools in Britain. However, the head teachers of major British independent schools usually belong to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), as distinct from the Secondary Heads' Association, and it is generally considered that any school that is a member of HMC is entitled to call itself a Public School.