The British education system explained
The British education system is respected across the world for its high standards and excellent results.
Education is compulsory for children aged five to 16 in the UK, but they may start earlier than this and can choose to stay on longer.
The compulsory stages of schooling are covered by the National Curriculum, a set of subjects and standards used to ensure children across the country learn the same things. This is broken down into a number of Key Stages, at the end of which children are tested.
Private schools and academies do not have to follow this curriculum and can set their own, but many will work towards a similar structure.
The education system can be roughly divided into five stages. This blog is designed to give an overview of each of these.
- Early years: Early years education takes place at nurseries and pre-schools, from as early as a few months old. It is run by private providers but they must all follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework, which sets the standards for learning and development for children up to the age of five. It is focused on communication, language and physical development and, perhaps most importantly, on the personal, social and emotional development of the child – helping them to develop a positive sense of self, social skills and to respect others.
Children will also carry out activities that develop basic literacy, maths and arts skills, as well as their understanding of the world.
- Primary: Children start primary school at the age of four or five (depending on their birthday) and remain there until the age of 11. The school year runs from September to July, with breaks for Christmas, Easter and a longer summer holiday, as well as shorter half-term breaks.
From the ages of five to seven they will learn Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum, which includes basic knowledge of subjects including English language, maths, history, geography and music, as well as physical education. A key part of the first year at school is the teaching of phonics – the building blocks which enable the learning of reading and writing in the English language.
From the ages of seven to 11 children will study for Key Stage 2 which offers a much more in-depth look at these subjects.
Tests will be held at the end of each key stage.
- Secondary: Children start secondary school at the age of 11 and will begin learning Key Stage 3, which continues until they are 14. New subjects may be introduced at this stage, such as modern foreign languages, art and design and computing.
They will begin Key Stage 4 at the age of 14 and will take their GCSEs – the nationally recognised qualification – at the end of this stage, usually aged 15 or 16. These can be taken earlier by children that are exceptionally gifted or talented.
Education is no longer compulsory after the age of 16.
- Further Education (FE): Pupils will usually attend specialist Further Education colleges to continue their study, although some schools do offer these courses, so your child may be able to continue their education without having to move to another establishment.
A-Levels, which usually take two years, are traditionally the next qualification taken but there are also a range of other, more vocational, qualifications on offer, including NVQs and HNDs, which help to develop work-based skills in specialist areas.
The results of the qualifications gained during Further Education will be used by universities to determine which students are accepted to study there.
- Higher Education (HE): Universities provide degree-level qualifications for undergraduates but will also offer the opportunity to go on to study for postgraduate qualifications, such as Masters degrees and doctorates.
Universities have strict entry requirements. Potential students will be expected to apply while they are still studying their Further Education courses, and will be offered conditional places based on their predicted grades.
Oxford and Cambridge are the most revered universities in the United Kingdom and have the most stringent entry requirements.
They, along with 22 others, are members of the Russell Group, a network of the most prestigious universities in the country. Many international students aspire to study at one of these universities.
Undergraduate courses usually last for three years.
You can find more detailed information about the exams and tests pupils sit during the various stages of the education system here.