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UK Education System

Although the United Kingdom is a single nation it is actually made up of several countries which are united€™. Some aspects of government are devolved to these countries, which means there are differences between their educational policies. This is particularly true of Scotland, where there are some significant differences.

For the purposes of this summary the system of education used in England will be explained, since this represents the majority of the population.

The English education system consists of 5 main stages:

Stage 1 - Primary Education (5 to 13 years old)

Stage 2 - Secondary Education (11 to 16 years old)

Stage 3 - Further Education (after 16 years old)

Stage 4 - Higher Education

Stage 5 - Postgraduate Education

Stage 1 - Primary Education (5 to 13 years old)

From the age of 3 many British children attend nursery school and by the age of 4 they may attend reception classes at a primary school. However, compulsory education does not begin until the child is 5, when he or she will attend primary school.

Primary schools are often divided into infant schools (for children aged 5 to 7) and junior schools (for pupils aged 7 to 11).

Public schools accept only British or European residents, with the exception of short-term student exchange programmes or when parents of overseas pupils temporarily live and work in the UK.

Schools in the private sector are known as preparatory schools (8 to 14 years old) or pre-preparatory schools (until 8 years old). These schools provide primary education as well but unlike public schools they accept overseas pupils.

Stage 2 - Secondary Education (11-16 years old)

Compulsory secondary education covers schooling from the age of 11 to 16. Pupils follow a common curriculum ultimately leading to GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education). GCSEs are typically taken in 9 or 10 subjects.

From 11-14 all pupils study the following subjects:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • Art & Design
  • Citizenship
  • Design & Technology (DT)
  • Geography
  • History
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • Modern Foreign Languages
  • Music
  • Physical Education

For their final two years in secondary school pupils can drop several of these and select the subjects they wish to study for GCSE. Some subjects such as PE and citizenship remain on the curriculum but will not necessarily be subjects for GCSE examination.

After their GCSE exams pupils can choose to leave school and enter work, move on to study vocational qualifications begin modern apprenticeships or continue their academic studies in the sixth form.

As with primary education, public schools do not take pupils from outside the European Union. Private schools accept overseas pupils who meet their entry criteria.

Note that private schools are more commonly called €˜independent schools€™ in the UK. Confusingly, the most prestigious and historic of these are also called €˜public schools€™, but that does not mean they are open to the general public!

Private schools vary in their entry criteria generally the better the school, the greater the ability expected of pupils! Usually an entrance examination will be sat which will focus on English, mathematics and science. However, it may also test general reasoning. An interview may also be required as well as a report from the pupils current school.

It is expected that over the next few years these systems may change to avoid exams which are all about factual recall. New approaches are likely to assess students in ways that reward creative, independent thinking.

Everyone aged 5 to 18 can receive primary and secondary education in private schools in the UK. The most common age for overseas pupils to enter is 11-13 years old. 16 years of age is also an excellent time to enter British schools or colleges in order to prepare for university by studying A-levels or IB.

Primary and secondary schools in the UK can be:

Stage 3 Further Education (after 16 years old)

After the age of 16 pupils can stay at secondary school or attend a sixth form college to study for A levels (2 years), IB (2 years) or a Foundation programme (1 year).

They can also study for vocational qualifications. After finishing these courses school leavers have the chance to enter university.

General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) 2 yearsAdvanced Level (A Level)2 yearsFoundation Course 1 yearInternational Baccalaureate (IB) 2 years
Multiple subject-based qualifications. These complete compulsory secondary education.

British secondary education in private schools includes compulsory subjects and subjects of your choice. Pupils can choose from 5 to 10 GCSE subjects.

Compulsory subjects are: English, mathematics, sciences (either combined or separate biology, chemistry and physics). Some schools choose to make additional subjects compulsory.

Good A Level results provide an opportunity to enter universities worldwide.

To enter an A Level course you need successful exam results from secondary school and IELTS (5.5 - 6.0).

A Level consists of 6 modules:

  • First year -Advanced Subsidiary (AS).
  • Second year€“ A2.

Foundation courses generally run alongside other courses being studied and are accompanied by an intensive English language course.

To enter you need to have successfully finished secondary school and IELTS (5.0 -5.5).

Foundation programmes are arranged by universities or colleges.

An IB diploma allows students to enter most universities without an entrance examination.

To enrol on an IB course you need to have successfully finished secondary school and IELTS (5.0 -5.5).

The programme consists of 6 subjects chosen by the student: 3 subjects at Advanced level (240 academic hours) and 3 subjects at Standard Level (150 hours).

Stage 4 - Higher Education

In most UK universities undergraduates spend 3 years studying their chosen bachelor's degree. Assessment varies hugely and usually involves a mixture of examinations and coursework. There are variations between universities in terms of marking but degrees are awarded with the following levels:

  • First class (1st)
  • Second class, upper division (2:1)
  • Second class, lower division (2:2)
  • Third class (3rd)
  • Ordinary degree (pass)

Degrees may or may not be classed as honours€™ degrees, depending upon the amount of study undertaken.

Applications to enter British universities should be submitted a year before the course starts and overseas students will need IELTS over 6.0. Applications are made by filling in a UCAS form (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service). This includes all academic achievements, final/predicted grades, a brief description of the applicants goals and future plans and a list of no more than 6 preferred universities in alphabetical order. Your school should enclose references upon application. The universities applied for will then consider your application.

Stage 5 - Postgraduate Education

Students who are awarded a good honours degree can then apply to study for a master€™s degree (1-2 years) or a doctorate (usually 3 years).

In some institutions a master€™s degree can form the foundation of a doctorate.

Whilst a masters degree is taught and examined in a similar fashion to the bachelor€™s degree, doctorates are based around unique research. The candidate must pursue these studies with supervision and guidance from a tutor, ultimately producing a thesis which makes a new and significant addition to that field of study. To complete such work takes not less than 3 years.