The British School System explained

The British school system is unique. Here is everything you need to know...


Attending school

School attendance is compulsory by law until the age of 16 in the UK, and the majority of children attend early years/pre-school programmes, entering primary education in the September after their fourth birthday. Across most of the UK, primary school attendance continues up to Year 6, with students joining a secondary (or senior) school in Year 7, the year in which they turn 12. However, some areas of the UK have a middle school system, in which students leave primary to attend a middle school from Years 5 – 8. Middle school students then enter secondary school in Year 9, the year they will turn 14.Some private schools adopt a similar system, where the middle school is known as Prep school, with students also entering their senior school in Year 9.

After formal examinations at age 16, students have the option to leave education altogether, or to study for further qualifications that will enable them to attend university. Again, this can differ depending on the area, with some school authorities only offering post-16 study (Years 12 and 13) at sixth form colleges, while in most areas, students can stay on at the same school. Almost all private and grammar schools offer education in Years 12 and 13 (sixth form).


Non-fee-paying schools

Around 93% of children in the UK attend state day schools. These schools are funded by the government and fall into five main categories: community schools, foundation/voluntary/faith schools, grammar schools, academy schools and special needs schools. Facilities and attainment can vary greatly in state schools, and it can be competitive to secure a place in a school with a great reputation. Academies, which are partially funded by private stakeholders, are a relatively new initiative that also offer a free education. Most state schools are comprehensive, meaning they are not selective in terms of attainment; instead, living in the catchment area of the school and attending one of the “feeder schools” (the primary schools from which a senior school takes most of its students) is the usual route for securing a place. Grammar schools are selective and very competitive, as they are a popular choice for many parents. Prospective students sit an 11+ exams, the results of which determine if they are awarded a place at the school.

State schools fall under the jurisdiction of an LEA (Local Education Authority) based on geographical areas. Systems, policies and funding can vary between different LEAs.


Fee-paying schools

Other students in the UK attend private, fee-paying schools (also, somewhat confusingly, known as public schools or independent schools). Fees and the selection process can vary greatly between schools, with some schools being extremely selective in terms of the academic ability of the student, and others placing far less importance on academic attainment at the point of entry. Many private schools offer boarding (these schools usually have a proportion of day students in attendance, too) and there are variations within the realm of boarding, such as weekly boarding and flexi-boarding.

Read our advice on choosing a school


Syllabus and exams

Education is divided into ‘key stages’. Key stage 1 is for children aged 5-7 who are introduced to foundation knowledge of the core subjects. Key stage 2 runs from age 7-11 (the end of primary). Here students deepen their understanding of the core subjects and at the end will be tested on English, maths and science. Key stage 3 runs from age 11-14 where new subjects are added to the curriculum. Key stage 4 is the final stage of compulsory education and at the end students will sit national assessment tests.

In the UK, the majority of students will sit GCSEs at 16 following a two-year course of study, with some schools offering the IB Middle Years Programme as an alternative. This, traditionally, has meant that students have never sat a formal examination until the age of 16, so it is becoming increasingly popular for schools to include more formal assessments termly, or even half termly, to help prepare students for the examination experience, as well as informing reporting.

Scotland has a separate system where students sit National 5 qualifications followed by Highers.


Higher Education

Outside of Scotland, post-16 qualifications usually consist of A-Levels, which follow another two-year programme of study, but there are increasing opportunities for students to sit the IB Diploma (also a two-year programme) as an alternative, with a small number of schools offering both pathways. AS-Levels follow one year of study and equate to half an A-Level.

Traditionally, students sit three A-Levels, but ambitious students may sit more, and with the introduction of AS-Levels, there is more flexibility. An AS is often added as an extra subject alongside A-Levels by students who desire an extra challenge, or have a subject they enjoy, which does not fit with the logical A-Level pathway for their favoured career or degree choice. Because of the limited number of subjects studied, it is common for students to focus their choices on a particular field such as sciences/maths or arts and humanities.

The IB Diploma Programme requires students to study more subjects, though these will not all be examined at the same level (they are divided between Standard Level and Higher Level), and the breadth of study in a particular subject is lesser than would be found in an A-Level. The IB Programme offers different challenges from A-Levels: as well as the greater number of subjects studied, there are generally more oral components in the IB, and students complete an Extended Essay that requires independent research, and is considered a stepping stone to the greater independence required at university, particularly if writing a dissertation.



Reporting practices vary between schools, and it is almost universal for reporting to be done through a mix of written reports and parents’ evenings across an academic year. Generally, a written report will be sent home at least once per term (there are usually three terms per academic year) and there will be at least one opportunity to come into school and discuss children’s progress. This is traditionally in the form of a parents’ evening, but the practice of a whole day or afternoon being set aside for parent, teacher and student conferences is becoming more popular. Boarding schools often tie these parent meetings in with another school event since more travel is involved. Usually, parents choose which teachers to make appointments with, with all subject teachers and pastoral tutors available, and heads of year/house/senior team members of staff on hand overseeing the event. Many schools focus their reporting more heavily on examination year groups, offering more feedback in Years 11 and 13.