To people from outside the United Kingdom, the British education system is a mystery. There seem to be so many different types of school, college and university, public schools are actually private schools, the exams don’t seem to make any sense, the marking system is confusing and is about to be changed again.
Most UK residents have grown up in the UK and know its education system well. It’s ‘assumed knowledge’. If you look for information you will only find lots and lots of web pages with long and detailed information that’s intended for UK residents. No one explains the UK system of education from an outsider’s point of view.
That’s why I put together this information for my English language students. I’ve also developed it with some feedback from students to try and make things clearer
I have tried to reduce the huge complexity of the UK education system to 34 points, which are presented as numbered bullet points. I have chosen what I consider to be the most important pieces of information.
My aim is to help people from outside the UK to gain a basic understanding the the British education system. They can also learn English words and phrases to do with schools and universities.
There is a printable sheet with questions that can be used with students. The download link is at the bottom of this page.
Important points about the education system in the UK
1) Children from around 1 year old to 5 years old go to nursery school.
2) Children from age 5 to age 11 go to primary school.
3) Young people from age 11 to 16 or 18 go to secondary school.
4) The last two years of secondary education are called the Sixth Form. Sixth Form students are aged usually aged 16 to 18.
5) At age 16 students can either: A) Enter the Sixth Form if their school has one; B) Leave and go to a Sixth Form college or a college of Further Education.
6) There are three terms: September to December, January to March/April and April to July. There are also half term holidays.
7) A comprehensive school accepts pupils of all abilities. There is no entrance test. Comprehensive schooling was introduced in 1965 by the Labour Government.
8) Most secondary schools are free and funded by the state through taxation. In the UK they are referred to as state schools (not public schools).
9) Following legislation introduced by the Conservative government, many schools have changed their status from comprehensive school to academy. An academy is state-funded but not under the control of the local authority.
10) People don’t have to pay to go to a state school. Primary and secondary education in the United Kingdom is free.
11) Some primary and secondary schools are privately owned and run. Parents pay fees to send their children to a private school.
12) The so-called public schools in England are group of elite private schools with very high fees (over £30,000 per year). Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Charterhouse are famous public schools.
13) A grammar school is similar to a Gymnasium in Germany. It only accepts children who have passed an entrance examination. There are both private and state grammar schools
14) To attend a grammar school, pupils must pass the 11+ examination, or the school’s own entrance exam.
15) Children at nearly all primary and secondary schools have to wear a uniform.
16) Students take their GCSEs mostly at age 16 after five years at secondary school. Pupils generally take 7 or 8 GCSEs, including English and Maths.
17) Students take A levels at the age of 18. Unlike the Abitur or the Baccalaureate, students doing A levels specialise in just three subjects.
18) In Scotland, the equivalent of A levels is the Higher. People say “I took Highers in Maths, Physics and Chemistry”
19) A level Grades are given as letters. A is the top grade. A* (A star) is the highest grade. The bottom grade is E. F is ‘unclassified’ (or fail).
20) GCSE grades have been changed by the Conservative Government from A to E to a new system from 9 to 1. Please note: 1 is the bottom grade and 9 is the top grade.
21) Up to 2016, students were able to take AS levels which counted as ‘half’ an A Level and could be taken after one year. This system has now been abolished.
22) A levels (Advanced level courses and exams) are intended to prepare students for study at university. You need A levels to study at university.
23) BTEC exams are an alternative to A levels. You can take BTECs in vocational subjects such as Computing and Engineering.
24) Nowadays, university education in the UK is not free. Most students take out student loans. Some high achieving students may receive scholarships.
25) Most undergraduate courses at UK universities are three years long.
26) Modern language students have to spend one year in the country whose language they are studying, generally between the second and the third year.
27) After studying for an arts subject, students generally obtain a BA (Bachelor in Arts) degree. They would say “I’ve got a BA in History.”
28) After studying for a science subject, students generally obtain a BSc (Bachelor in Science) degree. “I’ve got a BSc in Engineering.”
29) University degrees are graded in classes: First (1), Upper Second (2:2), Lower Second (2.2) and Third (3).
30) People say: “I got a two one in English from Manchester University” or “I did History at Liverpool University but I only got a two two” or “She got a first in Archaeology from Oxford”.
31) An undergraduate is someone who is studying at university but hasn’t yet finished their degree. A graduate is someone who has completed their degree.
32) After you have graduated, you can study for an MA or an MSc, also called a Masters degree. This usually takes one year.
33) If you are a graduate and would like to teach in a school, you must study for the one-year PGCE – Post Graduate Certificate in Education.
34) The highest academic qualification is the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). People say “I’m studying for my PhD.”
Thanks for reading my quick explanation of the British education system. It’s impossible for me to describe everything and I hope I have presented the most important information. Was it clear? Have I made any mistakes?