Education in the UK


The standard of education in the UK is generally held in high esteem throughout the world. You will be faced with a slightly different educational system depending on which of the four UK constituent countries you happen to live in – England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.  The UK Government is responsible for education in England, while the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for the systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, respectively.

Primary education

Therefore the age at which your child must be in school will range between 4 and 5, although in any of the four countries your child will need to have started compulsory education by the age of 5. In England and Wales, children generally attend reception class which prepares them for life in school at the age of 4 or 5, this is called Year 1 in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, children do not start their first year of Primary school until they are 5 (known as P1). Generally in the UK, reception to Year 6 (Year 7 in Northern Ireland; and P1 to P7 in Scotland) is classed as Primary school and typically lasts until a child is 11 years old (12 in Scotland). However, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, reception to Year 2 (Year 1 to 3 in NI) may be referred to as infant school. Core subjects, including English, maths, science and PE, are taught throughout the UK in primary school.

Secondary education

Compulsory secondary school lasts from the ages of 11 (12 in Scotland) to 16. In England and Wales, this is classed as Years 7-11, in Northern Ireland as Year 8 to Year 12, and in Scotland is S1 to S4. In the last two years of secondary school in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, children will study to take their GCSE exams. GCSEs are studied for on an individual basis with a grade of A*- E.  Generally awarded for a student’s performance in each particular subject an A* is the highest mark. The exams that a student will need to take will be a mixture of those included on the curriculum, for example, English, maths, science, a foreign language and their own personal choice. In England, there are currently ongoing discussions which could lead to GCSEs being replaced by a new English Baccalaureate certificate by as early as 2015. As of yet, the government’s plans have been met with only a lukewarm reception. In Scotland, the GCSE equivalents are called Higher Still and are studied for in S3 and S4.

Upon completing the final year of secondary school and usually having taken their exams, children can choose to leave school. Typically, they will be aged 16 by this point, but they must stay is some form of formal education or training until their 18th birthday.

Many children choose to stay in education after the age of 16, either by attending a school’s sixth-form college (if it has one) or a separate further education college. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, students have a range of different qualifications they can study for, including AS and A Levels (which tend to be more academic-led and the awards that those looking to enter university will need to obtain) to vocational qualifications such as NVQs. By this stage of a child’s education, the choice of subjects is completely down to them although the grades achieved at the end of A-Levels will determine their success in which university (if any) they can go on to attend. In Scotland, those who stay in education after they turn 16, study for their Highers, and sometimes Advanced Highers. There are more than 70 Higher subjects to choose from, with most students taking five. If your child is particularly good at, or interested in a subject, or if it will be particularly useful for the university course they want to study, they can move on to an Advanced Higher. Most students will take Advanced Highers in S6, after passing Highers in S5.

Choice of schools

There are many different types of schools that your child may attend. However, the majority of parents choose to send their children to state schools, which are free for all permanent residents of the UK. The school your child will be able to attend will be based on your locality and you will probably need to apply to a number of schools, listing an order of preference for the ones you’d most like them to attend. Depending on where you live you may be able to send your child to a grammar school which is a more academically-orientated type of secondary school (although these do not exist through all areas of the UK). Like state schools, Grammar schools are free to attend, but in almost all instances your child will need to pass an entrance exam (at the age of 11) to be accepted. Private schools are also fairly popular (but expensive), while faith-based schools and homeschooling are other options available to you.


Should your child wish to attend university (or similar type of institution) upon completing a further education or sixth-form college, then there are many options available to them. Bachelor’s Degrees are the most popular types of course for those who progress on to higher education, although vocational-led courses like Higher National Certificates or Higher National Diplomas are also popular. There are over 300 higher education institutions in the UK, each of which has its own criteria when admitting students. To get into the very top universities (for example, Oxford and Cambridge, which are both ranked in the top ten universities in the world) your child will need to have achieved top grades throughout their entire school life, and will probably need to receive a letter of recommendation from their previous schools or colleges and may need to sit an entrance exam. However, for the less prestigious institutions the criteria is not as high and steady grades will often be good enough to earn your child a place.