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A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the UK School System

Entering your child into the school system for the first time can be a confusing and overwhelming process. With children starting school from the age of 4, first time parents do not have much time to figure everything out. You may have questions like “when should my child start formal schooling?”, “which type of school should my child go to?” or “what’s the difference between private and state?”. This is particularly the case if you are not originally from the UK and do not have a hereditary intuition for how the school structure works here. According to the Office of National Statistics the non-UK born population is 9.3 million; 14% of the total population. In London, this number is 36%. So whether you’re originally from a country with a totally different education system, or if you’re a first-time parent, Tutorean has created this simple guide to help you understand how the UK school system works.

By the time you’ve finished reading the guide, we hope that you will have a better understanding of the school system and feel confident in sending your child off on the right track…

University students throwing graduation caps in the air

State vs. Independent Schools

UK law requires all children go to school from age 5 to 18 and you can make the choice as to whether your child will attend a state school or an independent school. The key difference between the two is that every child is entitled to a free place in a state school: they are funded by the government and follow the national curriculum. According to GOV.UK, there are four types of states schools:

  • Community schools – controlled by the local council and not influenced by business or religious groups
  • Foundation schools and voluntary schools – more freedom to change the way they do things than community schools
  • Academies – run by a governing body, independent from the local council – they can follow a different curriculum
  • Grammar schools – run by the council, a foundation body or a trust – they select all or most of their pupils based on academic ability and there is often an exam to get in

On the other hand, independent schools in the UK school system are not financed by the government and therefore charge fees – £17,000 per year on average. Moreover, they are not required to follow the national curriculum. The Good UK School Guide classifies independent schools into four categories:

  • Private schools – schools that are not funded by the state but by tuition fees, gifts and endowments
  • Public schools – historically the most exclusive – and expensive – of boys’ private (mainly boarding) schools
  • Boarding schools – schools with facilities for pupils live on campus often with superb facilities. Most now also accept a proportion of day pupils who can benefit from everything but return home at night
  • Prep and pre-prep schools – private primary schools for children aged 3 to 7 or 8 (pre-preps) or 7 to 11 or 13 (preps). They prepare pupils for entry to independent secondary school

Primary school children writing

Primary Education

The UK school system is broken down into four categories: early education, secondary education, further education and higher education. Legally, all children must attend from age 5 to 18. While early education is non-compulsory, all children 3 years old and above are entitled to 15 free hours a week of nursery per year.

At age 4, children may enrol in reception. Normally, parents apply within their local address/area around mid January, for the following school year. Admissions are based on specific criteria, such as catchment area. Priority is given to:

Looked after children: children in foster care, residential children’s homes, residential schools or secure units
– Students with special needs specific to a particular school
– Those with siblings already attending

Primary education is divided into Key Stage 1 (5 to 7 years old) and Key Stage 2 (7 to 11 years old). Mandatory subjects include English, science, maths, history, geography, art, music, physical education (PE) and computing. Students in Key Stages 1 and 2 will be tested in English reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling and maths, with an exam known as the End of Key Stage Tests and Assessments (SATs). They do not measure whether your child is passing or failing, they are simply used to show the progress of children’s skills and knowledge. KS1 SATs are assessed by teachers, while KS2 are more formal with set exam days with external marking.

Secondary Education

Secondary education is split into Key Stage 3 (11 to 14 years old) and Key Stage 4 (14 to 16 years old). During Key Stage 3, children will continue studying a wide range of subjects, such as English, maths, science, etc. At 14, students begin working towards their national qualifications, known as General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). It is a two year process and final exams are taken at the end of the second year. Most pupils study between 5 – 9 subjects with maths, science and English as compulsory subjects.

Click here to find an expert GCSE tutor in your area.

Alternatively, parents may opt to send their children to grammar school. Grammar schools in the UK school system are state secondary schools that admit students based on the 11-plus (11+) examination, which pupils take at age 11. The 11-plus consists of four sections: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, maths and English. Check out Tutorean’s 11+ tutors that can help prepare your child during the exam process. There are pros and cons for a selective secondary school systems: some teachers argue that students are able to progress faster due to a more equal level of ability in the class. On the other hand, grammar schools tend to favour well-off families and therefore contribute to widening the attainment gap.

Secondary education classroom with teacher

Further Education

Key Stage 5 (16 to 18 years old) is used to describe the two years of further education, after students complete their GCSEs. It is also referred to as college or sixth form. During this time, students usually prepare for A-Levels, which are qualifications required for admission into higher education institutions including universities. Pupils generally take between two to three subjects, although some gifted students may undertake more.

Students who are less academically inclined or with a passion, or deep desire to enter the workforce earlier, can further their education by obtaining vocational qualifications. Vocational courses can provide students with skills and knowledge that are required (and often in demand) in the job market. The most common vocational programs include: 

Higher Education

In the UK, one-third of students continue their schooling at higher education institutions.  There is no shortage of options for students, as the UK has 164 higher education institutions and over 100 of those being universities, 4 of which rank in the world’s top 10 universities. Typically, undergraduate degree programs take 3 years to complete. Master’s programs, undertaken after obtaining an undergraduate degree, ordinarily are one to two years in duration, with some professions, such as law or medicine, requiring a longer commitment.

Fees for universities in the UK vary depending on the institution, but on average are around £9,000 per year, with international students paying larger fees. Although this may seem scary, the government’s student finance really helps. Student loans can cover the full tuition costs (up to £9,000 per year) in addition to covering some, or all, maintenance fees, depending on household income. Students are expected to pay off the loan once they earn more than £25,725 per year and will pay 9% of what they earn above that threshold. After 30 years, the loan will be completely written off.

Undergraduate student walking through Cambridge University

To make sure you help select the right university for your child, you can ask yourself the following questions:

1. What’s the subject your child is most passionate about?

This is perhaps the most important question to ask, since your child is going to be studying their chosen subject in great depth for 3 years or more! Your child should start here before looking at which universities are the best option for their chosen subject.

2. What’s the specific course that best matches your child’s interests and strengths?

Take Biology for example…there are 145 higher education institutions which provide a Biology-related course – from Biomedical Sciences to Human Biology to straight up Biology. So it’s important for your child to filter down on which type of course really appeals to them. More, some courses have industrial placements or a year abroad so it’s really worth doing your research to see what different programs offer.

3. What factors are most important to your child when it comes to university?

Every university is different. Some like Oxford and Cambridge are world-renowned for academic excellence. Others, like Loughborough University are most famous for sports. Some universities have large student populations, like the University of London, which boasts some 160,000 undergraduates; whereas the Royal College of Music has just 400 students. Some universities are campuses (like Warwick) whereas some are city-based (like Manchester). And of course, some universities will be far from home, with others being at your doorstep.

Therefore, it’s worth having a discussion with your child about what’s important to them and what type of student lifestyle they want to be leading.

There’s also no better substitute than speaking with people who have studied at the universities your child is considering. So if you’d like to speak to a graduate from a specific university, or if you’re finding that applying to university is overwhelming, you can speak our experienced admissions tutors to help you along the process – from finding the right university to preparing for the application process.

Home Education

Home schooling is an alternative to the traditional UK school system that has served some families well in the past. For some children, whether it be for philosophical, spiritual or religious reasons, home education is a great opportunity to thrive, outside the constraints of the traditional classroom structure. Moreover, most local councils provide additional assistance to home schooled children. Whether your child learns in a traditional setting, like a classroom, or at home, tutoring is an excellent way for children to master new subjects or get a bit of extra help in areas they might be struggling with. To learn more about the advantages of hiring a private tutor, read our blog about the many benefits of private tutoring.

Empty desks in a school classroom

So, there you have it! We hope this guide to understanding the UK school system will help you feel empowered to make the right educational choice for your child. Whether you are applying for a primary school spot for your 4 year old, if you’re stuck researching ways to help your child choosing their GCSEs or ideal university course, Tutorean has got you covered. Our team is here if you have any questions or would like some extra help finding the best tutor for your child’s needs (we meet every tutor so we can make personal recommendations). Also, don’t forget to check out our article on how to find the perfect tutor!

Happy schooling 🙂

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