Great Britain

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Schools in the UK

Are you relocating to the United Kingdom with your children? Then you’ll probably need plenty of information on schools in the UK. Our detailed expatriate guide introduces you to the system of state education throughout the country, from primary schools to A-level exams.
Most kids in the UK attend primary school from age five to eleven.
  • The majority of schools in the UK are owned by the state and follow a set National Curriculum — even better, they are completely free to attend.
  • Children attend primary school between the ages of five and eleven, before moving on to secondary school. Here they start to work for their future, sitting various exams in a range of different subjects.
  • Thanks to the decentralization process in the UK, the schooling system can vary slightly between the various regions.

Fiction vs. Reality: Is It Really Like the Movies?

Schools in the UK often have a particular reputation abroad. The popular genre of the British school story, set at boarding schools in the UK, has captured generations of readers. They are presented as places dedicated to friendship and excitement, to forming the children’s character and to producing tomorrow’s élite.

Of course, reality looks rather different. First of all, less than 8% of all students can afford attending one of the private schools in the UK, and not all of the latter are boarding schools. Moreover, the quality of education in the UK is subject to close scrutiny. It easily becomes the topic of heated debates in the national media and causes some parents a great deal of anxiety. However, don’t let competitiveness or the latest diatribe about schools in the UK bother you.

Most UK schools, state-run as well as private institutions, will prepare your children well for further studies or vocational training. After-school care and extra-curricular activities at UK schools means that your child will be well looked after, even though both parents work full-time.

It is important, however, to choose carefully among the various schools in the UK. You should probably take your kids’ education and nearby schools into account while you are planning your move or when buying a house in the UK. If you want to send your children to a state school, we will provide you with all necessary information on schools in the UK on these pages.

If you are interested in private education in the UK, please read our guide to independent and international schools instead.

State Schools: The Popular Choice

Public education at UK schools is compulsory for all children aged 5 to 16. The school-leaving age is 18, however, the final two years are optional. Unless they are private institutions, schools in the UK are free of charge. This is probably the main reason why, as indicated above, over 90% of all kids in the UK go to a public primary or secondary school.

State schools in the UK are funded and supervised by their respective local authorities, but most of them have to follow the national curriculum. There are different types of state schools. Such an institution may be called community school, foundation or trust school, voluntary aided or voluntary controlled school, faith school, academy or grammar school.

However, these are merely legal distinctions. UK state schools mostly differ in the way their administration and management are organized. Faith schools in the UK, for example, are affiliated with religious institutions. But they also receive money from the Local Council.

The school year normally runs from 1 September to 31 July. However, whoever is in charge of the school (e.g. the Local Council) also sets the exact term times and holidays. Therefore these can vary between different schools in the UK.

For The Little Ones: Primary Education

According to the National Curriculum in England, a child will attend primary school from age five to eleven. For these kids, a normal school day begins between 8:00 and 9:00 am and ends between 3:00 and 4:00 pm. Again, this can vary from school to school. Some schools make additional provisions for supervised activities after the official school day is over.

In UK schools, the medium of instruction is usually English. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. International schools (which are generally private institutions) provide a multi-lingual environment. Moreover, schools in Wales promote education in the Welsh language, while institutions in Northern Ireland offer classes in Irish-Gaelic. While you are checking out various schools, don’t forget to ask if they provide extra support for students with English as a second language!

At primary schools in the UK, kids focus on the “core subjects” of math and literacy (i.e. reading, spelling, and writing). They should also learn about science, history, geography, technology, art, and music, and they have to participate in PE (physical education) and religious education. However, expat parents should know that religious education is not mandatory. If they want, they can officially withdraw their children from these classes.

Parents receive a school report concerning their kid’s behavior, development, and progress at least once a year. After year two, your children will be informally assessed by their teacher.

In year six, at the end of Key Stage 2, all students attending primary schools in the UK have the option of participating in a standardized exam. It tests their performance in English, math, and science. These Key Stage 2 exams are important and help to determine a child’s academic abilities, and thus access to certain secondary schools in UK. The child chooses a secondary school to sit the exam in and this school is normally their first choice for secondary education.


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