Many foreigners pursue UK immigration for themselves and their families in order to take advantage of the world-renowned British education system. Those who wish to study in the UK at the primary, secondary, or university level should take steps to familiarize themselves with the basics of school education for UK students. The following provides an overview of the British education system. (Please note, the below information is relevant to the general UK education system, particularly England and Wales-Scotland and Northern Ireland’s respective systems use different terminology and have alternate stages/time frames).  

School Education UK: An Overview

  • Many families choose to come to Great Britain solely to give their child the opportunity to study in UK schools at the primary, secondary and university level.
  • In general, children of immigrants and non-residents have the right to a school education in UK institutions at all levels.
  • Education is mandatory for children from the age of 5-18 in the British education system, which contains 4 basic stages:
  • Primary school (age 5-11)
  • Secondary school (age 11-16)
  • Further education (age 16-18)
  • Higher education (age 18-20+)
  • Those looking to study in UK schools should know that school education in UK institutions is publicly funded at all levels. This means that citizens who attend state-funded schools do so for free from the ages of 5-18 throughout primary and secondary school.
  • Additionally, tuition rates at UK universities and colleges are extremely low for British students when compared with what international (particularly non-EU students) must pay.
  • Confusingly, the “public” education system in the U.K. is actually the opposite of what many around the world would consider public education. What most think of as “public schools”- schools that are funded by the state and are therefore free and open to everyone-are known as “private schools” throughout the UK. In contrast, “public schools” in the U.K. cost money to attend and have selective enrollments. Another key difference between private and public schools in the UK is that public schools can theoretically take in students from anywhere in the UK (and even the world) whereas children who go to private educational institutions must go to schools located within their respective home district.  
  • The UK private (state) school system is well funded and considered high in quality relative to most countries around the world.
  • When it comes to public education, the UK is famous for having some of the best primary and secondary schools in the world. At a cost of several hundred thousand pounds, English public schools educate the sons and daughters of the British Royal Family, prime ministers, and other elite members of society. With their world-class facilities, rigorous academic standards, and high university admission rates at the UK’s top universities, historic schools like Eton, Westminster and Harrow remain exclusive and highly coveted by Brits and foreigners alike.
  • After completing secondary school at either a public or private institution, a student may choose to go straight into the workforce or continue his or her education by going on to university, either in the UK or abroad.
  • Most British students choose to finish their post-secondary education in the UK due to the fact that the UK has some of the top universities in the world. Admission to prestigious UK universities like Oxford and Cambridge is based largely on the results of one’s GCSEs and/or A-levels; a series of examinations in various academic subjects which British students sit for at the end of secondary school.
  • Graduates of UK universities will often choose to sit for exams in the subject they chose to major in. These exams can affect a student’s job placement and salary-post grad. 

Primary Education in the UK

  • In general, all students, regardless of their immigration status, have the right to study in UK primary schools once they have arrived in the UK.
  • Primary school in the UK is the equivalent to middle school or grade school elsewhere around the world.
  • Primary education in the UK begins at around age 4-5 and goes until around age 11.
  • Primary school is preceded by pre-school and followed by secondary school.
  • Primary education in the UK is divided into 5 stages, or years, known as “forms” in the UK (and grades in the US/elsewhere), with each form corresponding with a name and a general age range. The primary school forms are:
  • Infants (age 5-6)
  • Top infants (age 6-7)
  • Junior 1 (age 7-8)
  • Junior 2 (age 8-9)
  • Junior 3 (age 9-10)
  • Junior 4 (age 10-11)
  • For example, a child in Junior 1 form (the US equivalent to First Grade) would be around 7-8 years old and be in his second year of primary school.

Secondary School UK

  • In general, all students, regardless of their immigration status, have the right to study in UK secondary schools once they have arrived in the UK.
  • Secondary school for UK students begins around age 12 and lasts until age 18.
  • Like primary education in the UK, secondary school is divided into stages, or years, known as “forms,” with each form corresponding with a name and a general age range. The level forms for secondary school in UK countries are:
  • First form (age 11-12)
  • Second form (age 12-13)
  • Third form (age 13-14)
  • Fourth form (age 14-15)
  • Fifth form (age 15-16)
  • Lower Sixth (age 16-17)
  • Upper Sixth (age 17-18)
  • For example, a child in fourth form (the US equivalent to 9th grade or Freshman year of high school) would be around 14-15 years old and be in his tenth year of secondary school UK
  • One of the main differences between the US and British education system is that secondary school UK students must sit for “General Certificate of Secondary Education Exams,“ known as GCSEs, which are mandatory even for those not attending university.
  • At minimum, students must take GCSEs in each of the core subjects (Maths, English, Science). However, GCSEs are offered in multiple subjects and most students sit for 9.
  • In addition to the basic GCSEs, students who are looking to go on to top tier universities will likely sit for “A-levels,”-exams in even more specified subjects that students begin studying for two years prior to taking them, finishing around age 17-18.
  • GCSEs are graded on a numerical scale of 1-9 (9 being the top score); A levels on a letter scale of U-A (A being the best)
  • Please note, while you are technically not required by law to take your GCSEs, doing so is required for university admission in UK schools, and many jobs will require applicants to supply GSCE results, even if they didn’t go to university.
  • Students who decide not to study in UK universities have the option of going into vocational training.

University Admission in UK

  • Those looking to study in UK universities learn quickly that university admission in UK schools is a competitive process. Admissions are grounded in the GCSE state exams and A-levels, which the majority of students sit for in their final years of primary school.
  • Children seeking university admission in UK countries should keep in mind that the cost of tuition in British universities for UK citizens/residents is much less expensive when compared to what non-UK students must pay. For example, the cost of tuition at The University of St. Andrews in Scotland for Scottish citizens/residents is £1820 in comparison to £25,100 for international students (non-Scottish UK students pay £9,250).
  • Most British universities offer bachelor’s degrees in 3 years (this is in contrast to the American system, in which students normally takes 4 years to graduate with a degree.
  • At the end of their final year at university, students will sit for exams in whatever subjects they are taking or majoring in. 

If you are thinking of relocating to Great Britain and you have a child looking to study in UK schools or universities, please contact Guide Consultants directly to learn about the British education system.

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