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Education in the UK

A Comprehensive Guide About the Education System and International Schools

Understanding education and international schools in the UK can be complicated. Make sure you know the difference between public and private schools and work out how to succeed in what can still be a competitive entrance system.

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Those bringing children into the UK will want to find the best schools and higher education for their offspring. Remember, the quality of schools varies a lot.

It is very common for parents in the UK to decide where to live based on where the best schools are, and is probably something you would want to consider too. Alternatively, you can usually find a private school in most localities, but these can be expensive.

Higher education isn’t cheap either, costing British students up to £9,250 a year and often more for international students. Find out more in our guide.

The Education System in the UK

Education is compulsory between the ages of five and 16, but you can choose to progress through the school system to “college” or “sixth form” from 16 to 18. Schools days usually start between 8:00 and 9:00 and finish between 15:00 and 16:00, while the school year usually starts in September and ends in July.

Parents who are able to pay for their children’s education might consider sending them to a private school, also referred to as an independent or public school.

What is School Like in the UK?

There are a few main differences between private and public schools in the UK. A lot of private schools offer boarding facilities, have smaller class sizes, and a higher standard of teaching. Admission, usually paid for, may be based on academic merit or simply on the availability of places. Single-sex education in secondary schools is common in the UK.

Most children in the UK, however, attend state schools, which are free-of-charge. It is advisable to do some research before applying as standards vary. However, keep in mind that schools which are not in your “catchment area” do not have to accept your child. All classroom instruction takes place in English. Welsh as a second language is compulsory in schools in Wales until the age of 16, while institutions in Northern Ireland offer classes in Irish-Gaelic.

Documents Required for School Registration

Most overseas children will be able to join a school in the UK unless they’re from a non-EEA country and are a short-term visitor, or they come from a non-EEA country and they have entered the country on a Tier 4 visa. The latter can still attend an independent, fee-paying school, listed as a Tier 4 licensed sponsor.

If children are coming to the UK to study from a non-EEA country, they will need a visa, and it’s advisable to bring the following:

  • Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS)
  • Letter of acceptance from the school
  • Evidence that school fees can be paid
  • Relevant education certificates
  • Insurance documents
  • Address of the destination school
  • Medical information

UK Grading System

In the UK, GCSEs at high school level have been graded from A* to G, however, in summer 2017, the UK started to phase out this old system in favor of a new 9-1 scale. In this new system, 9 represents the highest level you can achieve, while 1 is the lowest. More levels will allow students’ individual strengths and weaknesses to be noticed and will enable schools to give young people the specific teaching they need. It will also help reveal who the ablest students are. The new grade 4, which used to be C, is known as a ‘standard pass’, while the new grade 5 is known as a strong pass. Moreover, instead of A* and A, it’s now 9,8, and 7.

At Key Stage 2 or primary school level, since 2014, children are given a numerical score, between 80 and 120, for each subject. A score of 100 means the student is working at the expected standard for the age group.

UK School System Ages:

  • Key Stage 1: Five to seven years old
  • Key Stage 2: Eight to eleven years old
  • Key Stage 3: 12 to 14 years old
  • Key Stage 4: 15 to 16 years old
  • Key Stage 5: 17 to 18 years old

Expensive Education: Public Schools and Boarding Schools

Ironically enough, the most exclusive independent schools in the UK often started out as public schools. This is why famous institutions like Eton, Winchester, or Harrow are still known under this designation, although they are now private schools run on a fee-paying model. Historically speaking, they used to accept poor male scholars as well, i.e. boys regardless of birthplace, social status, or wealth.

The public school model rose to particular importance in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Victorian boarding school for boys was supposed to produce the social elite. In the UK today, public schools still have an elitist reputation. For example, Prince William, Prince Harry, and the former Prime Minister David Cameron are all alumni of the boarding school at Eton College.

You can find an overview of most independent schools in the UK in UK Independent Schools’ Directory. It lists famous public schools, as well as lesser-known private schools, day schools, and boarding schools.

Expat parents interested in sending their kids to a boarding school should also look into state boarding schools in the UK. There are 38 of them across Great Britain and Northern Ireland. While not as exclusive as independent boarding schools, they are obviously a lot cheaper. A year at a state boarding school costs “only” an average of 10,000 GBP or less.

If you want to send your child to a boarding school in the UK, but don’t live there yourself, check with the Border Agency to see if your child needs a UK visa or residence permit.

Keeping it International

Many expatriates in the UK prefer to send their children to international schools. These schools offer the globally recognized International Baccalaureate (IB) instead of A-level qualifications.

At an international school, you can expect staff to be especially aware of the good and bad that comes with being an expat kid. There are plenty of international schools across the country, with a large concentration in and around London. However, waiting lists can be rather long and fees can be high.

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Daycare and Kindergarten

Children usually start playschool (preschool or kindergarten) at around three years old and they start school (with a first foundation year, also known as “senior kindergarten”) the year they become five.

Moreover, there are other options for early years or preschool education, such as daycare, “nursery schools” (similar to kindergartens), childminders and au-pairs. However, preschool isn’t mandatory.

To find available childcare facilities where you are, plus information on childcare and kindergarten fees, and educational approaches, please get in touch with the Family Information Service of your Local Council. You can access a search function for all FIS contact information in Great Britain and Northern Ireland via the Daycare Trust.

Free Education and Childcare Funding

The Family Information Service in your area will tell you if there are any funded places for early years education available. For example, three-year-old and four-year-old children in England have a legal right to 15 hours of free education per week, 38 weeks per year. In Northern Ireland, they usually get one year of government-funded pre-school education.

Childcare Vouchers

However, it is possible to get financial benefits beyond funded early years education. Your employer may offer childcare vouchers as part of your job benefits. If so, you should calculate carefully if these vouchers are worth more or less than Working Tax Credits.

Tax Credits

You can only claim Working Tax Credits if you don’t get any company vouchers for childcare. Then you may get up to 2,010 GBP a year (for one child) from the UK government. To be entitled to this money, both you and your partner need to work for at least 16 hours a week. To see if you have a right to additional child benefits, check the online benefits adviser.

State Schools: The Popular Choice

State schools in the UK are funded and supervised by their respective local authorities, but most of them have to follow the national curriculum.

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 can also receive money from their local council.

The school year normally runs from around 1 September to 31 July.

For The Little Ones: Primary Education

According to the National Curriculum in England, a child will attend primary school from age five to 11. For children at most schools, a normal school day begins between 8:00 and 9:00 and ends between 15:00 and 16:00.

At primary schools in the UK, children focus on the core subjects of math, science, and literacy. They should also learn about history, geography, technology, art, and music, and they can participate in PE (physical education) and religious education.

In Year 6, at the end of Key Stage 2, all students at primary schools in the UK, have the option to participate in a standardized exam.

Primary and Secondary Schools

There are lots of factors to think about when choosing the best primary (elementary) and secondary schools for your children, such as school costs. In this article, we explain different types of schools, such as grammar and comprehensives, boarding schools, language schools, international schools, the qualifications children can get, and higher education.

Secondary Education

Secondary education (including what they call high school in the UK, sixth form, and “college”) lasts for five to seven years. Students between 12 and 16 years old are legally required to attend a secondary school in the UK. This stage of compulsory education is called “lower secondary”.

Upon completing lower secondary, students may choose to start work or vocational training. Or they can go on to college or sixth form, where 16 to 18-year-olds prepare for university.

Time to Choose: Comprehensive, Grammar and Specialist Schools

The curriculum for any secondary school includes all subjects taught in primary education. Students also have to learn at least one foreign language, take citizenship classes, and attend personal, social and health education.

Moreover, lots of state schools are “specialist schools”. They focus on one or two areas of the curriculum. So, if your children are gifted in math and science, or if they have a special talent for music, it makes sense to choose their secondary school accordingly.

Until 2010, specialist schools received an official designation from the UK government, as well as extra funding to go with their new status. Though this program was phased out several years ago, plenty of secondary schools still focus on selected areas and continue to build upon their previous reputation.

Specialist schools are not to be confused with “special schools”. The latter provide special needs education for children with learning difficulties and other disabilities. If you think that your child requires special needs education, please contact the Independent Parent Special Education Advice Center to make the necessary arrangements.

Basic Qualifications: GCSEs and Diplomas

After three years in secondary school, children are officially assessed by their teachers. Students then need to choose their subjects for the nationwide GCSE exams. GCSEs are mandatory examinations at the end of Year 11, i.e. the students’ fifth year in secondary school.

Students usually have to take tests in English, math, and science and they have to choose classes from the fields of arts, humanities, modern languages, technology, and vocational studies as well.

The new National Diploma focuses on practical training, work experience, and a vocational approach rather than academic studies. It can be taken in around 20 different subjects, such as engineering, IT, or creative and media.

On the Road to University: A-level Exams

Most British students usually opt for A-levels rather than a diploma. A-level exams are the main admission requirement for an undergraduate degree at universities in the UK.

Students prepare for their A-levels during Years 12 and 13 in school, the upper secondary stage. For historical reasons and when 16-year-olds have the option to stay at their secondary school for their A-levels, these two years of education are called “sixth form”, or “lower sixth” and “upper sixth”, in many places.

In Year 12, most students study four subjects of their choice. One of them is completed at the end of that year as an AS level and dropped afterward. The other three subjects lead up to three full A-levels after Year 13. However, some students may choose to complete four A-levels, despite the extra workload.

Assessment for grading a student’s A-levels is based on coursework, written exams, and – in some cases, e.g. art – their practical skills. The selection and number of A-level courses may already influence a student’s success in applying for university. But no matter how impressed the admission office is with a candidate’s academic skills, he or she will only get a “conditional offer” for a place in a degree course, before they receive their final exam results.

International Schools

In this section, we give you a better idea of what an international school is, who would benefit from attending one and even share some of the best French, British, and American international schools in the UK.

Reducing Culture Shock

For expat kids, independent schools in the UK can be a great alternative to state schools. If a family relocates during the academic year, they may not be able to meet the deadline for applying to the local school of their choice. Moreover, even if they do obtain a place at a state school in their catchment area, the teaching staff may not always know how best to deal with children suffering from culture shock and the language barrier.

International schools, which frequently address the specific needs of expat children, also belong to the category of independent schools in the UK. They are not required to follow the National Curriculum set by the Department of Education and offer different diplomas as well, especially the IGCSE and the International Baccalaureate. In addition to truly international schools, with their international curriculum and certificates, there are several third-country schools in the UK too. They normally cater to students of particular nationalities, who may return to their home country soon.

Schools in the UK for International Students

Below, you can find a list of different international schools suiting children from different countries, however, to give you an idea of international school tuition fees, here are some examples:

International schools for different nationalities

Higher Education

There are many places to study in the country, so read on to find out some of the best universities for international students in the UK, and more about the different degrees you can opt for. And if you’re looking to go to law or medical school, we have good news – you won’t need a bachelor’s degree before applying in the UK.

Higher education in the UK is expensive, however, the prices are fairly standard across the country. It’s, therefore, better to consider league tables over cost when applying.

How Much Does it Cost to Study in the UK for International Students?

Undergraduate students who qualify for ‘Home fee status’, i.e. UK and EU citizens, will not pay tuition fees higher than the amount capped by the government. In 2019, this maximum is 9,250 GBP. For 2019, including the fall intake, and for the duration of their course, students from EU countries will continue to pay the usual Home rate, regardless of Brexit.

Fees for students from countries outside the EU, including those from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, vary depending on the course.

Times Higher Education reported that on average, international university students pay 12,000 GBP per year for their undergraduate degree. However, at Cambridge, it costs 52,638 GBP a year to study Medicine or Veterinary Medicine.

Overseas students might also have to pay College fees if they are going to universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge. College fees can amount to between 6,500 and 13,000 GBP.


For example, at Cambridge, for a full-time course, it costs from around 20,000 GBP up to around 80,000 GBP.

Times Higher Education’s survey in 2019 reported the following average course fees for masters degrees:

Type of degree Cost (GBP)
Classroom 14,620
Laboratory 16,967
Clinical 22,732
MBA 19,924

From the Beginning: Undergraduate Degrees

Someone with no knowledge of their chosen field of study, or with a related degree not recognized by higher education in the UK, should go for an undergraduate course. These programs are usually taught as a combination of lectures, seminars, and small tutorial classes in several modules with varying topical cores. They mostly take three years to complete and lead up to a bachelor’s degree (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Education, or Bachelor of Engineering).

Scottish universities, however, represent a certain exception to higher education in the UK. Unlike all other universities in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, they award bachelor’s degrees with full honors only after four years.

For the More Experienced: Graduate Degrees

If you already have an undergraduate degree, either from a university in the UK, or an accredited institution abroad, you can continue your studies in the same or a closely-related field with a postgrad master’s degree. These programs may take one year of additional study or two years of research.

Mature students (i.e. students over the age of 23, many of whom already have professional experience) might also be interested in vocational degrees, such as the Certificate of Higher Education, the Diploma of Higher Education, or the Higher National Diploma. Furthermore, part-time courses (obtaining a bachelor’s degree takes five years or more), as well as long-distance degrees from the Open University, are also an option. They should be of particular interest to those currently working or raising a family, and they are a genuine alternative to traditional higher education in the UK.

A master’s degree is the requirement for entry into a PhD course. In contrast to the US, higher education in the UK doesn’t require an undergrad degree if you want to go to med school or become a lawyer. All students of law and medicine can enter such courses immediately after completing their secondary education.

The Best Universities for International Students in the UK

The Guardian Newspaper has created a list for 2019 of the top universities in the UK based on factors, such as students’ satisfaction with feedback, the teaching they received, their course, and the money spent on them. Here’s the top 10:

  • Cambridge
  • Oxford
  • St Andrews
  • Loughborough
  • Durham
  • Bath
  • Imperial College, London
  • Warwick
  • Lancaster
  • Leeds

In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2018, these were the ten top-performing places in the UK:

  • Oxford
  • Cambridge
  • Imperial College, London
  • UCL
  • London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Edinburgh
  • King’s College London
  • Manchester
  • Warwick
  • Durham

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Language Schools

There’s a clear and important purpose of language schools in the UK – in addition to the officially-recognized minority languages across the UK, there are plenty of foreign languages used in the United Kingdom. While more than 90% of residents use English as their main language in everyday life, nearly 8% – or four million people – don’t.

However, most have English as their second language. In the 2011 census, only 0.3% of the populace had very basic to non-existent English skills.

Apart from English

You can also map foreign communities across London, and the entire UK, by language statistics. It is scarcely surprising that some boroughs of London have a high quota of people who don’t consider English their main language. In Newham, for instance, almost 50% mostly use a language other than English on a daily basis.

Moreover, in the wealthy London neighborhood of Kensington and Chelsea, which attracts diplomats and business people from abroad, French, Spanish, and Italian are common. In the city of Leicester, an important economic center in the East Midlands, 13% of residents speak chiefly Gujarati, which reflects the number of South Asian immigrants in the area.

While South Asian languages, such as Punjabi and Bengali feature high on the list of immigrant languages in the UK, they lag behind the second most common language­­ – that’s actually Polish, with more than half a million native speakers. Between January and March 2016, Polish migration to the UK hit an all-time high, and the number of Polish-British citizens rose in the same period.

A Monolingual Country?

Outside the strongholds of Celtic languages, expat circles, and immigrant communities, bilingualism or multilingualism is not very common in the UK. Since the economy of the UK has a fairly large domestic market and English is of global importance, people have fewer incentives to learn a foreign language for economic or professional reasons.

In 2004, foreign language studies were declared optional for GCSE exams, meaning that language classes are only mandatory for three years in English state schools. This decision caused some controversy. A 2013 survey across 16 EU countries then found an only basic knowledge of foreign languages among participants from the UK. Therefore, modern languages are now compulsory for Key Stage 3 students (from 11 – 14 years) and strongly encouraged as a GCSE subject. French, German, and Spanish are the most popular subjects in this field.

Foreign Language Classes and EFL

If you would like to learn a new language while living in the UK, there are plenty of resources for adult education. Community centers run by your Local Council often offer affordable evening classes among their leisure activities.

If you feel more confident about studying on your own, the online courses of Learn Direct or the Open University could be a better fit. You can even enroll as a mature student at regular universities in the UK.

You have similar opportunities to improve your English language proficiency. The Learn Direct program and the BBC Skillswise course are mostly geared towards people who’d like to improve their knowledge of standard written English.  For academic purposes, high-powered careers and executive jobs for foreigners in the UK, such literacy offers are not sufficient.

However, the Cambridge English Language Assessment Tests can help you acquire widely recognized certificates for business English, legal English, and financial English. They also have examinations for non-native speakers who need to prove their English skills to get access to higher education in the UK. Unfortunately, you are expected to prepare for these tests in self-directed study.

If you’d like to have a classroom setting or teacher to support you, English in Britain is a comprehensive database. It lists plenty of schools and courses for EFL (English as a Foreign Language) across the UK.

And the British Council has shared a list of 500 accredited English language schools where you can learn English.

Language school fees will vary greatly, but to give you an idea, the Victoria School of English offers an intensive English course of 20 hours per week from 185 to 315 GBP per week depending on the number of weeks – the more weeks you register for, the cheaper the weekly fee. There also schools that offer courses of 15 hours a week for around 80 GBP, so shop around for the class that suits your needs.

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Updated on: February 05, 2019

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