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Education in the UK

Regional Differences and Admissions

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.

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The school system in the non-English parts of the UK – Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – is in many respects very similar to that described on the previous pages. However, owing to the process of decentralization in the UK, the various regions have greater autonomy with regard to their educational policies. We will outline the most important differences in this part of our guide to education in the UK.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, a segregated school system is, to all intents and purposes, still in place. “Maintained schools” are affiliated with the Catholic Church, while “controlled schools” have close ties to Northern Irish Protestantism. Non-partisan religious studies have thus become a compulsory subject in Northern Ireland’s schools, right up to the GCSE exams.

Today, schools in Northern Ireland promote the Irish language as well. While only two of them teach mostly in Irish Gaelic, many other schools have special units attached to them where students can acquire an immersion education in Gaelic.

Moreover, the school system is Northern Ireland is more selective than in England. There are more traditional, competitive grammar schools than in other regions of the UK. On average, Northern Irish students seem to perform better in A-level exams, too.

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Celtic language instruction is also very important in Wales. Welsh is a compulsory subject in primary and secondary education, both for native speakers and learners. However, in contrast to the selective system in Northern Ireland and the hype surrounding school rankings in England, Wales has given up on school league tables altogether. There are no official school rankings anymore, though journalists have published similar comparisons in the last few years. The decision to abolish league tables in 2001 has caused considerable controversy ever since.

Furthermore, the Welsh Assembly introduced an alternative to GCSE exams and A-levels in 2003 – the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification (WBQ). However, this pilot project was also a rather controversial decision. There have been hot disputes whether or not the qualification is recognized or considered equivalent to British A-levels by universities outside Wales.


The biggest differences to the English model abound in Scotland’s schools. Children start attending school about a year earlier than anywhere else in the UK, between age 4 ½ and 5 ½. Their primary education lasts for a full seven years. After that, kids go on to secondary school for another four to six years.

Although secondary schools in Scotland may have such different names as “high school”, “academy”, “grammar school”, or even “college”, they are all comprehensive, non-selective state schools. Instead of GCSE exams, Scottish secondary students take the so-called National 4 and 5 qualifications. The local AS and A-level equivalents are called Higher Grades and Advanced Highers, respectively.

Schools in Scotland do not have to follow the National Curriculum. The Government of Scotland sets its own curriculum as a framework for local authorities and school administrations. Every school must include the following eight areas at every age and stage: languages, math, health and well-being, social studies, religious and moral education, science, and technology. However, individual schools have certain freedoms when it comes to creating their own curriculum.

Applications and Admissions

No matter where in the UK you are, the admission process to state schools works similarly in various places. At first, you need to find out which schools are in the area(s) where you are planning to live.

After collecting general information on these schools, you should pay special attention to details like public transport connections, ESL (English as a Second Language) support and their admission criteria. For instance, they may prefer local students from the same neighborhood, families belonging to a particular faith, or kids with specific grades and test results.

Once you have chosen a few state schools, you may apply for a place through your Local Council. List at least three potential schools in order of preference. If you want to send your kid to a private school, though, contact the school directly.

For primary schools in England, the deadline is January 15. For secondary schools, it’s October 31. Thus you may have to apply nearly one year in advance – which may be difficult for expat parents. In that case, you may have to talk to the person in charge at your Local Council, or speak to the staff at various schools if they are willing to make an exception. International schools are obviously better prepared for students arriving in the middle of the academic year. In general, it will help a lot if you bring along academic records and transcripts from back home, together with an official English translation.

Updated on: December 06, 2018
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