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A Guide to Education & International Schools in the UK

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  • Jan-Peter van Tijk

    I wish I'd found InterNations sooner: It would have made my first few month as an expat in London much less overwhelming.

If you are moving your family abroad, you will want to know about the best schools and higher education. As your children’s needs and wellbeing come first, undoubtedly, one of your main worries will be to find out  all the details about the education system in the UK. For instance, what is the quality of private schools versus state schools? What options will you have in terms of internationals schools? How much do they cost? What about universities? Which are the best ones and what are the fees like? Read on to find the answer to these questions and all the information you need about the UK education system.

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The Education System in the UK

Schooling in the UK is mandatory between the ages of five and 18. Before that, parents have the option of placing their children in early childhood development at institutions or through in-home assistance. Once students enter the education system, parents have a variety of types of schools (private or state-funded, religious or not, international, more or less rigorous, special needs, etc.). Once students graduate from the elementary and secondary school systems, they are ready to continue with higher education. For those that want to follow this path, the UK offers some of the best schools in the world.

What are the School Systems like in Terms of Grading?

The grading system in the UK for secondary education is the alphabetical grading system (i.e. A to U), similar to the one followed by the US. In this context, A means excellent/outstanding; B is above average; C means average; D and E is below average; and F and anything below that refers to fail.

For higher education, a numerical system is followed, and is applied to both undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

  • 1st class (a first class honours) – 70% or higher, is considered a Distinction
  • 2:1 (a second class honours upper division) – 60%-69% is a Merit
  • 2:2 (a second class honours lower division) – 50%-59% is a Pass
  • 3rd – 40%-49%
  • Below 40% represents a Fail

School Year in the UK

You will probably want to coordinate holidays and visits that coincide with the holidays of your loved ones back at your home country, so you are probably wondering what is the school year like in the UK? It runs from September to July and it is 39 weeks long.

For most areas in the country, the year is divided into six terms (there are some exceptions of schools that follow three terms per year):

  • September to October
  • October to December
  • January to February
  • February to March
  • April to May
  • June to July

The local authority, the governing body of a school, or the school itself (in the case of independent schools) decide on the specific dates for the school terms and holidays.

Main UK School Holidays

  • Christmas – two weeks
  • Spring – two weeks
  • Summer – six weeks

There are also one-week holidays:

  • End of October
  • Mid-February
  • End of May

School Hours in the UK

In the UK,  schools must open for at least 380 sessions (190 days) during a school year. The school hours are determined by each school but on average is about 5-6 hours per day. Normally, school starts at around 8:00- 9:00, and fishes at 15:00-16:00, but every school has different schedules.

Main Differences Between  Public and Private Schools in the UK

If you have not yet made your mind up about what route to take, you are probably asking wondering exactly what are the differences between public and private schools in the UK.

A private school refers to any school that is not funded by the state, instead, it is mostly financed via school fees paid by parents.

They cater for any age group and fees differ greatly. In the UK, all independent schools are considered private schools, and these terms are often used interchangeably. However, independent schools are technically all overseen by a board of governors or trustees, whereas other private schools may be run by their owner with no governing body.

A very interesting yet confusing fact about the UK school system is that the oldest, most traditional and expensive boarding secondary schools are also called “public schools”. For instance, Eton, the preferred school for the Royals, is an independent boys’ boarding school, which following the public-school tradition, operates a full boarding facility.

So, when trying to figure out the differences between state education and private education in the UK, it is best to not refer to the former as “public” as it may create confusion.

Types of UK State Schools

The state schools in the UK can be divided into the following categories:

  • Community schools: they are not influenced by business or religious groups and follow the national curriculum.
  • Foundation schools and voluntary schools: funded by the local authority but have a degree of freedom to change the way they operate (they are sometimes supported by representatives from religious groups).
  • Academies and free schools: run by not-for-profit academy trusts and are independent from the local authority (they have more freedom to decide on how to operate and are allowed to follow a different curriculum).
  • Grammar schools: they can be run by the local authority, a foundation body or an academy trust, and select their pupils based on academic ability. Students have to take a test in order to get in.

Are Private Schools Better than State Schools in the UK?

Alternatively, private schools (also known in the UK as ‘independent schools’), charge a fee rather than being funded by the government. Nonetheless, they must be registered with the government and submit to regular inspections. In these schools, students do not have to follow the national curriculum.

The magic question is, are they better than state schools? There is a lot of debate around this topic, but to give you an idea, people who argue in favor of private schools claim that they tend to have better facilities, better exam results, ample range of extra-curricular activities, and even more highly-committed teachers. Nevertheless, this is all debatable as money can’t always guarantee quality. For instance, life skills that are acquired by interacting on daily basis with people of very diverse backgrounds is something that money can’t buy. Moreover, many times the quality of teaching is down to the teacher and not the school, and in the UK, there are excellent teachers in both systems.

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, 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 Coram Family and Childcare.

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

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

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.

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.

Talk to other international parents with young children in UK

Talk to other international parents with young children in UK

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.

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.

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

London is home to the some of the best international schools in the UK, but there are plenty of other alternatives. In this section, we give insight on international schools, and  discuss who would benefit from attending one, and share some of the best French, British, and American international schools in the UK.

Bear in mind, that international schools provide similar standards of schooling around the world, making for an easy transition between schools. This a good option for foreigners moving to the UK. London A good database can be found at the international school search.

Advantages of International Schools For Expat Children

The main advantage of international schools is that they offer the International Baccalaureate, which is recognized in many schools worldwide. These standardized programs comply with state education guidelines for each country but have a global focus.

A second advantage is that the high number of international students at these schools means that staff understand the needs of foreign students. In the UK, most international schools are concentrated in and around London. The average cost for tuition at an international school in the UK is around 20,000 GBP (23,500 USD) a year.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program lasts two years and is aimed at students ages 16-19, in their final years of secondary school. The program’s qualification system is accepted in many universities around the world.

For expat children, 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 & Tuition Fees

Below, you can find a list of different international schools suiting children from different countries. The average cost for tuition at an international school in the UK is around 20,000 GBP (23,500 USD) a year. But, to give you an idea of range of international school tuition and their corresponding fees, here are some examples:

  • SABIS in Bath charges between 15,000 and 26,700 GBP per year
  • Cambridge International School charges 3,300 to 3,920 GBP per month
  • International School of London costs between 16,750 and 22,500 GBP per year
  • Dwight School of London is between 2,750 and 5,670 GBP per year

International Schools for Different Nationalities

If you are interested in a country-specific school, the UK has plenty on offer. You will be able to find German, French, Spanish, and Japanese International Schools, etc.

  • The American School in London
  • Hockerill Anglo-European College
  • TASIS: The American School in England
  • Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle
  • Deutsche Schule London
  • Instituto Español “Vicente Cañada Blanch”
  • De Zeven Eiken
  • De Regenboog School
  • The Japanese School in London
  • Svenska Skolan London
  • Den Norske Skolen i London

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.

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

Higher education in the UK is expensive, but prices are relatively standard across the country. 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. For 2020 and 2021, this maximum is 9,250 GBP (11, 500 USD)

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 around 53,000 GBP (65,000 USD) 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. (8,000 and 16,000 USD)


For example, at Cambridge, for a full-time course, it costs from around 20,000 GBP (25,000 USD) up to around 80,000 GBP (98,500 USD).

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

Type of degree Cost (GBP)     –     USD Classroom 14,620.                   18,000 Laboratory 16,967.                   21,000 Clinical 22,732                    28,000 MBA 19,924                    24,500

Rights for EU Students Post-Brexit

Students’ right to live in the UK will remain the same 31 December 2020.

All citizens of the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland who are living in the UK before 31 December 2020 should apply to the European Union Settlement Scheme (EUSS).

The EU Settlement Scheme means citizens from the aforementioned locations will be able to stay and continue to access benefits and services broadly on the same terms prior to Brexit.

Should expats decide to stay in the UK your deadline to apply to the European Unio Settlement Scheme is 30 June 2021. Check how to Continue living in the UK.

Course Fees and Funding to study in the UK for EU Students Post-Brexit

Foreign students will have access student finance if their course starts in the 2020 to 2021 academic year or before. This will be available for the duration of your course, if you meet the residency requirements.

If you’re studying in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Please confirm  if you are eligible for financial support with the corresponding student funding body.

Undergraduate Degrees in the UK

Expats who do not have any 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).

In this context, Scottish universities are an 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.

Graduate Degrees in the UK

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 postgraduate 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) 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 are a good alternative to traditional higher education in the UK and may be of particular interest to those currently working or raising a family.

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 undergraduate 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

In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020, these were the top five UK universties:

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

For information on Scholarships for Overseas Students visit the UK Government Site.

Ask other international parents already living in UK

Join one of our many local parent groups and get advice on which schools to choose.

Language Schools

f you are thinking of relocating to the UK to attend a language school, you will have over 400 schools and centers to choose from. The key is to know what type of school you are looking for, whether it is test preparation (IELTS, Cambridge or TOEFL) or more informal classes (summer camps for children and teens, teacher training, etc).

One of the most important things to consider when you choose your language school is its accreditation in order to guarantee quality classes. The process to become accredited is rigorous and takes into consideration different variables, among them:

  • Course Design
  • Premises and Facilities
  • Staff Management
  • Learning Resources
  • Staff Profile

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.

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

What are the Fees for Language Schools?

Language school fees will vary from school to school but you can expect them to start at around 550 GBP (700 USD) for standard full-time classes (15-hour week in a 10-week program) while part-time courses (four hours a week in a 12-week program) will run around 270 GBP (350 USD). Intensive courses (30 hours per week) will start at around 1,200 GBP (1,500 USD). Of course, you’ll also have to consider materials, room and board, commuting, and general spending costs.

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