The UK Education System | A Guide to British Schools

Welcome to the ultimate guide on the UK education system.

Enough trudging multiple sites for all the information you need. Whether you are creating a piece of coursework, researching the steps through the system, or simply intrigued. You will find what you need in this post.

So let's get cracking... there is a lot to cover...

How does the UK education system work?

Across the UK and British schools around the world, there are 5 stages of education.

  • Early Years
  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Further Education (FE)
  • Higher Education (HE)

It is a legal requirement for children to attend both primary and secondary education which runs from the age of 5 through to 16 years old.

Each of these stages represents a different phase in a child's education, relating to both their age and qualifications achieved through assessments.

The National Curriculum

In the UK, schools are required to teach a curriculum that is created by the government. This is called the National Curriculum and it sets out what should be taught in each year group. The core subjects of the National Curriculum are English, Maths, and Science. In addition to this, schools must offer a broad and balanced curriculum that includes technology, humanities, languages, arts, and physical education.

Schools are also required to provide Religious Education (RE) but parents have the right to request that their child is exempt from this if they wish.

How are UK students assessed at school?

Throughout primary and secondary education, students will be continuously assessed on their progress. This will be done through a combination of exams and coursework, with each stage becoming increasingly exam-based.

In the early years and primary school, assessments are usually informal and based on observations made by teachers with the exception coming in SATs exams in years 2 and 6. From around the age of 11, students will start to sit formal exams as they move into secondary education. These exams are called GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and will be taken in a variety of subjects chosen by the student but bound by what the school offers.

GCSEs are generally considered the stage at which students start to consider what career path they're interested in. As such, they're generally the first level at which students start to look for GCSE tutors.

Key Stages, Ages, Year Groups, and Key Assessments

Primary, secondary, and further education is split into "key stages" to better track student achievements and provide a linear pathway for all students:

Key Stage 1:

  • 5 to 7 years old
  • Years 1 & 2
  • Phonics test in Year 1
  • KS1 SATs in Year 2

Key Stage 2:

  • 7 to 11 years old
  • Years 3 to 6
  • KS2 Multiplication Tables Check
  • (MTC) in Year 4
  • 11+ (select UK areas*) in Year 5
  • KS2 SATs in Year 6

Key Stage 3:

  • 11 to 14 years old
  • Years 7 to 9
  • No notable assessments

Key Stage 4:

  • 11 to 14 years old
  • Years 10 & 11
  • GCSEs in Year 11

Key Stage 5:

  • 14 to 16 years old
  • Years 12 & 13
  • AS Levels in Year 12
  • A-Levels / NVQs/ BTECs/ Apprenticeships/ IB in Year 13

Types of UK School

As it is required by law that all children between the ages of 5 and 16 must be within the education system, in England all children are entitled to a free place at a state school.

State schools receive funding through their local authority or directly from the government. The most common types of state schools are:

  • Community schools
  • Foundation schools
  • Academies
  • Grammar schools
  • Special schools

There are also private schools and boarding schools that require payment of fees before a child is enrolled.

Early Years Education

The early years of a child's life are the most crucial in terms of their development. This is why the UK government has made it a priority to improve standards in the early years of education. All children in England between the ages of 3 and 4 are entitled to 15 hours per week of free early education or childcare. This can either be at a nursery, preschool or with a childminder.

The early years of education are important for laying the foundations for a child's future success in life. Studies have shown that children who attend high-quality early years provisions make better progress in their later schooling. They are also more likely to achieve good GCSE results and go on to further and higher education.

Primary School Education

Primary school education begins in the UK at the age of 5 and continues to the end of year 6 at the age of 11. It consists of key stages 1 and 2.

Primary schools have the option to split into infant and junior sections. These are usually separate schools that operate from the same site.

What are the goals of primary education?

The major goals for primary education are to achieve basic literacy and numeracy skills across all pupils, as well as to establish basic foundations in science, mathematics, and other core subjects.

What years are covered in primary school?

The year groups covered in primary education are:


  • Reception (Ages 4 to 5)
  • Year 1 (Ages 5 to 6)
  • Year 2 (Ages 6 to 7) - This year marks SATs testing for Key Stage 1


  • Year 3 (Ages 7 to 8)
  • Year 4 (Ages 8 to 9)
  • Year 5 (Ages 9 to 10)
  • Year 6 (Ages 10 to 11) - This year marks SATs testing for Key Stage 2

Secondary School Education

Secondary education focuses on the preparation of students for their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams.

Through years 7 to 9, students participate in multiple subjects chosen for them through the UK curriculum, giving them plenty of options to find their interests.

What is the goal of secondary education?

The goal of secondary education is to get students ready for their GCSE exams. These exams are necessary for furthering one's education or entering the workforce.

What years are covered in secondary school?

  • Year 7
  • Year 8
  • Year 9
  • Year 10
  • Year 11

Sherpa offers support to students and parents for finding GCSE Maths tutors and GCSE English tutors, as well as GCSE tuition for all other subjects.


The majority of students move on to A-Levels after their GCSEs. Whilst the difficulty of the content steps up, students generally narrow down their subject choices based on desired career path. Most students choose to study 3-4 A-Levels, focusing on the areas they're looking to work in or based on the degree they'd like to study at university.

Generally, A-Levels cover subjects in a greater level of depth and test in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the subject matter which is in contrast to GCSEs, which are often criticized as being 'fact-memorisation' exams.

Students may need the support of a 1:1 tutor to help them get a strong grip on the subject matter of A-Levels

Students often find it useful to enlist the help of peers or a dedicated 1:1 tutor to help them grasp the subject matter in their A-Level exams. A-Level Maths and Physics are considered to be particularly difficult compared to GCSEs and have the highest rate of failure among all A-Level subjects.

Sherpa offers A-Level Maths tutors and A-Level Physics tutors to support students in the transition and step-up from GCSEs to A-Levels.

Further Education

Further education (FE) is a post-16 educational option in the UK. It can be either academic or vocational and is often taken after GCSEs or A-Levels.

There are many different types of FE courses available, ranging from short evening classes to two-year diploma programmes.

The main goals of FE are to provide students with the skills and knowledge needed to enter the workforce, as well as to prepare them for further study at a higher level.

There are many different types of FE courses available, ranging from short evening classes to two-year diploma programmes. The main goals of FE are to provide students with the skills and knowledge needed to enter the workforce.

Higher Education

There are 3 types of higher education courses that students can participate in:

  • Foundation Diplomas

A Foundation Diploma is a one-year course that is designed to prepare students for university-level study. It covers the same core subjects as an A-Level, but it is less intensive.

  • Undergraduate courses

Undergraduate courses are the most common type of university-level course in the UK. These courses typically last for 3 to 4 years and lead to a Bachelor's degree.

  • Postgraduate courses

Postgraduate courses are designed for students who have already completed an undergraduate degree. These courses can range from 1 year (for a Master's degree) to 3 years (for a PhD). They can also often be taken full-time or part-time to allow students to work for a living in between their studies. Part-time courses usually last at least 1 year longer than full-time courses to cover the same work.

What is a certificate of higher education?

A certificate of higher education is a university-level qualification that can be obtained after completing part of an undergraduate course or by completing a foundation degree. It is awarded after a year of full-time study at university or 2 years of part-time study.

Is a certificate of higher education worth it?

They are only recognised if you are unable to complete your undergraduate course in full and are superseded by a bachelor's qualification but can demonstrate an individual's ability to study at the university level, raise confidence, support a change of career, or enable progression in a current career.

What is the goal of higher education?

The main goals of higher education are to develop critical thinking and research skills, as well as to gain subject-specific knowledge and prepare individuals for the workforce. Many students have the opportunity to contribute academically to the development and progress of their field on an international level.

Factors affecting Education

How does politics influence the UK education system?

The UK education system is heavily influenced by politics. Education policy is set by the government and implemented by local authorities. This means that the type of education a child receives can vary depending on where they live in the UK.

For example, the introduction of grammar schools was a political decision that led to different education systems developing in different parts of the country. This has had a lasting impact on the education system, and some believe it has led to a divide between "academic" and "vocational" schools.

Another example is the recent decision to raise the age at which children are required to stay in education or training. This policy was introduced by the government in an attempt to improve the skills of the workforce and reduce youth unemployment.

However, this policy has been criticised by some, who argue that it will put pressure on an already overstretched education system.

What impact does the economy have on education?

The economy has a big impact on education. When the economy is doing well, there is more money available for education. This means that schools and universities can afford to employ more staff and provide better resources for students.

However, when the economy is struggling, budgets for education are often cut. This can lead to larger class sizes, fewer staff, and fewer resources for students.

Does geographical location affect education?

Geographical location can affect education in two ways. First, it can influence the type of education a child receives. For example, children who live in rural areas are less likely to have access to the same schools and resources as those who live in urban areas.

Second, geographical location can also affect a child's ability to access education. This is because some areas of the country are more difficult to get to than others. For example, children who live in remote areas may have to travel long distances to get to school.

Is individual funding available for education in the UK?

There is a range of individual funding available for education in the UK. This includes government loans and grants, as well as funding from charities and other organisations.

One of the most popular forms of funding for higher education is the Student Loans Company. This is a government-backed organisation that provides loans to students who are studying in the UK. The Student Loans Company also offers a grants programme, which provides funding to students from low-income households to help them pay for the next stage in their academic journey.

How can Sherpa help?

Sherpa allows you to find qualified online tutors for all subjects and levels, ranging from Primary all the way up to University level. If you, or someone you know, is looking for high-quality online tuition, click here to find a tutor or get in touch with our team using the chat in the bottom right to gather some recommendations.

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James Gurnett

15th June

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