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An Overview Of The Uk Primary And Secondary Education System


Professor T.E.A. Beravale provides a valuable insight into the sometimes daunting complexities of the UK education system


AT FIRST GLANCE, the UK education system can seem rather complicated to an outsider, and indeed many UK nationals face similar challenges when trying to find appropriate schooling for their offspring.  Moreover, the system is subject to great change in the wake of fluctuating government policies. Although several options may be available, there is intense competition for admission to the best schools, and the financial implications of one’s choice can be considerable. In this article I will provide an overview of primary and secondary education in this country. The coalition government strongly supports independent academies, and I will explain what these are all about. I will also provide some suggestions as to where additional information can be found.


Broadly speaking, all primary and secondary education providers in the UK are either state or independent schools. State schools are officially known as ‘maintained’ schools because they rely on government funding. In contrast, independent schools – commonly referred to as ‘private’ schools, or more traditionally (and somewhat confusingly) as ‘public’ schools – receive no government funding and must therefore charge for their services. Faith schools, which are linked to formal religious organisations, are mostly – though not always – state-funded. Meanwhile, academies, introduced under the Blair government, are ‘publicly funded independent schools’ established and managed by sponsors from education, business, faith or other voluntary groups. The newest addition, by the coalition government, to the education structure in the UK is Free Schools, which I will also explain.


State schools, as administered by local authorities, are obliged to offer free education to children within their respective catchment areas. However, in order to qualify for state schooling, a child must be deemed a permanent resident of a catchment area – a condition that may not be satisfied by the children of diplomats. Moreover, parents cannot necessarily expect to be able to place their children in schools of their own choosing. For these reasons, whenever state schooling is being considered, the relevant local authority should be approached as soon as possible.

In the state system, children start primary school at the age of five. Primary school lasts for six years, until the age of 11 (years 1-6). Secondary education is from ages 11-16 (years 7-11). Those who want to take A-levels (see below) stay on for two more years, until the age of 18, to complete sixth form (years 12 and 13). As of 2008, 10-year-olds entering secondary school are required to remain at school or in some other form of education – such as an apprenticeship – until the age of 18.

Maintained schools follow the National Curriculum, which is a government-determined set of standardised subjects and tests, designed to ensure that all students are taught the same thing to the same level.  Compulsory core subjects include Mathematics, English and Science. Pupils also select from a wide range of optional subjects in the last years of secondary education (the choice of which will, to an extent, define the options available for further study).

At the end of year 11, all pupils are required to sit General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams in the core subjects as well as their choice subjects. After that, they may choose to take their A-levels, which are subdivided into Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and A2 examination modules during years 12 and 13 respectively. Some state schools now offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma instead of A-levels (see below).  The government has recently announced plans to change the examination system, however it remains to be seen what the changes will be and when they will be implemented.

Grammar schools should also be mentioned, to which admission is decided on the basis of an entrance test, known as the 11+. (It is for this reason that non-selective state schools are often referred to as ‘comprehensives’.) Academically speaking, grammar schools are among the best in the country, but they exist in relatively few counties, as their selective admission procedures have regrettably led to much opposition from national politicians as well as from local authorities.

In addition to academic studies, a wide range of vocational training is offered within the state education system.


For various reasons, often to do with quality control, parents may be inclined to educate their children privately by enrolling them at independent, fee-paying schools. Preparatory, or ‘prep’ schools, are for pupils aged between seven and 11 or 13. (Many of these schools also offer ‘pre-prep’ schooling for children under the age of seven.) Traditionally, prep schools prepare pupils for the Common Entrance Examination, a standardised test sat at the age of either 11 or 13 and used by most senior schools – IE independent secondary schools – as a means of determining admission, in addition to their own entrance criteria.

The best independent schools offer unrivalled quality in education. Class sizes are small, with a low pupil-teacher ratio, and although most schools follow the National Curriculum (with most pupils sitting the same GCSE and A-level exams referred to above), they often extend far beyond it, offering many specialist options in numerous subjects. (Again, a number of independent schools also follow the IB diploma programme – see below.) In addition, they tend to boast outstanding facilities for sport, art, music and so on. Good independent schools aim at providing not only an excellent academic education, but also at developing their pupils’ characters and allowing them to excel wherever they show the inclination and ability.

There are also independent schools that cater to different nationalities, such as the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in London, which is attended by the children of several diplomats.

However, a good education comes at a price. For example, annual fees at Westminster School are £31,350 for boarders and £21,078 for day pupils
(2012-13), and at St Paul’s School are £29,466 for boarders and £19,674 for day pupils (2012-13). Fees
for 2013-14 will be announced over the coming months.

Many independent schools started out as religious foundations and remain so to this day; nevertheless, most of them are open to children of any denomination, although some give preference to members of the faith to which the school is affiliated.


This brings us to our third category: faith schools. About 20 per cent of children attend faith schools. Most of these are run by the Church of England, but some are Roman Catholic, and a smaller number belong to other faiths such as Judaism or Islam. The vast majority are maintained schools operating at the primary level. The exception is provided by a few independent schools, most of them secondary; these include Hasmonean High School (Orthodox Jewish) in North London and Ampleforth College (Catholic) in Yorkshire.

When it comes to admissions, faith schools may give preference to members of their respective religions. This is particularly true of Catholic schools, where having at least one parent who is a communicant member of the Church tends to be a requirement for admission. Anglican schools, on the other hand, are usually willing to admit a substantial proportion of children of other faiths (or of no faith at all). In general, faith schools follow the National Curriculum, but naturally place greater emphasis on religious education than either non-denominational state schools or independent schools with more notional religious affiliations.


The first three academies – The Business Academy Bexley (London), Greig City Academy (Hornsey, London) and Unity City Academy (Middlesbrough) – were established in 2002.  The coalition government actively promotes academies with financial incentives and has introduced legislation that will make it much easier for schools to achieve academy status. As a consequence, there has been a large increase in the number of academies, with 2,724 open in England alone as of March 2013.  This includes a number of state schools, mainly at the secondary level but also some primary schools.

As discussed above, academies are state-funded, privately run schools. They are set up as companies with charitable status. Each academy is controlled by a governing body, the majority of which is appointed by the establishing sponsor – however the principal, a local authority representative and at least one elected parent representative must also sit on the board. Governors have responsibility for the employment of staff, administration of finances and approval of personnel policies and procedures.

All academies specialise in one or more subject areas. (The National Curriculum has now been made more flexible to accommodate the kind of innovation that academies have fostered.) As with all state-funded schools they are required to follow the National Curriculum in the core subjects of English, Maths, Science and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). The overall aim of promoting academies is to provide additional quality and capacity in areas of inadequate educational opportunity and attainment: most academies either replace existing underperforming schools or meet a localised shortage in places, while a smaller number federate with weaker schools to improve the overall quality of service.

Sponsors seeking to set up an academy are expected to establish an endowment fund, capped at a maximum of £2 million, to help cover capital costs. (One exception is that sponsors from the educational sector – in recognition of the fact that they may bring value to an academy through their reputation and expertise but have limited access to charitable resources – are not required to commit any specific sum to the endowment fund.) The Department for Education, meanwhile, undertakes to cover the academy’s running costs on a comparable basis to other schools in the area with similar characteristics. It should, however, be added that several successful comprehensives as well as some grammar schools have also applied for academy status.

5. Free Schools

A variant on Academies, these all-ability state-funded schools are set up by individuals in response to the educational needs of their community. For instance, the West London Free School established by author Toby Young (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), aims to provide academic excellence through a classic education. For example, Latin is a compulsory subject up to age 14, and a house structure and big emphasis on sport foster a competitive atmosphere.  Admission is decided by local councils and the school governing body and applications, as with any maintained school, are made through Common Application Form. Schools are subject to the same inspections by Ofsted as all other schools. 114 Free Schools were approved for opening by 2013.


Britain has recently experienced an increase in the popularity of the IB. The IB diploma is currently offered by 195 schools and colleges in Britain. Of schools offering the IB, two thirds are state-funded; among them more than 60 comprehensives, 20 grammar schools and 50 further education colleges. It is believed that demand will continue to grow as schools take advantage of the coalition government’s advocacy of academies, which enjoy greater freedom over setting their curricula.

The IB diploma is assessed after two years of study. It is much broader than the A-level programme, with students choosing six subjects – three at ‘higher’ and three at ‘standard’ level – including English, maths, a science and a second language. In contrast, A-levels offer a much higher degree of specialisation – a choice between the two systems therefore needs to take into account the interests, development and future aspirations of the pupil.

For the children of diplomats who may not complete their secondary or sixth form education in London, the IB may allow for an easier transfer back to their home country (or to another posting), provided a place can be found at another school that offers the IB diploma.



Schools in the UK are ranked according to their pupils’ examination results. Official School League Tables for state and independent schools can be accessed via these websites: www.telegraph.co.uk/education/leaguetables/9821874/A-level-league-tables-compare-your-schools-performance.html and www.telegraph.co.uk/education/leaguetables/9821842/GCSE-league-tables-compare-your-schools-performance.html.

These tables show the most current GCSE and A-level results for state and independent schools in England, listed in descending order. League tables for state-run primary schools can also be found at the same site; unfortunately, a comprehensive ranking of fee-paying preparatory schools is not available, since a third of them do not enter their pupils for the relevant standardised tests.

School league tables only present part of the picture of a school’s overall achievements. The inspection reports produced by Ofsted, the school regulator, provide another useful source of information and can be accessed online at www.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report. Visits to prospective schools, to meet with teachers and pupils and to inspect facilities, are also strongly recommended.


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