The British School System Explained
If you’re thinking of moving to Britain with your children, you’ll want to get an understanding of how the British school system works.
We’ve covered everything you need to know, including the main differences between British and American schools, how British grades work, and the differences between public and private schools.
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The British school system compared to the US
While there are many similarities between the British and American school systems, there are a number of fundamental differences that set them apart.
For starters, in the UK children aged four (sometimes even three) are expected to attend preschool (known as nursery in the UK), though it isn’t mandatory. They’ll start learning the fundamental building blocks of their future education with the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework.
EYFS is play-based learning, with a focus on preparing children for the school structure to come. It helps children develop socially and academically. Here’s a breakdown of EYFS from the UK government website:
- Communication and language
- Physical development
- Personal, social and emotional development
- Understanding the world
- Expressive arts and design
This differs from the US preschool/kindergarten system, which isn’t actually compulsory for children until they reach the age of six.
Once you get past the EYFS framework, Key Stages become the backbone of British education. They are broken down according to the following criteria:
Key Stage 1 – Foundation year and Years 1 to 2 – for pupils aged between 5 and 7 years old
Key Stage 2 – Years 3 to 6 – for pupils aged between 8 and 11 years old
Key Stage 3 – Years 7 to 9 – for pupils aged between 12 and 14 years old,
Key Stage 4 – Years 10 to 11 – for pupils aged between 15 and 16 years old, and
Key Stage 5 – Years 12 to 13 – for pupils aged between 17 and 18 years old.
Unlike in the US, school grades (known as ‘years’) are broken up into only primary school and secondary school. Primary schools are for children aged 5 – 11, with students starting in reception (or, Year R). This is the UK equivalent of kindergarten – after reception, children will enter Year 1, and so on until they reach Year 6 (the end of primary school).
Primary school children complete their SATs (Standard Assessment Tests), with examinations in Year 2 and Year 6.
Beginning at Year 7and ending in Year 11, secondary school prepares students for further education beyond sixteen years of age. For many students however, secondary school is the last stage of education before they take up some sort of apprenticeship or traineeship, or working for 20 hours per week alongside part-time education or training.
The bulk of secondary school for students gears them towards completing their GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education).
Sixth Form and College
When secondary school finishes, many students choose to either continue into sixth form, where they will start their A levels (GCE Advanced Level). Typically, students will pick three to four subjects.
More often than not, sixth form students stay at the school where they learned their GCSEs. Another option is college, which is usually separate from secondary schools. Here, students pick from a wide variety of subjects that might not be available in sixth form, such as film studies.
Thankfully, the university system in the UK is a little easier to understand for US citizens. Like in the US, access to various universities is determined by what grades a student finishes with.
Certain well-known universities, such as Cambridge and Oxford, traditionally require only the highest level of academic achievement. These are the outliers however – access to universities in the UK is widespread and these days, many students enrol in universities across the whole country.
A Levels results day is when millions of students across the UK find out what universities they can go to.
British school system grades
The UK’s school years are broken up according to age, with each age bracket sticking to the appropriate Key Stage framework.
Here’s a handy table breaking down the various grades in the UK school system:
|Grade (year)||Age bracket||Key Stage (KS)||US equivalent|
|Year 1||5–6||KS1||Kindergarten (Elementary School)|
|Year 2||6–7||KS1||1st Grade (Elementary School)|
|Year 3||7–8||KS2||2nd Grade|
|Year 4||8–9||KS2||3rd Grade|
|Year 5||9–10||KS2||4th Grade|
|Year 6||10–11||KS2||5th Grade|
|Year 7||11–12||KS3||6th Grade – Middle School|
|Year 8||12–13||KS3||7th Grade|
|Year 9||13–14||KS3||8th Grade|
|Year 10||14–15||KS4||9th Grade (Freshman) – High School|
|Year 11||15–16||KS4||10th Grade (Sophomore)|
|Year 12 (Sixth Form)||16–17||KS5||11th Grade (Junior Year)|
|Year 13 (Sixth Form)||17–18||KS5||12th Grade (Senior Year)|
How are British schools funded?
State schools (‘public schools’ in the US) in the UK are funded in two different ways, revenue funding and capital funding. Revenue funding is the main income for a school and it comes from the government. It covers running costs such as salaries and equipment.
Capital funding deals with the building and maintenance side of things, with funds allocated to manage repairs or extensions to school property.
Both these types of funding are paid for by British taxpayers, but it’s also common for schools to run fundraisers. Things like school-sponsored raffles are a time-honoured tradition in the UK!
British school qualifications
In the UK, students are expected to learn and prepare for two mandatory assessments – SATs and GCSEs. Past these are A Levels, but this is optional for students who choose not to leave school at the end of Year 11.
SATs are for primary school students, with children taking their main SATs examinations in Year 6. For GCSEs, students start in Year 9 and Year 10, with the main exams coming at the end of Year 11.
Is the British school system good?
The topic of underfunded schools is something you’ll often hear in the news here in the UK. That being said, Britain’s school system remains one of the best regarded in the world.
From an early age, children in the UK get access to a high standard of education. Even in areas with a poor socioeconomic record, the curriculum is robust and makes sure students get a chance to shine.
In fact, the UK frequently ranks in the top five for education systems worldwide.
Public schools and private schools in the UK
The definition of public and private schools is different in the UK to the US – in the UK a public school is the equivalent of a private school in the US. What would be called a public school in the US would be called a state school in the UK.
Confusing right? There's something else to think about too – ‘eleven-plus schools’. The eleven plus is a form of academic selection typically given to students leaving Year 6. It gives students who pass the test access to various ‘grammar schools’, and secondary schools that require certain academic qualifications. These are generally seen as being ‘better’ than ordinary secondary schools.
Meanwhile, public schools typically cost substantial amounts of money to send your child to them, with the average fee being around £35,000 each year. Occasionally, particularly gifted students who would otherwise be unable to afford access, can be given a grant to attend these schools.
The term ‘public school’ dates all the way back to the 18th century. Back then, certain grammar schools started to spread their reputation and influence beyond school walls. This meant allowing the public access to the school if they could pay the entrance fee, hence the term public school.
Some of the most famous public schools include Eton, which was founded in 1440, and Harrow, which first opened in 1572. The former has a reputation for producing politicians, including the current Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson.
State schools are definitely the majority however, with approximately 93% of British schoolchildren attending them.
The best schools in the UK
With around 24,400 schools in the UK, whittling down to the best schools is tricky, but we’ll use Ofsted as a measure (The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills).
Ofsted, the UK’s governing body for education, determines how a school is rated. They rate schools according to the following criteria:
- The quality of education
- Behaviour and attitudes
- Personal development
- Leadership and management
Here are the top three schools according to their Ofsted performance:
Leagrave Primary School – Luton
St Mary's Catholic High School – West Croydon
St John's CofE Primary School – City of London
Hopefully the UK’s school system is a little clearer now! It’s certainly a lot to get your head around, but either way, if you’re moving to the UK with children you’re almost certain to get some of the highest education standards around (most lists place the UK in or around the top five for education worldwide).
If you’d like to learn more about life in the UK, take a look at our guide on moving to the UK from the US.