The educational system in the UK is considered to be among the best in the world. The U.S. News Report placed it in second place after the USA in its rating[1]. Many decisions — especially concerning curriculum design and grading systems — are made by schools and universities at the local level. Thanks to this, studies are suitable for students with completely different needs.

In this article, we explain the structure of education in the UK at all levels — from kindergarten to doctorate studies. Read about higher education and admission to British universities in separate articles.

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United Kingdom - General information
region British Islands
Capital London
Language English, Welsh
Currency Pound Sterling
Population 63,181,775
Students 2,600,000
Foreigner students 16.4%
Statistics - Universities
Universities in top 100 16
Universities in top 200 26
Universities in top 500 49
Universities in top 1000 76
Universities in top 5000 139
Cost of living in United Kingdom
Expenses - USD/Month Min. Med.
Accommodation 306 398
Food 177 391
Transportation 59 180
Communications and utilities 74 104
Clothing 20 77
Sports and leisure 25 88
Total 662 1,239
Accommodation in United Kingdom USD/Month
Shared room outside of centre 309
Shared room in city centre 402
1 bedroom apartment outside of centre 596
1 bedroom apartment in city centre 723
Location on map

Features of education in the UK

  • Comprehensive education. Already in the first grade, children study 10 compulsory subjects. Many schools also introduce additional classes. The range of disciplines covers all spheres of human life: natural and human sciences, art, technology, and sports. This broadens the horizons of the students and allows them to discover a variety of talents.
  • Early specialization. By high school, the number of subjects, on the contrary, is reduced. A few years before entering a university, it is advisable for students to already decide on the direction in which they plan to study. During the last two years of study — in grades 12 and 13 — students choose 3-5 subjects and focus solely on them.
  • Encouragement of independence. The educational system in the UK is aimed at developing the skills of critical thinking, initiative, and independent search for information at all levels. Even in primary school, students write essays and create their own research projects.
  • Good conditions for teachers. English teachers earn a higher wage than teachers in other developed countries, such as France, Italy, and Sweden[2]. In addition, they are sponsored by state grants and scholarships. This makes the teaching profession truly prestigious, attracting the most talented teachers to schools and universities.
  • Long term education. In Britain, compulsory secondary education lasts from grades 1 to 11 or from 5 to 16 years of age. In fact, most children study even longer: from 3 to 18 years of age, then moving on to university.
  • Conditions for foreigners. While education at public English schools is free, it is available only to citizens of the country. Children of foreigners enter private institutions, where the cost of education is 15,000-30,000 USD per year. At universities, the situation is the same: foreigners have to pay several times more than local residents. For example, at Oxford, the tuition is at least 35,019 USD per year (instead of 11,635 USD).
  • Equality in access to education. The UK government is trying to ensure access to education for all people, regardless of their social status. To do this, free public schools attract the best teachers, and universities pay scholarships to students from families in need

Preschool education in the UK

Usually, preschool education (known as Early Years) begins at the age of 2-3 years and ends at 5 years old. This stage is optional, but most parents prefer to send their children to kindergartens, which in England are called preschools or playschools. The state finances preschool education in the form of vouchers, with which parents can fully pay for their child's education in a public institution or cover part of the costs at a private kindergarten.

The main goal of preschools is to help kids learn to communicate and understand other people. There, they receive basic knowledge about society and the world around them, as well as develop literacy and mathematical abilities. Under the guidance of teachers, children play, draw, sculpt from clay, learn songs, and do exercises. Classes occur 15 hours per week, and the study load per year is 570 hours.

Preschool activities in the UK
Preschool activities in the UK

School education in the UK

Primary education

School education in the UK is divided into primary education and secondary education. These stages are further divided into key steps. For primary education, these are:

  • Key stage 1 — ages 5 to 7, grades 1-2
  • Key stage 2 — ages 7 to 11, grades 3-6

In primary school, children learn English, mathematics, science, art and design, geography, history, music, and physical education. Students begin learning a foreign language in third grade. The school day lasts from 8:30 to 15:30 with a lunch break and additional15 minute breaks.

The grading system in English primary schools is based on the expectation of how a child should develop at his age (expected standard). In total, four levels are distinguished:

  • The student works at the expected level.
  • The student strives for the expected level.
  • The student performs below the expected level.
  • The student performs above the expected level.

Each school sets its own specific criteria for evaluation. This makes the system more flexible.

At the end of their second and sixth years, students take standardized SATs. After second grade, children take tests in reading and mathematics, and after sixth — in reading, mathematics, grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Secondary education

After graduating from primary school, students move on to secondary education. They are automatically transferred to state institutions, and for admission to private institutions, they have to pass specialized Common Entrance exams.

Education in secondary school is divided into two stages:

  • Key stage 3 — ages 11 to 14, grades 7-9
  • Key stage 4 — ages 14 to 16, grades 10-11

At Key stage 3, several new subjects are added to the basic subjects: the basics of social responsibility (citizenship), sex education, and career guidance. The whole program is divided into three main blocks:

  • Compulsory subjects (core curriculum) — mathematics, English, biology, chemistry, and physics.
  • Optional subjects (optional curriculum) — geography, humanities, art and design, dance, music, theater, and technology-related subjects.
  • Extended program (extension curriculum) — these are additional subjects that are unique to each school. They often involve the creation of an individual or group interdisciplinary project.

High school education is divided into trimesters. At the end of each trimester, credit weeks are held, where students are assessed for how well they have learned the material. Knowledge is evaluated on a nine-point scale.

At the age of 14, students begin to prepare for the final exam — General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). It tests all of the subjects studied by the student and officially confirms graduation from high school. This concludes compulsory secondary education. Those who wish to pursue university studies continue their high school education through the Sixth Form program.

Secondary education students
Secondary education students

High School — Sixth Form/A-Levels

At Sixth form or Key stage 5, students study from ages 16-18. Schools offer various training programs, but the most common is called A-Levels. This is an advanced program that lasts two years. In this program, students receive university-level knowledge, reducing the length of their undergraduate studies to three years.

There are no compulsory subjects in A-levels — the students themselves draw up a schedule depending on the specialty they are going to enroll in. At the beginning of the first year of study, students choose 3-5 disciplines. The next year, 1-2 can be abandoned in order to fully focus on the subjects of interest. This approach makes education more flexible and individualized.

Most often, classes are held from 8:30 to 17:00 with a lunch break. Additionally, 8-14 lessons per week are allocated for independent work. There are no mixed classes — pupils are united in groups according to their chosen subjects, similar to a university setting. Usually, there are 10-15 students per group.

The knowledge of each student is assessed according to the specific course. While some subjects conduct intermediate exams, others do not. Practical work, essays, individual and group projects play an important role in the assessment process. In the creative disciplines, portfolios may also be assessed.

A-levels end with final exams in selected subjects, which are taken in January or May-June. These exams determine the final grade for the discipline[3]. They are ranked on a letter scale from E to A*, where E is the worst result. The same grades are assessed for admission to universities. A student usually needs to pass three exams in specialized subjects, thus the passing scores for universities look like a combination of three letters. At Cambridge, for example, the passing score is A*AA or A*A*A, and at the lesser-known University of Sussex, the score is AAB or ABB.

The advantage of A-Levels is that after passing the exams, you can apply to not only English universities: the results are also recognized in the USA, Canada, Australia, and at many European and Asian universities.

Higher education in the UK

Higher education in the UK is of the highest quality and prestige: among the top 100 best universities in the world according to QS Ranking, 17 are British universities[4]. British universities have high graduate employment rates and good funding. Due to the high salaries and living standards, the best teachers from all over the world are employed at universities. Thanks to this, the country has the second highest number of international students after the USA[5].

Vocational Education

Vocational education in the UK is separate from secondary, but at the same time does not belong to higher education. Such education is available at technical schools — FE Colleges. Students go to FE Colleges immediately after graduating from high school and passing the GCSE exams. FE Colleges train specialists in IT, business, engineering, and support staff of medical institutions. As a result, graduates receive BTECBusiness and Technology Education Council qualifications, after which you can get a job or continue your education as part of an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships are on-the-job training programs, With classes in college or university constituting 20% of the training. Such qualifications are equivalent to bachelor's degrees, but you cannot continue an academic career after completing them. It will be especially difficult for foreigners to enroll in such programs, because they will need a work visa, rather than a student visa. You can receive such a visa only in agreement with an employer.

University studies

In the UK, as in most other countries, higher education is divided into three levels. However, the length of study is different:

  1. Bachelor's degree — 3 years (instead of 4 years).
  2. Master's degree — 1 year (instead of 2 years).
  3. Doctorate degree — 4 years.

Due to the fact that secondary education in Britain lasts 13 years, and during the last two years students are engaged in a university program, the time of study at a university is reduced. At the same time, there will be no problems with the recognition of an English diploma abroad. It is equivalent to a bachelor's degree in any other country.

There are several special types of programs at British universities:

  • The Sandwich Course is a bachelor’s degree combined with work experience. Between the second and third years of studies, students go on a one-year internship in their specialty, in the end receiving both a diploma and experience.
  • Undergraduate Master's degrees are programs that combine bachelor’s and master’s programs. The program lasts four years, and in the end graduates are awarded a master's degree. Such programs are particularly common in STEM fieldsScience, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The training is focused more on practice rather than the continuation of an academic career.
  • PhD 1 + 3 programs combine two stages of education: master's and doctorate studies, the duration of which is four years. Moreover, graduates receive two degrees at once: a master's and PhD.

At universities, students make their own timetable. Usually, there are several compulsory disciplines in bachelor's programs, without which it will not be possible to complete the degree. That being said, students are free to choose their own additional subjects. The main thing is to obtain the required number of study hours, which are measured in credits.

Knowledge, especially in the humanities, is assessed mainly through essays, research papers, and projects. There are also exams, but they are less common than at universities in other countries. British education in any specialty is aimed at developing practical skills, one of them being critical thinking. Professors encourage students to ask questions, express their opinions, and lead the discussion. Disagreeing with a teacher is completely normal.

Admission to bachelor's programs occurs through a special platform called UCAS, while the admission process for master's and doctorate programs takes place directly through the university's website. The admissions committee evaluates the candidate based on his GPA, motivation letter, references, and resume. You will also need an English proficiency certificate (for example, IELTS). Some programs require you to pass an interview.

Education in the UK is quite expensive: from 18,868 USD to 50,315 USD per year. An additional 15,095 USD can be expected for accommodation. In America or Australia, prices are comparable, but prices in Europe are several times lower. In order for talented, but not very rich students to come to the country, British universities and the government offer large scholarships. Some of them fully cover the cost of education, but they are often available only to undergraduate students. For bachelor’s programs, the usual size of a scholarship is 10-30% of the tuition cost.

Higher education in the UK

University of Glasgow
University of Glasgow

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