Education system in England

Relocate examines the English education system to help families make the right school choices for their children.

Education system in England
For families relocating with children, finding the right school can seem a daunting task. With different school systems operating around the world, each country presents its own set of problems. Here we try to provide a summary of the English education system to help families make the right school choice.

UK education system

The education systems in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have continued to diversify in recent years. Scotland has its own qualifications framework, and while the systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland share some similarities, on closer inspection they all have their own distinctions.Take a look at the following pages to find out more about each country’s education system:Qualifications and education in ScotlandQualifications and education in WalesQualifications and education in Northern Ireland

School system in England

There is a variety of schools to choose from in the English education system and they are funded and managed in different ways. The majority of children in England attend state schools; by law all children in the UK between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place in a state school.However, a handful of families (around 6.5 per cent in the UK) pay for their children to attend independent (also known as private or public) schools.Currently, children of families from within the European Economic Area (EEA) are also entitled to a free state education, whereas the visa status of families from outside the EEA will determine whether they can apply for a state-funded place. It is unknown as yet what the impact of Brexit will be on school admissions for relocating families from the EU.

State schools in England

State schools follow the national curriculum and are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). The most common mainstream state schools in England are:
  • Community schools – controlled by the local council and not influenced by a business or religious group.
  • Foundation schools and voluntary schools – have more freedom to change the way they do things than community schools.
  • Academies – run by a governing body, independent from the local council, and can follow a different curriculum.
  • Grammar schools – run by the local council, a foundation body or a trust. They select their pupils based on academic ability.
There are other types of state-funded schools in England, not all of which have to follow the national curriculum:
  • Faith schools – follow the national curriculum but are associated with a particular religion. There can be supplementary admissions criteria, with applicants often having to provide evidence of regular church attendance. However, faith schools must also admit children from non-faith backgrounds if they do not fill their Published Admission Number (PAN).
  • Free schools – funded by the government but they are not run by the local council. This allows the schools to have more control over staff pay and conditions and the length of school terms and holidays. They are also not obliged to follow the national curriculum. Free schools are run as not-for-profit businesses and can be set up by charities, universities, independent schools, community and faith groups, teachers, parents or businesses.
  • City technology colleges – found in urban areas and free to attend. They have a particular emphasis on technological and practical skills.
  • Special schools – set up for children with special educational needs, such as learning difficulties or physical disabilities. Some special schools are funded by the local council, while others can be independent (fee-paying) schools.
  • Boarding schools – provide free education but charge a fee for the pupil to board. Some state boarding schools are run by the local council, while others are run as academies or free schools.

Looking for a British independent school?

Independent schools charge fees to attend rather than receive funding from the government. These schools do not have to follow the national curriculum but must be registered with the government and are inspected on a regular basis, either by Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate.The British independent school sector ranges from elite schools, such as Eton College, to more mainstream independent schools that charge lower fees.While the clear advantage of a state education in England is that it is free, many believe that an independent school education is worth the expense. The smaller class size is a clear attraction, with children gaining more one-to-one contact with the teacher and potentially achieving higher grades than they would at a state school.Using money from the fees, independent schools in the UK are able to offer a wide range of extracurricular resources and activities to encourage children to discover new talents; many independent schools are also able to offer before- and after-school childcare for working families with younger children.

International schools in England

There is a variety of international schools to choose from in England. While these are a clear choice for non-English-speaking families relocating from abroad, they are also popular with English families whose children have attended international schools in other countries and have now returned to England.International schools are fee-paying schools; some are single sex, some are faith schools. They offer a varied curriculum, ranging from the US and French systems to the International Baccalaureate (IB). International schools do not select their pupils on ability but will base their decisions on previous school records.

The academic year in England

The academic year runs from 1 September to 31 August, broken into six terms ranging from around 5–7 weeks’ duration. Generally, there are two weeks’ holiday at Christmas, two weeks’ holiday at Easter and six weeks’ holiday in the summer. In addition, each term is broken up with a week’s holiday, often called “half term”, totalling around 39 weeks of schooling in the academic year. The school holidays for independent schools are often longer than state-funded schools.

When can children go to nursery in England?

Funding for a place at nursery in England begins at the start of the term following the child’s third birthday. However, many children in the UK begin nursery while they are still two years old, but at their parents’ expense. Children aged 3–4 are entitled to 570 hours of free childcare or early years education per year; this is usually broken down as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year. Children of working parents often choose to send their children to nursery or a childminder for longer than the subsidised 15 hours a week but at an extra cost to them.

When do children start school in England?

Children are entitled to a free place in a state-run school from the September after their fourth birthday. This means that children who are born in September will be nearly five, while others born in August will not turn five until the end of their first year at school.This first year is called Reception and here the children follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) that they would have begun at nursery. Children enter Year 1 in their second year of school and move into Key Stage 1.The English system is broken in Key Stages: Key Stage 1 for children in Years 1–2 (primary/infant school) and Key Stage 2 for children in Years 3–6 (primary/junior school). Many primary schools in England cater for children from Reception through to Year 6 in one school, while other primary schools are broken into two schools – infant school for Reception to Year 2 and junior school for Years 3–6.

When do children move to secondary school in England?

Children in England move to secondary school in Year 7 as they enter Key Stage 3 (Years 7–9) and onto Key Stage 4 for children in Years 10–11 (preparing for GCSEs). By law, children in England must stay in full-time education until their 16th birthday. Most secondary schools are co-educational but there is a handful of single-sex secondary schools, such as performing arts schools for girls and sports academies for boys.State secondary schools in England are either selective (grammar) or non-selective (comprehensive, CTCs or academies). This can vary depending on where you live. In the majority of counties, children move from their local primary school to their local comprehensive school. However, in some counties, such as Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, pupils have the choice between selective and non-selective schools. Grammar schools select their pupils based on academic ability. Pupils sit an entrance test at the beginning of Year 6, which tests their knowledge of verbal and non-verbal reasoning, English and maths. However, in some areas, passing the test does not automatically guarantee you a place at a grammar school, as many are oversubscribed. Added to the mix are super-selective grammar schools that select the pupils with the highest mark, regardless of where they live.In 1998, the Labour government passed a law banning the creation of new grammar schools. However, in 2015, one grammar school in Kent was given permission to open a satellite school in a neighbouring town. Prime Minister Theresa May has reopened the debate about new grammar schools and told MPs in September 2016 that she wanted “an element of selection” in the education system.Many secondary schools also provide children with the opportunity to remain at school for a further two years to study for their A Levels or the International Baccalaureate. In England, until the age of 18 children must either remain in full-time education, enroll in an apprenticeship or traineeship, or work or volunteer (for 20 hours or more a week) while in part-time education or training.There are exceptions to this rule in England. In some areas, children attend first (up to age 9), middle (age 9–13) and high schools (age 13+). Many local councils operating this three-tier system have plans to adapt their age ranges to fit the new Key Stage system introduced in 1998 and so it seems that this system is gradually being phased out.

How do parents secure a place at their preferred school?

Places at state primary and secondary schools can sometimes be difficult to secure and this can prove stressful for parents. Except for grammar schools that award places on academic ability, places at other state schools can be awarded according to varying criteria, such as whether you already have a sibling in the school or how far away from the school you live. This can mean that parents will often move house to secure a place at what they believe to be a “better” school.Plus parents will sometimes move into the area to secure a school place and then move back out of the area once the child has started at their chosen school. Even newly married couples will base their decision on where to buy their first home on the proximity to “popular” schools.However, armed with the right information, parents have every chance of securing the right school for their child.

For more information on recent reforms in the English education system, look out for the Autumn 2016 issue of Relocate magazine.

Relocate Global: Helping families make school choices

Relocate Global’s new annual Guide to International Education & Schools provides a wealth of advice to anyone searching for a new school in the UK and in an international setting, and offers insights into what it takes to make the right school choice. 

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