The education system in England

England’s education system is world-renowned and as a result it is the most popular curriculum in English-medium international schools around the world. Competition for places at the best schools in the country is fierce. We take a look at the options available to relocating families.

Box Hill School
The education systems of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have continued to diversify in recent years. Scotland has its own qualifications framework. While the systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland share some similarities, on closer inspection they all have their own distinctions.

England's school system 

There are a variety of schools to choose from in the English education system, and they are funded and managed in different ways.By law, children must be in full-time education by their fifth birthday, although most will start school when they are four years old. The majority of children in England attend state schools, but a handful of families (around seven per cent) 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 not known as yet what the impact of Brexit will be on school admissions for relocating families from the EU.GIESF-in-text-banner

State schools 

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 of 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 school 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 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 – 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

Independent schools 

Independent schools charge fees rather than receiving 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 by the Independent Schools Inspectorate.The independent 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 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.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

International schools 

There are 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 charge fees. Some are single sex, and 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 

The academic year in England runs from 1 September to 31 August. It is split into three terms of about 13 weeks each, with each term divided into half. Generally, there are two weeks’ holiday at Christmas, two weeks’ holiday at Easter and six weeks’ holiday in the summer. In addition, each half term culminates in a week’s holiday.There are therefore around 39 weeks of schooling in each academic year. The school holidays are often longer for independent schools than for state-funded ones.

Going to nursery

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 only two years old, at their parents’ expense.Children aged between three and four 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. From September 2017, working parents became entitled to 30 hours free childcare a week during school term time if both parents are working.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Starting school 

Children are entitled to a free place in a state school from the September after their fourth birthday. This means that children who are born in September will be nearly five, while those 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 will 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 into Key Stages: Key Stage 1 for children in Years 1 and 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 others are broken into two schools – infant school for reception to Year 2 and junior school for Years 3–6.

Moving to secondary school 

Children start secondary school in Year 7 as they enter Key Stage 3 (Years 7–9). Key Stage 4, for children in Years 10 and 11 (preparing for GCSEs), follows. By law, children in England must stay in full-time education until their 16th birthday and must remain in some form of education or training until their 18th birthday. Most secondary schools are coeducational but there are 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, city technology college or academy). Provision 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 a choice between selective and non-selective schools.Grammar schools select their pupils on academic ability. At the beginning of Year 6, pupils sit an entrance test, which assesses their knowledge of verbal and non-verbal reasoning, English and maths. However, in some areas, passing the test does not automatically guarantee a place at a grammar school, as many are oversubscribed. Added to the mix are super-selective grammar schools, which choose the pupils with the highest marks, regardless of where they live.Many secondary schools provide children with the opportunity to remain at school for a further two years to study for their A Levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB). In England, until the age of 18, children must either remain in full-time education, enrol 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 some areas, children attend first (up to age nine), middle (ages nine to 13) and high (ages 13 and above) schools. Many local councils operating this three-tier system have plans to adapt their age ranges to the new Key Stage system introduced in 1998, so it seems that this system is gradually being phased out.

Securing a place 

Places at state primary and secondary schools can sometimes be difficult to secure, and this can prove stressful for parents. Places at non-grammar state schools are generally awarded on whether a child already has a sibling at the school, how far away from the school the family lives, or a combination of both. This can mean that parents will move house to secure a place at what they believe to be a better school.Parents will sometimes move into an area to secure a school place and then move back out once the child has started at the chosen school. Even newly married couples may base their decision about where to buy their first home on proximity to popular schools.If parents decide to move their child before he or she has started secondary education, a major factor in their choice of school will be what they want the child to learn, how the child will be examined and what qualifications will be awarded at the end of school.England’s examinations and qualifications system is organised by levels of learning. Within these levels, there are many recognised qualifications, and different schools support different systems. The government is backing numerous systems within state schools, widening choice but also adding to the confusion.However, although there are numerous options, a student in an English school will typically study for GCSEs between the ages of 14 and 16, and then A Levels between the ages of 16 and 19. There are further post-16 options in some schools – for example, the BTEC Diploma and vocational qualifications such as the NVQ and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, which is now quite widely available in state and independent schools.The Pre-U was introduced into independent schools and sixth forms in 2008, and the International GCSE (IGCSE) was recently accredited for study.


The GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) is the main school-leaving qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland operates an independent system of National qualifications). It is generally well regarded by higher-education institutions and employers for its rigour and breadth of study.However, in recent years, the examination system has come under attack for failing to address grade inflation and placing a heavy reliance on resits and modular coursework assessment. The government has responded by introducing a comprehensive programme of GCSE reforms, which are being rolled out in a phased approach until 2019.GCSEs are currently available in around 50 subjects and are usually studied full time at school or college, taking five terms to complete. The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, combined with some investigative work. Some subjects, such as Science, also involve practical work. They are assessed mainly on written exams, although there are elements of coursework in some subjects. Some subjects, such as art and design, have more coursework and fewer exams.GCSE exams are taken in May/June when pupils are in Year 11, and the results are published in August.

GCSE reform in England

Reforms to the GCSE system in England began in September 2015 and included a major change to the way in which GCSEs were graded. From 2017, English language, English literature and maths were the first subjects to be graded 1–9, with 9 being the top grade and set above the old A* grade.The new system is intended to provide more differentiation, specifically for higher-achieving students. The grading for all other subjects will be rolled out by 2019.The new exams are also said to be more demanding, with content developed in coalition between the government and the exam boards. According to the Department for Education (DfE), the exams include “more challenging content”.School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said, “This is the culmination of a six-year process of curriculum and qualifications reform, which has involved wide consultation with teachers, schools and universities.“The new GCSEs are more rigorous so that young people can gain the knowledge and understanding they need to succeed in the future and compete in an increasingly global workplace.‎”Some experts believe that one of the more positive changes is how schools are ranked in performance tables. Rather than looking at the number of pupils achieving a C grade or above, which tempts schools to place too much emphasis on students who are attaining just below a C grade and too little emphasis on low- and high-achieving students, schools now receive a progress score – Progress 8 – that measures every pupil’s GCSE results against their Key Stage 2 tests, taken at the end of primary school.Following recent government changes, policies and regulations are no longer aligned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, so examination boards cannot offer the same qualifications in all three countries. See our Guide to Education & Schools in the UK for details.


The International GCSE (IGCSE) is an internationally recognised qualification at the same level as the GCSE. It is intended to take a broader approach to learning.Cambridge International – an exam board owned by the University of Cambridge – developed the international GCSE over 30 years ago, and it is recognised as equivalent to the GCSE qualification by universities worldwide. According to Cambridge International, the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum, “encourages learner-centred and enquiry-based approaches to learning, and develops learners’ skills in creative thinking, enquiry and problem-solving, giving learners excellent preparation for the next stage in their education”.Over 70 subjects are available, including more than 30 language courses, offering a variety of routes for learners of different abilities, including those whose first language is not English. Schools can offer any combination of subjects, each of which is certificated separately. Cambridge IGCSE is graded A*–G.  A numerical grading system (9-1) is available to schools in some countries for some subjects in line with changes being made to GCSE grading in England. For more information visit:

AS and A level

AS and A Levels are studied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland operates an independent system of Higher qualifications.There are currently around 70 AS and A Level subjects for students to choose from. Students can select from a wide range of academic subjects, as well as some ‘applied’ (work-related) subjects. Generally, students progress to AS and A Levels in the academic year following their GCSE results, but these qualifications can be taken at any age.AS Levels generally take one year to complete, and A Levels are studied across two years. Both qualifications focus on traditional study skills and are generally studied full time at school or a higher-education college, but they are also available part time.To study AS and/or A Levels, pupils usually need to have studied their chosen subjects at GCSE or IGCSE. Schools normally expect pupils to have achieved five GCSEs at grades A*–C, with at least a B grade in their chosen subjects.AS and A Levels are graded A*–E. The A* was introduced in 2008 to differentiate the highest-performing students from other A-grade candidates. Exams are taken in May/June, and the results are published in August.

Changes to AS Levels

New AS and A Levels were introduced in a phased approach from September 2015, the last tranche of subjects being added in 2018. The two qualifications have been decoupled in England, so that AS Level results no longer count towards an A Level and the AS Level is a standalone qualification.In contrast, AS Levels remain part of the A Level in Wales and Northern Ireland, and contribute 40 per cent towards the final A Level result.Students take their AS Level qualifications at the end of Year 12. They can then either discontinue the subject or continue it at A Level. The advantage of taking an AS exam is that pupils can judge how they are progressing and whether they want to study the subject to A Level. Most students study three or four AS Levels.According to the Department for Education (DfE), the decoupling is designed so that schools and colleges can co-teach the AS with the A Level, which means that lessons may include a mix of students taking the AS and A Level in a given subject. A further advantage is that students are not interrupted halfway through their A Level course to revise and take their AS Level examinations.However, the government reforms are reducing their popularity – the number of pupils taking AS Levels fell by 42 per cent between 2016 and 2017 and a recent survey from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) suggests that 86 per cent of school leaders expect to remove AS courses in the future. This means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for universities to use the AS Level results as a guide to offering places.

Changes to A Levels

All A Levels are taken at the end of Year 13 and AS Levels no longer contribute towards the final grade. Under the new system, there is less coursework and fewer practical assessments and the old modular structure has been replaced by a linear one with exams at the end of the course, reducing the number of opportunities for retakes.The number of subjects available at A Level has also been reduced in order to streamline the qualification and ensure academic rigour.

International AS and A Level

Cambridge International, an exam board owned by the University of Cambridge, offers international AS and A Levels. Like the AS and A Levels taken by students in the UK, the international versions are aimed at students aged 16 to 19. They are taught in over 130 countries and recognised by universities and employers worldwide.Schools can offer a choice of 55 subjects, in almost any combination. According to Cambridge International, this flexibility “gives schools freedom to build a curriculum that is right for their context, and means students can choose to specialise in a particular subject area or study a range of subjects.”Cambridge International AS Level is typically a one-year course and the International A Level is typically a two-year course. The International AS Level can be offered as a standalone qualification or as part of a progression to the International A Level. The International AS Level is graded A–E and A Level is graded A*–E.
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This article is from Relocate Global's Guide to International Education & Schools 2019/20 which is packed with expert tips and information for those relocating and the professionals supporting them. 
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