The 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. Our summary of the English education system will help families to make the best school choice.

The education system in England

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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.

The English 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 7 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.

Understanding English 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-pro t 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

What are 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.

International schools in England

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 school

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.

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 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, 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. In 1998, the Labour government passed a law banning the creation of new grammar schools. However, in 2015, a Kent grammar school was given permission to open a satellite school in a neighbouring town. Prime Minister Theresa May has reopened the debate about new grammar schools, telling MPs in September 2016 that she wanted “an element of selection” in the education system.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 rst (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 t the new Key Stage system introduced in 1998, so it seems that this system is gradually being phased out.

Securing a place at an English school

Places at state primary and secondary schools can sometimes be dif cult 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 rst 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 quali cations will be awarded at the end of school.England’s examinations and quali cations system is organised by levels of learning. Within these levels, there are many recognised quali cations, and – surprise, surprise – 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 quali cations 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 Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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