UK Education System Guide

Education System

The UK education system is reputed worldwide for its high quality and standards. Britons enter the education system at the age of three, and up to 16 are obliged to attend school (compulsory education), while afterward is upon their choice.

Generally, the British higher education system has five stages of education: 

  • Early Years
  • Primary Years
  • Secondary Education
  • Further Education (FE)
  • Higher Education (HE)

Besides sharing many similarities, the UK education system at different levels at each zone of administration (England, Scotland, and Wales) differs a bit. Generally speaking, these differences could be more meaningful if we discuss UK higher education as one.

In the UK, everybody over five and under 16 is obliged to attend school. This aging time frame contains two sections of the education system in the UK: Primary and Secondary Schools.

Compulsory education in the UK is divided into four key stages, distinguished by a student’s age. The first stage includes 5 to 7-year-olds, and the fourth and final stage lasts from the age of 14 to age 16.

Here are the four stages of mandatory education in the UK and the curricula for each key stage:

First Key Stage 

The first key stage in compulsory education in England includes children from 5 to 7 years old, otherwise known as a primary school, comprising the first two years.

Here are some of the main subjects that this stage of mandatory education includes:

  • English Language
  • Mathematics
  • History
  • Geography
  • Physical Education
  • Music

During the first year of this stage, the curriculum structure contains the Phonic screening, a short assessment of kids’ ability to decode and understand phonics properly. Typically, the teacher will ask the students to repeat a list of around 40 words out loud. At the end of this stage (the same in all stages), these pupils will sit for an examination to measure their English, Maths, and Science knowledge development.

Second Key Stage

Between 7 to 11 years, pupils will be in the second key stage of compulsory education. The second key stage includes years 3 to 6. At this level, the curriculum is designed to give students a more advanced understanding of the previously gained knowledge on the core subjects.

At the end of this stage, the school will test students in the following subjects:

  • English reading.
  • English grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Mathematics.
  • Science.

In English and Mathematics, the testing will be done through national assessment tests, while the teacher will independently assess the level of improvement of each student in Science.

Third Key Stage

Pupils aged 11 to 14 belong to the third stage of compulsory education, or years 7 to 9. This education level is essential to a certain degree because only a few years later, they will sit for the GCSE national qualification.

The curriculum during this stage of education will also contain new subjects at which students are supposed to get some basic knowledge before moving any further in the upcoming stages of education.

The subjects learned in Key Stage 3 are:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • History
  • Geograph
  • Art and Design
  • Music
  • Physical Education
  • Modern Foreign Languages
  • Design and Technology and Computing

At the end of the third Key Stage, some students may take their GCSE or other national qualifications.

Fourth Key Stage

The final stage of compulsory education, key stage 4, lasts from 14 to 16 and includes years 10 to 12. The fourth key stage is the most common period for students to undertake the national assessment tests that will lead them to take a GCSE or other national qualifications.

The compulsory national curriculum at this stage contains the “core” and “foundation” subjects.

Here are the “core” subjects taught at the fourth key stage:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science

And here are the “foundation” subjects taught at the key stage 4:

  • Computing
  • Physical Education
  • Citizenship

Additionally, schools in the UK are obliged to offer one of the following subjects during this stage of education.

  • Arts
  • Design and Technology
  • Humanities
  • Modern Foreign Languages

In particular, UK higher education is valued worldwide for its renowned standards and quality. Its higher education’s prestige also emanates from its graduates’ work afterward. Many eminent people in many different areas whose work reached global recognition came from British universities.

Some universities and other higher education providers are ranked top among universities worldwide. The UK capital city, London, not by accident, is considered to be the world’s capital city of higher education. With its four universities ranked in the world’s top ten, London has the highest number of worldwide-ranked universities per city.

By definition, UK higher education is the level of education that follows secondary school at the hierarchy of the educational system in the UK. When high school is over, Britons have to sit in a standard examination, making them eligible not to continue their education at a higher level.

What is the Difference Between Colleges and Universities?

In the UK education system, in contrast to the US higher education, there is a difference between college and university. While in the US, there is no distinction between college and university, with most people referring to a higher education provider as a college, in the UK, this is not the case.

In the UK, a college is a further education institution that prepares students to earn a degree. At the same time, a university is a licensed HE institution that awards students with a degree at the end of their studies.

If you’re an international student, you must know that not all higher education providers in the UK are referred to as a university. This issue is regulated by law.

As this official regulation states, a higher education institution can be labeled as a university under these circumstances:

  • If it gets approved by the Privy Council under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.
  • If it gets approval under the provisions of the Companies Act 2006.

International students from countries other than the European Economic Area (EEA) or Switzerland must apply for a student visa to study in the UK.

If you are 16 and are a resident of one of the countries mentioned above, you can apply for a Tier 4 visa (General student) —the official student visa in the UK. Before applying for a student visa, ensure you have sufficient money to finance your stay there during your studies. When applying for a visa, the embassy/consulate will most likely ask for proof of enough funds to cover your tuition fees and other expenses.

Based on the actual education regulations in the UK education system, Higher Education comprises the following levels of courses.

1. Undergraduate Courses

Undergraduate courses in the UK include a wide range of first degrees which are listed below.

  • Bachelor’s Degree
  • Honors and Ordinary Degrees
  • Qualified Teacher Status
  • Enhanced First Degrees
  • Intercalated Degrees (medical schools or other specific study fields allow students to take a year off between the second and third years to study a different area which can be a BA, BSc, or master’s degree program).

Here are other undergraduate courses: 

  • Foundation degrees
  • SVQ
  • NVQ
  • Higher National Diploma HND (or equivalent)
  • NHC (or equivalent), etc.

An undergraduate course usually takes three years; however, Scotland is an exception, where undergraduate courses take four years to complete. The higher education system in the UK has many universities that offer 4-year undergraduate courses, also known as “sandwich courses.” This program includes a one-year work experience —usually carried out in the third year.

Keep in mind: Some British universities offer fast-track programs where you can obtain a Master’s degree at the undergraduate level. Unlike traditional undergraduate courses, fast-track programs allow students to attend an additional year of studying instead of taking a Bachelor’s degree which leads to a Master’s program.

Besides, it costs much less than the typical 3-year undergraduate courses; however, it usually is much more intense with shortened holiday breaks and a heavy schedule.

2. Postgraduate Courses 

The postgraduate degree programs are only obtainable if you have a bachelor’s degree at an accredited university (not necessarily one in England).

The postgraduate level includes the following degrees:

  • Master’s Degree (Taught or Research). Master’s degrees usually last one year or longer if they are research-based.
  • Doctorate. The typical doctoral degree takes three years to complete.
  • Postgraduate Diplomas.
  • Postgraduate Certificates of Education (PGCE).
  • Professional Degrees.

Note: To enter this level, it is usually required to have a first degree (Bachelor’s).

In the UK’s education system, most syllabi are set by the universities offering them and are not controlled by the government or certain British educational institutions. The only exception to this is teacher education programs, which the government has a lot of say over.

The British government has established the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) to maintain those standards. Most countries have specific regulations for their teachers, so this isn’t any different than studying teaching in your home country. Because of its strict rules and high standards for teacher education programs, the UK is considered to have some of the best teacher education programs in the world.

Even though universities set the syllabi, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) in the British school system has a lot of say in the admission procedures of each university. This office was created so everyone who wishes to attend university in the UK can do so. They also promote fair access to higher education, even for those attending university as international students. Appropriate access also includes those of different cultures, different races, different nationalities, and those who have disabilities.

The reputation of British higher education goes hand in hand with its costs. Tuition fees may vary from university to university, as well as from one location to another.

So it’s always advisable to check the university’s website before making further study plans. Indeed, to attend a British university, you need a lot of money packed in —whether you’re a native or not— but since there are many scholarship schemes, you can always apply for one.

The tuition fees of UK universities also vary depending on the degree level and study program. The average tuition fees for international students range from ~£17,109 (USD 20,876) to  ~£22,200 (USD 27,000).

  • Undergraduate tuition fees: International students pay around £11,400 – £38,000 (USD 13,900 – USD 46,355).
  • Postgraduate tuition fees: International students pay around £9,000 – £30,000 (USD 10,980 – USD 36,570)

International students are a substantial part of the student population in British universities. The UK is the second most popular study destination for international students, following the US at the top. If you decide to be one of more than a million international students in the US, you’re one step away from a guaranteed brighter future.

Academics and employers value the UK education system and its higher education degrees worldwide. The UK has a rich history of quality higher education, and each university has excellent options for any student.


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