- a thematic guide to Britain
The British education system
In many ways, the
structures and system of education in the UK are similar to education
systems in other countries, notably other countries in Europe. However
there are some aspects of education in the UK, in particular the status
private schools and of universities, that set the UK apart from other
countries in Europe.
Education in the UK is compulsory
from age 5 to age 18, and is largely provided through the
education system. However unlike in some other countries, the state
system in the UK is not unitary. Most schools are fully
"public" in the sense that they are directly or indirectly
by the state, through
local education authorities, academies or through direct funding, but
others are administered by churches and religious organisations,
the system of faith schools. In other words, many schools
that are run by the Church of England or other religious bodies, and
would be considered private or private but "grant-aided" (partly
financed by the state) in other parts of Europe, are in the UK an
integral part of the state education system. Education in
state primary and secondary schools is free of charge, though some
charges may be made for "optional extras".
State schools account for about 93% of pupils
enrolled in the primary and secondary school system. In the state
school system, schools at primary level (up to age 11) are known as
primary schools or junior schools, and schools in the secondary sector
are generally known as comprehensive schools or high schools or
academies. There are also still 242 selective entry grammar schools in
the public education system in England and Northern Ireland. In the
past there were many more grammar schools, but since the 1970s most
former grammar schools have become "comprehensive schools", while over
former state grammar schools have become independent.
Although secondary education in the UK is compulsory
up to the age of 18, access to some state
secondary schools, notably specialised academies, and grammar
schools, is by selective entrance – in some cases for all applicants,
in other cases for a certain percentage of any intake (generally
between 10% and 35%).
Almost all pupils in state schools are
day pupils, as there are just 40 state boarding schools in the whole of
England, and most of these are selective.
The state education system in Scotland
is slightly different to the system in England, particularly at
schools in the UK are run by a board of governors, who have full
responsibility for running the school and recruiting staff. A
board of governors is made up of representatives of the trust or local
religious authority overseeing the school, plus members
the local community, teachers and parents.
staff are recruited and appointed by the board of governors. To be
recruited into the state education system, teachers must be suitably
qualified, which means having a B.Ed degree, or else a degree
a recognised teaching qualification that gives QTS, or Qualified
Teacher Status. Qualified teachers from other countries can apply to
have their teaching qualification recognised for QTS. More information
from the Uk government website: here
Most of the pupils not enrolled in state
schools are enrolled in private schools, also known as
independent schools or fee-paying schools, where parents have
to pay. Independent schools account for 7% of pupils overall, but for
18% of pupils at secondary level. Being unsubsidized by the
state (unlike the large majority of private schools in other parts of
Europe apart from Italy), private schools are not cheap, and in 2019
the average annual fee for private education in a day school
was £14,290, and in a boarding school was £35,800, meaning that private
education is unaffordable for most parents.
Independent schools operate at all stages from nursery
school up to secondary or high school level, where many of the more
prestigious and expensive independent schools are known paradoxically
as "public schools". Parents who send their children to independent
schools tend to do so because class sizes are generally
smaller, and many fee-paying schools offer boarding
facilities, which are very rare in state schools. Most also
offer some burseries or scholarships.
The structure of private education in
different from the structure in the state sector, and is divided into
pre-preps taking children up to age 7,
preparatory or "prep" schools, taking pupils up to the age of 13, and
senior schools, some of which are known as "public schools", which take
pupils from age 13 upwards. Many private schools now have junior and
senior departments, and classes from Kindergarten through to Year 13
(twelfth grade), also known as "upper sixth".
Many independent schools operate as charitable trusts, some as private
enterprises. They are governed in the same way as schools in the state
sector, by a board of governors which is responsible for the effective
running of the school, its financial viability, and its compliance with
the Education Regulations (2014).
establishments, independent schools do not have to follow teacher
recruitment rules that apply to the state sector, and may recruit staff
without QTS. However, with survival for many depending on the quality
of their teaching, teachers applying for work in the
sector without QTS need to demonstrate their skills and experience
through other qualifications or experience.
There are two essential examination levels in the English secondary
education system, GCSEs and A Levels.
Pupils sit GCSEs at the end of
year 11 (age 15 - 16). GCSEs can be taken in a broad range of academic
and vocational subjects, and pupils intending to carry on to
A Levels and to higher education will normally sit GCSEs in at least
eight subjects, and probably more. Each subject is graded individually
and is passed or failed individually.
A Levels, which are required for entry
to university, are more specialised than GCSEs, and pupils will
normally take between three and five subjects. Again, subjects are
graded individually, and are passed or failed individually. While the
subjects is in theory an open choice, most pupils will specialise in
maths and sciences, or social sciences and arts or humanities. Among
the most popular A Level courses are maths, psychology and English
Literature. In most cases, the choice of subjects will be determined by
what the school can offer... which is often determined by timetabling
and higher education
The university system in the UK differs from university
the rest of Europe. Furthermore the university system in Scotland is
not the same as the university system in England.
Throughout Europe, except in England and Wales, most universities are
an integral part of the state education system, and annual fees vary
from zero to a few thousand Euros.
England and Wales, universities are autonomous institutions, with a
variety of different statutes. They receive substantial funding from
the government, which monitors the quality of teaching and research and
authorises the degrees they can award, but this funding does not at all
cover their operating costs. Consequently, English and Welsh
universities charge high tuition fees which, while less than the fees
charged by some universities in the USA (which can be over $50,000 -
over 60,000 € - per year for an undergraduate course), are considerably
higher than tuition fees in other parts of Europe.
In 2019 the average annual fee for enrolment in undergraduate courses
in universities in England or Wales was around 9000 €, with
actual costs varying from university to university and from course to
course. By comparison, undergraduate tuition fees in the rest
Europe are considerably lower, varying between zero (in
Austria, Denmark and a dozen other countries) and a maximum
5000 € in most other countries.
system in Scotland is more similar to the systems in place in
continental Europe, Scottish universities being autonomous
institutions within the state education system. There are no
tuition fees for undergraduate students from the UK or the European
Universities and colleges in the UK offer a broad range of first degree
and postgraduate courses in academic, technical and vocational
disciplines. The principal undergraduate degrees are the B.A.
the B.Sc., awarded after successful completion of a three-year course
of study. Postgraduate M.A. courses last one or two years, depending on
In Scotland, first degree courses
last 4 years for an honours degree (an M.A.), and three years for an
At the start of 2020, there were around
450 private schools in the UK specialising in
teaching English to speakers of other languages, and catering to over
half a million foreign students each year. The "ELT industry"
was worth around £1.5 billion to the British economy; however
since then the sector has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.
Language schools range from small
seasonal schools that cater for the summer market only, to full-time
schools that operate all through the year, and have their own premises.
While there are language schools or centres throughout Britain, the
largest concentrations are to be found in London or along the south
coast of England, with others in popular university cities such as
Oxford or Cambridge.
Between them, English
language schools offer a full range of courses, from traditional
classes for teenagers, to individual tuition for
special purposes and professional needs. Most
schools in the UK are accredited by the British Council, and a full
list of accredited centres can be found on the British Council website
Covid-19 had a drastic impact on the ELT
sector in the UK, as schools had to close and students from other
countries were unable to come to the UK during the lockdown period.
Some language schools have gone out of business, others have developed
online teaching, others have survived with limited activity. It is
however certain that the ELT sector in the UK will be much smaller
after Covid-19 (and Brexit) than it was before, due to the drop in
international travel, the new costs, and the rising course fees that
inevitably result from these changes.