At its most simplified, the different types of schools in the UK are split into two categories, primary (for children aged 5 to 11) and secondary (for children aged 11 to 16 or 18). Free education is offered to every child between the ages of 5 and 16. In addition to state-funded schools, there are also private or independent schools, where school fees are paid. Schooling is compulsory until 16 and some form of education or apprenticeship must be undertaken until 18.
Starting with primary education for students aged 5 to 11, the decision for parents is whether your child attends a state or private school, and whether you are interested in a school’s religious associations.
These types of schools are maintained by a local council, which has authority over admissions. State primary schools tend to be mixed and are located near the child’s home. The age range for this type of school is 5 to 11 years.
Some primary schools are voluntary aided or voluntary controlled. The former means that both the local authority and a supporting body (usually religious) fund the school and the governing body decides upon admissions arrangements. The latter is similar, but is fully funded by the local authority, which oversees admissions but in consultation with the supporting body. These are both generally faith schools, although anyone can apply and there are no fees charged.
Private prep and pre-prep school
Pre-preparatory schools are for children aged 3 to 7 or 8 and preparatory schools are for ages 7 to 11 or 13. These schools are fee-paying and prepare students to take common entrance exams to enter private secondary schools.
There are a variety of secondary schools in the UK. Students attend from ages 11 to 16 or 18.
State funded secondary schools
These schools are associated with a specific religion. They follow the national curriculum, except for in religious studies.
Free schools were established under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010. These are government funded but do not need to follow the national curriculum. Free schools do not use academic selection processes.
Grammar schools are academically focussed, selective secondary schools. Students are required to pass the 11+ exam to attend.
Receiving direct government funding, academies are a type of secondary school which do not charge fees and have more control over the way they are run, for example in terms of deviating from the national curriculum. Students still have to sit national exams and academies follow the general rules in areas such as admissions.
City technology college
These are non fee paying schools in city areas taking students of all abilities aged 11 to 18. They follow the national curriculum but specialise in technology, maths or science. They are independent of local authorities and funded directly by the Department of Education.
These schools offer free state education, but with fees charged for boarding. This cost is around £4000 per term for full boarding, however, there are charities and trusts offering to cover some of these fees. These schools tend to take students aged 11 to 18, and are often co-ed, but sometimes single-sex schools.
Private / Independent
These schools charge fees instead of being government funded and do not have to follow the national curriculum. They tend to be academically selective, like state grammar schools. Such schools in the private sector can be mixed or single-sex and generally take students up to the age of 18.
Private schools can be either day or boarding. Students can board at private boarding schools on a termly, weekly or flexible basis. Facilities are often excellent, and these schools offer a great variety of extracurricular activities. Public schools fit into this category. Public schools are historically the most exclusive and expensive of private schools, for example Eton or Harrow.
These schools are for those students with special educational needs. Staff are trained in special education. These schools follow a different national curriculum corresponding to pupils’ abilities and are more closely tailored to the pupil as an individual.
School sixth forms
These are attached to secondary schools and offer a variety of A Levels and BTECs. They tend to maintain the same formality as the school since the site is generally shared with lower years.
Sixth form colleges
These colleges are separate from schools and accommodate students aged 16 to 19. These can be both state funded and independent fee paying, both single-sex and coeducational. They tend to be larger and more informal than school sixth forms and generally offer a wider range of subjects.
Further education colleges
Students at these colleges are given more responsibility for their learning. FE colleges tend to be more informal compared to sixth forms, and sometimes have mature students attending. They may also offer apprenticeships.
Regional differences across the UK
Education in Scotland varies somewhat from the English system. It is centred around the Curriculum of Excellence as opposed to the National Curriculum, followed in England and Wales. The school year is from August to June as opposed to September to July in the rest of the UK. Primary school is 7 years, from Primary 1 to Primary 7. This generally focuses on numeracy, literacy, health and wellbeing and physical education, as well as interdisciplinary skills such as science, art, music and languages. Secondary school is from age 12, with National 5s and Scottish Highers taken in place of GCSEs and A-levels.
There are no grammar schools in Scotland and the types of secondary schools fall broadly into 3 categories – state-funded, grant-aided and independent.
State-funded schools are under the management of an education authority. These schools do not charge fees and are academically non-selective. Religious and non-religious schools alike fall into this category.
Independent schools are similar to those in England, funded by school fees.
The structure of the Welsh education system is fairly similar to England. Children remain in primary school until Year 6, when they move to secondary school. GCSEs are taken in Year 11 and A-levels in Year 13. In State Schools, it is compulsory for all pupils to study Welsh until the age of 16. There are no selective grammar schools here.
In Northern Ireland, primary school is from age 4 to 11 (Primary 1-7). In Primary 7, the AQE exam is taken to determine whether a student will be able to enter a grammar school. This system is similar to the 11+ in England.
Grammar schools in Northern Ireland take students from Year 8 to Year 14. Non-selective secondary schools teach from Year 8 to Year 12, while Junior Highs are from Year 8 to 10, from which pupils transfer to attend Senior High in Years 11-14. Years 11 and 12 are GCSE years while in Years 13 and 14 students prepare for A-Levels.
Whilst the general structure of education is constant throughout the UK, there are many variations within different regions and age ranges.
About the author: Laura Plumley is a recent Classics graduate from Oxford University and has just completed an acting foundation at Rose Bruford College. She has a keen interest in journalism and the arts, and her articles have been published in the Cherwell newspaper and Spear’s magazine.