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The education system in the UK

Parents planning to send their children to study in the UK are often surprised that “everything is wrong” in the islands. If a teenager goes to university, he or she will have to spend 13 years at the school desk. The total duration of education exceeds 20 years, and during all this time parents will have to transfer considerable sums in pounds sterling. Is it worth it?

Undoubtedly. British education is considered to be one of the best in the world. In this article, let’s understand the UK education system and the advantages it offers to students.

Features of education

Education can start as early as 2 years of age in a so-called playschool. The child learns to read and write with the help of tutors and also gets the first communication skills with peers.

The ‘teacher is always right’ rule does not apply in Britain – discussion with the teacher is only encouraged.

Being a schoolteacher in the UK is one of the most prestigious professions. English teachers are paid more than, for example, in France or Scandinavian countries.

There is a lot of emphasis on developing ‘soft skills’ that is, the art of persuasion, leadership and teamwork.

The older the grade in the school, the fewer subjects are studied. In this way pupils have a soft approach to specialisation.

There are free state schools and fee-paying private boarding schools. However, there is no “gulf” in the quality of education between them.

Many private boarding schools have separate schooling. This is a tribute to English traditions. It is believed that not having members of the opposite sex at the next desk helps students to concentrate on their studies.

You can’t go to university after 11th grade — only to college. To get into university, you have to spend two more years preparing for the Sixth Form entrance exams.

British education system

The education system in “Foggy Albion” is quite confusing. To make it easier for you to understand, we have prepared a table:

Pre-primary education (Early Years)Ages 2-5


Primary educationKey Stage 1Ages 5-7
Key Stage 27-11 years old
Secondary educationKey Stage 311-14 years old
Key Stage 414-16 years old
High schoolKey Stage 516-18 years old


Bachelor’s degree18-21 years old
Master’s programme21-22 years old
Doctoral studies22-25 years old

Pre-school education

Pre-school education is optional in Britain. However, British families still prefer to send their children to kindergarten, not to “relax” but to prepare them for school. The main duty of a kindergarten teacher is not to entertain and look after the children, but to educate them. Young children learn to write, read and count, and also get a general idea of nature and the structure of the world.

Preschool education has several stages:

  • Pre-Nursery. These are nurseries that take children from 3 months to 3 years of age. Pre-Nurseries are not very popular with British families. The more traditional way is to entrust your child to a nanny;

  • Nursery. Groups that send children aged 3 to 5 years old. This stage is a popular one. Even members of the royal family went to nurseries: Prince William went to Nottingham Hill Nursery and Prince Harry to Mynors Nursery School;

  • Reception. The older kindergarten group is for children aged 5 to 6 years old. Parents can leave their child for another year if they decide that the child is not ready for school.

The state pays for 15 hours of day care per week for children aged 3 and above. If you need to keep your child for longer, you have to pay extra out of your own pocket. As a rule, Britons do so: according to a study by the Daycare Trust, about a third of a British family’s income is spent on pre-school education.

School education

Now let’s go through the many Key Stages of school education. The difference between the stages is not only in the subjects themselves, but also in the approach to learning.

Primary Education (Primary Education)

At Key Stage 1 that is, ages 5-7 children learn everything at once: English, maths, science, history, music. But teachers do not aim to load the child’s head with facts. It is important to give a maximum of sciences “to try” to make it easier for the kid to decide what exactly he is interested in and what he is fond of. This will come in handy as they move on to secondary education. At the end of Key Stage 1, pupils take the SATs in reading, maths and science.

Key Stage 2 for ages 7-11 is not very different from Key Stage 1. It adds the study of one foreign language plus a more challenging SAT at the end of the stage: not only reading, but also written English – grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Children are not traditionally assessed at the primary level. There is a logic to this: it is foolish to assess a child for a skill for which he or she has no predisposition or interest. Teachers assess children holistically, on expected development. That is, in essence, they answer the question: is the child developed enough for his age?

Secondary Education (Secondary Education)

After a pupil passes the second SAT, he/she moves on to Secondary Education. Children are automatically enrolled in secondary schools, but to get into a public school they have to take an additional test – Common Entrance.

At the secondary education stage, there are 3 types of disciplines:

  • Compulsory disciplines: maths, English, science, computer science, foreign language, physical education and citizenship (basics of civil law). In addition, vocational guidance classes are organised;

  • Variative block (these are subjects that the pupil chooses according to his/her taste). Here there are many options for creative development and implementation (theatre, music, dance, design);

  • The Extended Programme includes subjects that are taught directly at the school. For example, ancient Latin or theology may be taught.

Every school in Britain must organise sex and religious education classes. However, pupils may not attend if it is against their religion or beliefs.

From Key Stage 4 onwards, the student’s choice of subjects becomes even wider. You can choose to study oceanography, psychology, sociology, programming, communication technology and many other subjects.

At the end of Key Stage 3, pupils take intermediate examinations in compulsory subjects and, after Key Stage 4, an important GCSE examination. The results of this exam are looked at when students apply to university.

High School (Sixth Form)

A young person with GCSEs is faced with a choice: start earning money as soon as possible or spend a few more years studying. It is difficult to find a compromise here: since studying at British universities is intensive, it is almost impossible to combine it with work. Moreover, the universities themselves do not encourage such a combination.

Apprentices who are eager to get to work learn a practical trade at a technical college (FE College). It only takes 2 years of study to obtain a BTEC (Diploma in Technical Secondary Education).

Those who expect to go to university will have to progress to Key Stage 5 and become twelfth formers. Britain has an A-Levels system, which is special in that pupils choose which subjects to study. In fact, high school is 2 years of intensive and in-depth preparation for university, during which the future applicant studies 3-5 subjects.

At the end of Sixth Form, pupils take examinations in three subjects and receive the grades they will need to enter university.

Young people with BTECs are also eligible for higher education. Furthermore, statistics show that one in four English university students enter using BTECs.

Higher education

The quality of British education is measured by THE (Times Higher Education), the most objective and comprehensive ranking of universities. The entire top 10 in this ranking is occupied by universities from two countries: the UK and the USA. The representation of the “Foggy Albion” is more modest – 3 universities against 7 American ones, but there is one “but”: it is the British Oxford that holds the first place. And has held it since 2017. The second representative of the UK, Cambridge, strengthens its position and is now in 3rd place, pushing the American Harvard.

Therefore, you have to try hard to get into an English university. Applicants give to the admissions office:

  • GPA is the grade point average of a certificate or diploma. It is the only measurable indicator;

  • A motivation letter is a document in which an applicant describes his or her interests, dreams and ideals. A poorly written letter can ruin your chances of admission even if you have passed your exams well;

  • Letter of Recommendation. This document can be authored by a supervisor or a subject teacher at the school;

  • The academic CV is a document in which the applicant briefly describes his or her own achievements. It is a mistake to duplicate a letter of motivation in the CV. They are different documents: while a motivation letter is an essay, a CV is more of a list of facts.

A Bachelor’s degree is awarded after 3 years of study (except in Scotland, where 4 years are more often required). After a further 1 year it is possible to become a Master’s degree.

It is also worth mentioning the approach to learning at UK universities. A student does not need to write down notes in an attempt to keep up with the lecturer. Much more attention is paid to practice and the development of critical thinking. Therefore, students spend a lot of time on applied research and in discussions with fellow students. The aim of a British university is to produce a person who is ready to benefit employers here and now.

Examinations are rarely taken in UK universities. More often a student is assessed by essays, research papers and prepared projects.

The level of education in England is controlled by the state. This is the responsibility of the QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Education. So the student is sure that his skills and knowledge will be up-to-date and the diploma will be looked upon with admiration in any of the countries of the world.

What is Apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship is essentially an alternative route to the same goal. Suppose an English pupil after Year 11 decided to pursue an Apprenticeship and went to FE College, where he spent 2 years and left BTEC. Can he continue to study while still working?

Maybe – thanks to Apprenticeship. This is an apprenticeship programme where the student becomes an apprentice and learns on the job. He or she will also have to attend college or university, but only 20 per cent of the time will be spent in classrooms. The other 80% is pure apprenticeship. At the end of the Apprenticeship, the student will receive a qualification equivalent to a university bachelor’s degree.

Apprenticeship is ideal for those who can’t wait to work. But this programme is only for locals. It is difficult for foreigners to get into apprenticeships as they need a work visa, not a student visa.

How much does it cost to be educated in Britain?

Depends on the university and whether the student is British or foreign. Education is significantly more expensive for foreigners – about 3 times more expensive.

As a guide, the annual cost of £22,000 per year for an undergraduate degree and £13,000 per year for a postgraduate degree can be taken as a guideline. It is worth adding to this amount the cost of accommodation, entry visa and health insurance.

What is the grading system in English schools?

Grades are given on 2 scales: from A to U – for the quality of work done, from 1 to 5 – for the diligence shown by the pupil (the lower the number, the better). A grade D1, for example, will be a reason for the pupil and his parents to keep their noses up – it means that he tried, but this time he failed. But if a pupil brings home a U5, parents should be concerned.

How many months of the year do students study in Britain?

In Britain, instead of quarters, there are trimesters. One trimester lasts 12 weeks, or 3 months. In total, the school year lasts 10 months. Pupils go on summer holidays in July and rest for 2 months.

How does a foreigner get into a UK university?

If the foreigner studied at a British school, he/she can apply under the general rules – applying through the UCAS system. If he/she has finished school in his/her home country, he/she will have to take a preparatory course at the university, which lasts for one year. During this time, the student will be able to hone their English language skills.

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