The UK Education System

Image of two students walking through a school hallway

The UK education system is divided into early years, primary education (upto Year 6), secondary education (Year 7-11), pre-university or further education (Year 12-13), and higher education consisting of undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

Since each of the UK countries have autonomy over educational issues, there are some minor differences in the education system in different parts of the UK.

Early, Primary and Secondary Education

In the UK, primary and secondary education encompasses Reception/Kindergarten to Year 11. Students begin their education at age 4, and typically graduate at age 16 with a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). GCSE is earned once students complete a set of standardized exams for their chosen subjects at the end of Year 11.

State schools and independent schools are two different types of schooling options available to students in the UK. Over 90% of British students study at state schools, which is governed and funded by the UK Department of Education, and are free to attend. Students can also study at fee-levying independent schools. These schools are not administered by the government, but must still adhere to the schooling standards set by the government.

  • Prospective international students can apply to study at independent schools. State schools do not accept international students, except for the dependant children accompanying an adult international student.

Further Education

Full-time education is compulsory until age 18 in the UK. After completing secondary school at age 16, British students go on to attend a Further Education (FE) college for two years, referred to Year 12 and Year 13 of their education journey. Students can choose to attain academic qualifications which are required for admission into a university, or pursue vocational qualifications to go directly into the workforce. Admission is based on one’s GCSE scores.

  • Further Education is equivalent to the final years of secondary school in the US, Canada and many other parts of the world. It is not a substitute for postsecondary education. Instead, it is often referred to as senior- secondary or pre-university education.

Further Education colleges may be large and comprehensive institutions with many study options, or specialized in certain areas of the study, such as Visual/Performing Arts colleges, and Agricultural/land-based colleges. There are also Sixth form colleges, which are dedicated to 16-19 year olds, and often connected to secondary schools to ease the transition between the two levels of studies.

Higher Education

Higher Education refers to degree education, and includes both undergraduate (Bachelor) and postgraduate (Masters and Doctoral) studies.

  • Bachelor’s degrees are typically awarded after three (3) years of full time study in the UK. It will take four (4) years if the student adds a year of work experience in between their study terms, referred to as a sandwich year. Professional degrees, such as medicine, veterinary and architecture degrees, require five (5) years of study.
  • Students can earn a Master’s degree in one year, while a Doctorate is typically completed in three to five (3-5) years.
  • Students can also pursue an Integrated Master’s degree, a four-year that combines undergraduate and graduate studies. Students are admitted after A-levels (further education), and do not receive a Bachelor’s degree in the process.

Higher Education is typically offered by universities, though some Further Education colleges and institutes also award degrees and foundation degrees (a two-year degree) in partnership with a recognized body. A recognized body is a higher education institution that is recognized by British government through legislation, and authorized to award degrees in the UK.

Levels of Study and Qualifications 

With over 50,000 courses to choose from, there is a wide variety of study options and qualifications that students can pursue in the UK to prepare themselves for their desired careers. The qualifications that students can earn fall into one of the eight levels that are established by the government based on the difficulty level.

Qualifications that are commonly pursued in the UK, and the levels they are at, are specified in the Ofqual Register of Regular Qualifications and outlined below.Image of UK qualifications with descriptions

Image of UK qualifications with descriptions