Education in the United Kingdom

Education in the United Kingdom

Education in the United Kingdom is organised separately in each of the countries of the United Kingdom with power over education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being devolved. For details, see;
* Education in England,
* Education in Northern Ireland,
* Education in Scotland,
* Education in Wales.

This article provides some comparisons between the different systems.



Education in England is the responsibility of the UK Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, though the day to day administration and funding of state schools is the responsibility of Local Education Authorities.

In Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning is responsible to the Scottish Parliament for education, with day to day administration and funding of state schools being the responsibility of Local Authorities. The administrations and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland have responsibility for Education in their areas.

School curriculum

Maintained schools ('state schools') in England, Wales and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum which was introduced by the UK government under the Education Reform Act 1988. Independent schools do not need to follow any set curriculum, as long as they are providing a reasonable standard of education.

Scotland does not have a proscribed national curriculum though schools are expected to follow national guidelines. Learning and Teaching Scotland has a key role in helping schools improve the curriculum they offer. The most recent curricular advice is contained in the publication 'A Curriculum for Excellence' and all schools are expected to move towards adjusting the curriculum they offer in the light of these guidelines.


In England and Wales, prior to the 19th century, most schools were established by private benefactors and operated as educational charities. The state became involved in construction of schools in England and Wales in 1833, with the Elementary Education Act of 1870 setting the framework for universal education. Compulsory education was introduced in 1888 and the "Balfour" Education Act of 1902 brought most schools in England and Wales under Local Education Authority control. The "Butler" Education Act of 1944 changed the education system for secondary schools in England and Wales. Initially schools were separated into primary school (infant schools age 5 to 7 and junior schools age 7 to 11), and secondary schools (split into more academic grammar schools and more vocational secondary modern schools). Under both Labour and Conservative governments of the 1960s and 1970's most secondary modern and grammar schools were reorganised as comprehensive schools.

In Scotland, compulsory education for barons and wealthy landowners began with the Education Act of 1496. The Education Act of 1633 ordained the establishment and maintenance of parish schools. The 1633 act was strengthened by the Education Act of 1646, which itself was reaffirmed by the Education Act of 1696. That act would regulate education until the Education (Scotland) Act 1872, when the Scottish Education Department in took over that role.


In England, children attend secondary education from the age of eleven, going to a comprehensive school, grammar school or an independent (fee-paying) school. Some local authorities operate a three-tier system, where children leave primary school aged 9 to go on to a middle school until the age of 13. All of these types of schools may be single sex or co-educational, however the vast majority of comprehensive schools are co-educational. School hours generally fall between 0830 hours and 1600 hours, though schools are free to set their own hours. Children go to school from Monday to Friday for three terms and have thirteen weeks of holiday which are Easter, Christmas and the summer, with a week breaking up each of the three terms (Half Term). Some local authorities have a 'six-term year', numbering each half term one to six. Independent schools usually have a longer school day, sometimes including Saturday mornings, and longer holidays in compensation.

In Scotland, all local authority schools are comprehensive schools which the vast majority of pupils attend. Local Authorities set the dates for holidays in their own areas, though all teachers in local authority schools have the same holiday entitlement - effectively 12 weeks per year. The teachers' contract [ [ A Teaching Profession for the 21st Century], accessed August 4, 2008 ] actually stipulates that teachers are expected to work 195 days per year, of which 5 working days are In-Service Training days. This means that pupils effectively get 13 weeks holidays per year. The teachers' contract also stipulates that working hours of secondary schools should be 27.5 hours per week, though teachers are expected to work a 35 hour week. As part of the McCrone agreement, teachers are entitled to work 'at a time and place of their choosing' if not required for actual teaching duties. Since the maximum pupil contact time is 22.5 hours, all teachers will have time during school hours when they may choose to leave the building for some other purpose - on the basis that they will be working the hours at some other time.

School stages

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, primary school education is compulsory from age 5. Children most commonly enter Reception Class aged 4 in the academic year in which they will reach their 5th birthday. The remaining years are called Year 1, Year 2, etc, up to year 6. It is normal for a single teacher to teach pupils throughout the year, encompassing all subjects including an introductory course in a modern European language. Primary school education may be divided into Infant (ages 4-7) and Junior (ages 7-11) school. At the end of the Infant School, pupils sit Key Stage 1 SATs with Key Stage 2 SATs taken at the end of Year 6. At the age of 14, children sit the Key Stage 3 exams. The majority of local authorities set the primary to secondary transition age at 11. Secondary school students also study vocational subjects such as hairdressing and beauty, construction, woodwork and travel and tourism. Independent schools, and some grammar schools may offer subjects such as Greek and Latin. All students between the age of fourteen and sixteen in England and Wales sit the General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations. Students who do the General Certificate of Secondary Education must study English, Mathematics, Science and Religious Education. Schools then offer other subjects that the students can choose to do. A student automatically progresses to the next level of year and does not repeat the year even if the student has failed his or her examinations.

Increasingly, gifted and talented students are entered for examinations early, e.g. Mathematics is sometimes taken a year or a few terms early and then another GCSE such as Statistics or an FSMQ is taken in the remaining time of the year. Additionally, in some schools, students who fluently speak a GCSE Course Language (French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Panjabi, Urdu, Gujarati etc.) are allowed to take this GCSE early, possibly in Key Stage 3 to enable them to take an additional GCSE when entering Key Stage Four. Other subjects which are often taken early include Humanities [ [ Teaching humanities in Y9] ] and Classics.

Students of any age may choose to attend the Further Education Colleges to further their post-secondary school education. Students may choose to study for National Vocational Qualifications as an alternative to A levels. Others, however, may wish to re-sit examinations to improve school-leaving qualifications and specialist further education colleges known as Sixth Form Colleges focus on school level qualifications.


In Scotland, all pupils have the right to attend nursery school from age 3 though not all parents take up this option. Pupils born between March 1st in one year through to the end of February the following year are normally placed in the same year group. Since the academic year starts in August, pupils starting primary school range in age between 4 years 6 months and 5 years 6 months. After seven years of primary education, pupils move to secondary school. Most students sit Standard Grades at the end of the fourth year of their schooling though more advanced pupils may sit some of these exams at the end of third year. Students will typically sit 7 or 8 Standard Grades in a single year. Most pupils have to complete a full 4 years of secondary education though the oldest pupils may be able to leave school half way through the fourth year at the Christmas leaving date. (The youngest pupils in any year group may have to leave at the Christmas leaving date mid-way through their fifth year.) The majority of pupils choose to stay on for 5th year and a significant number stay on for a 6th year as well if they have not achieved the qualifications necessary for entry to University or whatever other career path they may have set their sight on. Students may choose to study for Scottish Vocational Qualifications or National Qualifications such as Highers that are also available in secondary schools. Increasingly, secondary schools are forming partnerships with Further Education Colleges to deliver more vocational courses to pupils for whom the secondary curriculum is inappropriate.

Teaching unions

The main teaching unions in England and Wales are the National Union of Teachers, NASUWT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The main teaching unions in Scotland are the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

University education

Students who attend English universities usually do a three year course to earn a bachelor's degree, whether it be an ordinary degree or an honours degree. There are also sandwich courses which offer work placement whereby student work for a short period of time in a relevant industry before completing their studies. Taking a sandwich course may make the degree last a year longer than otherwise. English universities specialise subjects throughout the entire degree. The Oxbridge universities (Oxford University and Cambridge University) which are amongst the world's oldest universities are generally ranked at or near the top of all UK universities. Academic degrees are usually split into classes: first class (I), upper second class (II:1), lower second class (II:2) and third (III), and pass (below third class). In many universities ordinary degrees are often confined to vocational courses such as medicine and dentistry, or awarded when a student hasn't passed enough modules to be awarded the honours degree.

Students who attend the Scottish Universities can do an ordinary degree in three years, or complete an honours degree in four years. There are also sandwich courses in which the student may need to do a year more. The sandwich courses offer work placement which allows the students to work for a short period of time before they complete their courses. Scottish universities tend not to specialise subjects until the third year when students may decide to complete an ordinary degree in a further year or embark on a two-year honours course (often referred to as the Junior Honours Year and Senior Honours Year). Most universities award a Bachelor Degree to the students who have completed their undergraduate courses though for historical reasons, the Scottish ancient universities (University of St Andrews, University of Edinburgh, University of Aberdeen and University of Glasgow (as well as the University of Dundee) award a Master of Arts (MA) degree to arts students who have completed their undergraduate courses. These MA degrees are equivalent to a Bachelor Degree. Honours degrees are usually split into classes: first class (I), upper second class (II:1), lower second class (II:2) and third (III), and unclassified (below third class). Students who apply for a Scottish University while attending a Scottish secondary school do not need to pay for university tuition fees as it is paid for on their behalf by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland.


ee also

*List of schools in the United Kingdom
*School governors
*Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) (England)
*Estyn (Wales)
*Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (Scotland)
*Education and Training Inspectorate (Northern Ireland)
*Examination boards in the United Kingdom

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