UK education system

Hello there, mates! In our Education Around The World series, we’ll be taking a close look at how schools and universities from all over the world operate. This time we’re travelling to the land of posh manners and splendid tea. It’s The United Kingdom (UK) of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. However, Scotland follows a slightly different education system, which will not be covering.

Read on about the UK education system and have jolly good time!

UK Education System


The UK education system is split into four main levels: primary, secondary, further and higher education. To further complicate things, it is also split into 5 Key Stages. Unlike some places where it differs from state to district, in the UK education system, all schools (excluding independent schools) must follow the National Curriculum.

Compared to countries like USA, it is more structured and rigid, with less options for students. In primary and secondary education, there is a large focus on standardized testing. Hence, even though, educators do evaluate student’s performance across a semester through assignments and such, there is still heavy emphasis on final exams. Children are legally obligated to attend from ages 5 to 16. Younger children of ages of 3 to 5 are entitled to 600 hours per year of optional, state-funded, pre-school education in nurseries and kindergartens.

UK education system

  • Primary Education (5-11)

For both primary and secondary state schools, students do not have to pay fees. Primary schools usually have a nursery for younger children. Most schools are of mixed gender. The UK Education System also names students level by ‘years.’ Starting at age five, students are in ‘Year 1’. The goal of primary education is achieving basic literacy and numeracy amongst all pupils, as well as establishing foundations in science, mathematics and other subjects. It is split into two Key stages: Key stage 1 (5-7) and Key stage 2 (7-11). At Year 1, students will have to read 40 words out loud to a teacher for a phonics test. At the end of both Key stages, primary school students undergo a national test where English reading English grammar, punctuation and spelling, and maths, are assessed.

UK education system

  • Secondary Education (11-16)

It is comprised of Key stages 3 (11-14) and Key stages 4 (14-16). Students in secondary education study English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, Modern foreign languages, Design and technology, Art and design, Music, Physical education, Citizenship and Computing. At Key stage 4, students prepare to take the GCSE (General Certification of Secondary Testing). The GCSE is a single-subject examination, set and marked by independent examination boards and replacement of O-levels. Students usually take up to ten GCSE examinations in different subjects, including mathematics and English language.

UK education system

Other than the regular state schools, there are also grammar schools. Grammar schools are state-funded secondary schools that admit pupils based on their academic ability. Student have to take a sitting exam before they are admitted. Grammar schools are a controversial subject in the UK. Supporters argue it produces students who academically far outperform their peers. However, critics believe it creates a culture of elitism in a society already stratified by classism. This is because most students come from wealthy backgrounds.

However, often the most rich and powerful of the British upper class, send their children off to elite boarding schools. Statistics show boarding schools offer a number of distinctive advantages. But British boarding schools have also come under fire for grooming the future leaders of the nation in an ‘elitist bubble.’

  • Further Education (16-18)

Further education is not compulsory. After secondary education, students are free to leave school. It encompasses vocational training, specialist colleges and sixth form. Sixth form, or what they call college (they don’t call universities ‘college’ because of this), is when students take a two year pre-requisite course to prepare for the A-levels. Some students continue in the same secondary school while others attend specialist sixth form colleges. A-levels are recognized by almost all UK universities and institution across the world. It is split into AS, studied in Lower Sixth, and A2, studied in upper sixth.

UK education system

Starting with sixth form, students in the UK education system actually study fewer subjects. With A-levels you only have to study 3 to 5 subjects. Because of this students have to decide earlier what they want to study. For example, if you are planning to be an Engineer, you take physics and chemistry subjects. If you want to study the sciences you never have to touch the humanities again! This is in opposition of higher education systems like the US where students can take a wide range of subjects throughout their studies. Thus, there is a heavier emphasis on depth instead of breadth.

  • Higher Education (18+)

The UK has been a hotbed of education since medieval times, scholars from across Europe traveled to England to study at it’s ancient universities. Even in the 21st century, it has maintained it’s international reputation as one of the best providers of high quality education. The institutions consistently perform exceptionally in global rankings and have a reputation for research excellence. Cambridge and Oxford, two of the most well known prestigious and top-ranked universities in the world are in the UK.

UK education system

According to OCED, the UK also has the highest level of tuition fees in the industrialized world apart from the United States (which is dramatically higher). However, the OCED also reports that there is a “well-developed system of financial support” that has contributed to a significant rise in students. Also, the shorter time of study might ultimately make it cost lower too. Interestingly, the report states that the proportion of students taking maths and science is high by international standards, but one of the lowest for Engineering.

Overall, it typically takes 3 years to complete an undergraduate degree. Students have the option of obtaining their undergraduate degree as either a Bachelor’s (Bsc/BA) or Bachelor’s with Honors (Bsc Hons/ BA Hons). In the UK education system, universities do not use the A-F grading scale. Instead, they use a classification system. With an ordinary Bachelor’s the aim is to not graduate merely with a Bachelor’s but with a Bachelor’s with Honors, students are classified based on a weighted average. The highest is First Class (70+%), Upper Second Class (60-69%), Lower Second Class ( 50- 59%) and Third Class (40-49%).

UK education system

In line with previous stages, a large percentage of grades from the UK education system comes from final exams. On the plus side, there is less homework and assignments.  Additionally, you can skip straight to PhD in the UK education system. However, it is still far more typical to do a Master’s first. Recently, a number of distinguished UK universities have set up official international branch campuses that lead to awarding of the same degree with the same high quality education overseas including Malaysia.


90 % of schools in the UK education system require students to wear a uniform. The UK department of Education strongly encourages implementation of uniforms it lessens distinctions between students from different backgrounds and sets a more appropriate tone. Uniform styles vary school to school and are tied distinctively to the school’s individual identity. Most of the more traditional schools have the classic blazer and tie combo (even with different pins and ties for awards and positions) while more modern schools only require a Polo-style shirt and slacks.

UK education system

Teachers are treated with more respect than in perhaps most Western countries but less than the deep reverence of Asian countries. Only the most traditional teachers require students to stand when they enter a room. Though many still prefer to be called ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. They also rarely get involved in student’s home lives. You have to do something really bad to get a call to your parents.

A typical school day usually starts from 9am to 3.30pm. However, there are usually a range of extra curricular activities for students to engage in before and after school. Breakfast clubs may run 8am and earlier while typical after-school clubs run till 4.30pm or 5.00pm.As with many countries, a strong curricular activity background is an advantage when applying for universities.

UK education system

Furthermore, given their long history of multiculturalism, UK institutions are welcoming of diversity. This especially the case in more metropolitan areas, where you can find a startling amount of people with different faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds. For this and other reasons covered above, it is the second most popular destination for international students.

In terms of higher education, students often have to decide at a young age, their future field of study because of the fast and rigid structure. This may unfortunately give them less opportunity to explore different options. Because of the quick three years though, a significant amount of UK students enjoying taking a gap year. They travel across Europe or other exotic locations,  before jumping into adult life.

UK education system

Well, there you have it. I hope all that extensive information has you crying ‘Bob’s your uncle!’ (I’m still confused on how to use that). Be sure to check out our university page where you can connect with the prestigious official UK institutions currently located in Malaysia. Also, be sure to join our Education Around The World series  next week where we’ll be covering the land of the free, USA!

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