Education and Schools in the United Kingdom

Schools in Saudi ArabiaFor expats moving to the United Kingdom with children, making the right choice when it comes to picking a school is a top priority. Attending the right school will play a significant role in ensuring a successful transition into expat life in the UK for little ones.

Factors that will affect the choice of school for expat children include the child’s previous schooling experience, academic ability and English language capability.

Expat parents should note that most government-funded schools in the UK and some private schools base admission on catchment areas. Therefore, it is important to choose a school before deciding where to live within a city. Private schools and international schools with boarding facilities for students offer greater flexibility.

The education system in the United Kingdom


As a result of devolution, the education systems and schooling options do vary slightly between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Typically, the academic year in the United Kingdom starts in September and ends in July, with the main breaks in December, March/April and July/August.

The schooling system is divided into four levels:
  • Early years: Ages 3 to 4
  • Primary education: Ages 4 to 11
  • Secondary education: Ages 11 to 18
  • Tertiary education: Ages 18+

Education is compulsory in the UK for children between the ages of five and 17. Children usually start primary school during the school year in which they turn five. Students have the option of finishing school at the age of 16 or 17 after completing their GCSEs or continuing their secondary studies for a further two years where they have the option of studying for A-levels or BTEC awards. More and more schools in the UK are now offering students the opportunity to study for the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is recognised internationally.

In Scotland, students sit Standard Grade exams at the age of 15 or 16 and Higher/Advanced Higher Grade exams at the age of 17 or 18.

Wales has a similar system to England in the sense that students study for GCSEs and then A-levels, but students also have the option to study for the Welsh Baccalaureate. 

There are a number of different options when it comes to schooling in the UK. Each type of school is unique and offers different benefits. With such a wide variety of options, there is sure to be something to suit the needs and budget of every expat family. 

State-funded schools in the United Kingdom


State schools are provided by the government at no cost to British citizens and foreigners legally living in the UK. These schools are effectively funded by taxes. 

There are various types of state-funded schools in the UK, including comprehensive schools, grammar schools, voluntary controlled schools and free schools. Most are non-selective comprehensive schools, but there are still 164 selective grammar schools in England and a growing number of free schools. 

The standard of education at state schools varies considerably. Some offer excellent teaching and facilities, while other schools continue to perform badly in terms of the academic results of their students every year. Generally, the better state-funded schools will be found in more affluent areas.

Expats should consult the school's Ofsted (Office of Standards in Education) report to find out about the quality of teaching and facilities at a particular school as well as how the students at the school are doing academically. 

Admission criteria vary from one school to the next. Most of the popular state schools will base admissions on a particular catchment area, and expats should be aware of this when deciding where to live in the UK. While international students are treated equally to British students, some schools will be reluctant to offer places to those that have no long-term plans to remain in Britain. Grammar schools will require students to pass an entrance exam called the 11+.

Private schools in the United Kingdom


The United Kingdom has a tradition of private schools, which are also called independent schools. These schools generally follow the British National Curriculum but offer a wider range of subjects. However, more and more private schools in the UK are starting to offer students the opportunity to study for the International Baccalaureate.

Private schools tend to start teaching students foreign languages from a younger age and offer a wider range of extra-curricular facilities. The standard of teaching at private schools is excellent, class sizes are small and students at these schools generally perform better academically than those attending public schools in the UK. 

Fees at private schools are high. Expats should expect to pay on average GBP 3,000 to GBP 6,000 per term. The fees for boarding schools can be as high as GBP 12,000 per term. On top of school fees, parents should also budget a substantial amount of money for other expenses such as uniforms, stationary, private tuition, music lessons and field trips abroad. Most private schools do offer a limited number of scholarships for students who are particularly gifted.

The admission criteria for private schools vary from school to school. Students may be expected to attend an interview and pass an entrance exam for admission to some private schools in the United Kingdom. Most children in the private system will take an 11+ exam (in Year 6, aged 10 or 11) in order to get a place at a secondary school but for many of the older and more traditional schools the move takes place aged 12 or 13, when students will take a common entrance exam in order to move from their prep school to public school (which confusingly is not a state-run school in the UK, but a private school).
 

International schools in the United Kingdom


International schools are a popular option for expat families living in the United Kingdom. These schools follow a variety of different curricula from across the globe.

International schools allow students to continue studying the same syllabus as they were studying at home, and are good for those who do not plan on living in the United Kingdom in the long-term.

There are a whole range of international schools in the UK following the American, French, Japanese, Canadian and Australian national curricula. London has the largest variety of international schools, as this is the city with the biggest expat population.

Fees charged at international schools in the United Kingdom are hefty and can reach up to GBP 10,000 per term. Expats considering this option should try to negotiate an allowance into their employment contracts to cover the cost of school fees.

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