UK State School System: A Guide for Families Relocating to England

The UK state school system can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you’re new to the country. But once you understand how it works and what to expect, you’ll have an easier time finding the right school for your child. In this guide, we’ve outlined some key information on admission requirements and procedures, curriculum choices, extra-curricular activities, special educational needs (SEND) support services, and exams and assessments administered throughout the school lifecycle.

Please note that the education systems of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are different to each other. This article looks at the English system specifically.

Types of Schools in England: Primary, Secondary, and Beyond

In England, there are two main types of schools: primary and secondary. Primary schools are for ages 5-11 and secondary schools are for ages 11-18 (with some exceptions).

Most secondary schools offer a range of Advanced Level courses, including A Levels in maths, English language & literature, as well as sciences like biology, chemistry and physics. In lieu of A Levels, some students may sit the International Baccalaureate (IB). Students can also take GCSE or IGCSE exams, which test knowledge across various disciplines, including maths and English language & literature.

General further education (FE) colleges and sixth form colleges are post-compulsory education institutions in the UK that provide education for students aged 16-19 (and sometimes older) after they finish secondary school. These colleges offer a range of courses, including A-levels, IB, vocational qualifications, apprenticeships, and adult education courses.

General FE colleges, on the other hand, offer a wider range of courses that go beyond A Levels. These may include vocational courses, such as BTECs, NVQs, and City & Guilds qualifications, as well as basic skills courses, adult education courses, and apprenticeships.

Both types of colleges are publicly funded and open to students of all abilities and backgrounds. They offer a valuable alternative to attending a school sixth form and can provide a more mature learning environment for students transitioning from secondary school to higher education or work.

One point to note is that primary and secondary school students are generally required to wear uniforms while at school.

Admission Process and Timelines: A Step-by-Step Guide

The admissions process for schools in England is highly competitive. Admission policies and catchment areas are important factors to consider when applying to schools in England. Admission policies vary depending on the type of school, and it is essential to understand the criteria for each school to increase your chances of being accepted.

For primary schools, applications are usually made directly to the local council, and parents are asked to list their preferred schools in order of priority. The council uses a set of criteria to allocate places, including catchment area, siblings attending the school, and special educational needs. It is important to note that catchment areas can vary from school to school and may change from year to year, so it is important to check the catchment area for your preferred school before applying. The number of schools you can apply to varies depending on the local authority, but will usually range between 3 and 6 schools. For schools who administer their own admissions, these do not count towards the total number you can apply for under the local authority’s application form. 

For secondary schools, the application process is similar to that for primary schools, but the criteria for the allocation of places are more complex. Parents are asked to list their preferred schools in order of priority, and schools use a set of criteria to allocate places, including catchment area, academic ability, and special educational needs. Some schools also require students to sit an entrance exam or attend an interview as part of the application process.

For further education colleges and sixth form colleges, admission policies vary depending on the course and institution. Most colleges have an open admission policy, which means that anyone can apply, regardless of their academic ability or background. However, some courses may have specific entry requirements, such as a certain grade in a particular subject or a specific level of English proficiency.

Curriculum: What to Expect

The National Curriculum is divided into “Key Stages”:

Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7): covers children’s early learning and development, including numeracy, literacy, and science.

Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11): covers more advanced topics in English language, mathematics, and science, as well as art.

Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14): students study for GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams at this stage. The coursework component includes English language and literature, mathematics, science, history, geography, and modern foreign languages (MFLs), primarily French, Spanish or German.

Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16): most students work towards national qualifications – usually GCSEs. The compulsory national curriculum subjects are the ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects. Core subjects are: English, maths, science. Foundation subjects are: computing, physical education, and citizenship. Schools must also offer at least one subject from each of these areas: arts, design and technology, humanities, modern foreign languages, and music.

A Levels (16-18): A Levels are the most popular university entrance qualification in England. Students usually study three or four AS Level subjects in Year 12 (at ages 16-17) and then choose two or three A Level subjects to study in Years 13 and 14 (ages 17-18).

Extra-Curricular Activities: Clubs, Sports, and Enrichment Programmes

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Extra-curricular activities are a popular way for children to explore new interests, develop their social skills, and make friends. These may include clubs, sports, and enrichment programmes run by schools or local community groups.

There are many different types of extra-curricular activities available in the UK. Some examples include:

  • Arts & Crafts Clubs: Children can learn how to paint or draw with materials provided by the club.
  • Drama Groups: Children can rehearse plays together as part of this group activity.
  • Sports Teams: There are many different types of team sports available at school level.
  • School Clubs: There are many different types of clubs available at school level, such as chess and debating societies.
  • Music Classes: Children can learn how to play an instrument or sing in a choir.

Extra-curricular activities generally run during lunch breaks and after school.

Support for Students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

A student with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) may have additional needs that require support. 

If your child has been assessed as having special educational needs, they will be able to receive extra help from teachers and other professionals within the school – for example through individualised teaching programmes or specialist equipment – in order to meet their unique needs. They will also be issued with an ‘Education, Care and Health Plan’ (ECHP) which will be shared with their school.

If you would like to find out more about the support your child can receive, you can contact the local Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information, Advice and Support (SENDIAS) service. They will be able to provide you with more information about what additional support is available in your area.

Exams and Assessments: National Tests, SATs, GCSEs, and A Levels

In England, students are assessed regularly throughout their school years, with national tests taken at key stages in primary and secondary school. The tests are designed to monitor each student’s progress and identify where additional support may be needed.

In primary school, students take Key Stage 1 (KS1) tests at age 7 and Key Stage 2 (KS2) tests at age 11. The KS1 tests assess students’ basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. The KS2 tests include assessments in English reading, English spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG), and mathematics.

At secondary school, students take Key Stage 3 (KS3) tests at age 14, which are designed to assess their progress in core subjects like English, mathematics, and science. These tests are used to set targets for students’ future progress and identify areas where additional support may be needed.

At the end of secondary school, students take the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. These exams are typically taken in a range of subjects, including English, mathematics, and science, and are usually taken at age 15 or 16. GCSEs are graded from 1 to 9, with grade 9 being the highest.

For students who wish to continue their studies beyond GCSEs, there are A-level exams, typically taken at age 18. A levels are more specialised exams, with students taking exams in specific subjects. The exams are graded from A* to E, with A* being the highest grade.

Students usually study A levels over 2 years and choose three subjects, but they can take more or fewer. To study A levels, the student normally needs at least 5 GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 and grade 6 in the subjects they want to study.

Choosing the Right School: Factors to Consider

Choosing the right school for your child can be a daunting task, especially if your family is relocating to the United Kingdom from another country.

Here are some factors parents should consider when choosing a school:

What are your child’s interests and talents? Does he or she want to study music, athletics, or art? Some schools specialise in certain subjects and may offer more specialised classes than others do.

Do you want to send your child to a particular curriculum? Some schools follow the National Curriculum while others have their own unique approach (known as “independent schools”). The latter often charge fees but offer more freedom of choice when it comes time for students’ individualised learning plans (ILPs).

League tables are a good starting point when looking for schools. They rank each school based on its performance in standardised tests, the number of students who go on to attend a university or college, and other factors that are important to families. It’s also worth checking out the school’s website; many have a section dedicated to student life where you can see what past students think about their experiences there.

Ofsted ratings are another useful tool. They’re given out by the government-funded Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) to ensure that schools are meeting their standards of quality.

If you’re considering a move to the UK, it’s important to do your research on the school system. We hope this guide has provided some useful information and insight into what families can expect when relocating here.

If you need any further assistance with schools in the UK, or would like us to help you find a suitable school, please speak to one of our experts or send a message today.

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