Educational systems in the United Kingdom

Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland have similar curricula. However, there are certain differences in both the mandatory age of schooling and the type of official examinations that students have to take throughout the school year. The Scottish education system is the one that most differs from the other three.


Each country has its own curriculum for primary and secondary stages, which are very similar in content. After high school, students must choose between following academic training, which will lead them to university, or opt for vocational training, more practical and focused on access to work.


 England: National Curriculum

– Wales: National Curriculum for Wales (National Literacy and Numeracy Framework, LNF) which will be replaced by a new curriculum as of 2022

– Scotland: Curriculum for Excellence

– Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Curriculum


In England, the National Curriculum is made up of a series of subjects and standards that all primary and secondary public schools must follow. Private schools are not required to apply this national curriculum.


The curriculum is divided into a series of stages that group several courses called Key Stages. At the end of each of these stages, teachers evaluate their students:

– At the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (Nursery and Reception), the teacher evaluates students before beginning primary school.

– In Key Stage 1 (Years 1-2) students perform a phonetic assessment test at the end of Year 1. By the end of Year 2 (7 years-old), they must take official exams known as SATs (Short for Standard Assessment Tests) in math and reading subjects. Apart from these tests, tutors must evaluate students (teacher assessment) in reading, conversation and writing and science.


As of 2023, these tests will cease to be compulsory in Year 2 and schools will be able to choose if they want to do them. These tests serve to have an assessment of where the school is located with respect to others and of the level of students.


– When Key Stage 2 (Years 3-6) is finished, in Year 6 (11 years), other SATs are taken, which are mandatory and are used to evaluate the knowledge in reading, grammar, punctuation, English spelling and mathematics. There are other subjects including written, spoken and listening comprehension as well as sciences that are directly evaluated by the teacher.


However, if students decide to complete the secondary stage in an independent school or a public school, at the end of Year 6 or Year 8 they have to perform the Common Entrance exams. These exams are prepared by the Independent Schools Examinations Board but which are corrected by each secondary school where students have applied.


– Students are no longer required to complete the SATs at the end of Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9). Instead, schools must perform a series of tests at the end of Years 7, 8 and 9 to assess the progress of their students, verify that the student is in the correct group according to its abilities, and familiarize them with the practice of performing exams for their future GCSE. The results of these KS 3 tests are published in the official classification of schools (league tables). Exams are usually conducted in all subjects, instead of just in language, math and science.


– Within Key Stage 4 (Years 10-11), the first year (Year 10) is very important in all schools, as they begin a period of two years to prepare for the official GCSE exam (General Certificate of Secondary Education). At the end of Year 11, students must take a minimum of five or six subjects (to choose between math, science, history, geography and languages). Additional subjects may be taken depending on their skills and the choice of centre where they will perform Sixth Form or International Baccalaureate. This is the reason why most schools do not accept new students in Year 11, unless they come from another school with a very similar GCSE programme.


Some schools offer a special school year known as a one year foundation class for those international students who have not completed GCSEs and where they are prepared to meet the entrance requirements of the Sixth Form stage.


– Once the GSCE has been passed, at 16 years-old, students begin an optional stage of two years of study in which they can choose between International Baccalaureate or Sixth Form (the equivalent to the Spanish Bachillerato), which is done during Year 12 (16 years-old) and Year 13 (17 years-old) and where students prepare for the AS and A Levels or for the Cambridge Pre-U. The AS Level (Advanced Subsidiary Level) is normally a one-year program, while the A-Levels (Advanced Level) usually last two years. At the end of each program, an evaluation is carried out. Most of the subjects can be started in the AS Level and continued in the A Levels.


There is a wide selection of subjects available in the AS and A Levels offered by centers. There are no compulsory subjects and students can choose between specializing or studying various subjects. This capacity of choice helps students increase their motivation during their studies. Students usually choose four subjects in the AS Levels and three in the A-Levels. The standard admission requirement of UK universities is three A Levels.

The two-year program of the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma has already been adopted by some of the best private schools and some grammar schools as it offers a deeper understanding of subjects than what the AS and A levels offer. In order to obtain the Diploma, students must choose three main subjects out of a total of 27. In addition, they must present a project known as Global Perspectives and Research (GPR). Students can also take the one-year program in modern languages, mathematics, math extension and global perspectives. This one year program does not allow to obtain the Diploma qualification needed to access many universities.


The educational system in Wales is very similar to England and the National Curriculum must be applied in all state schools. However, since 2011, the Key Stage 1 curriculum has been replaced in Wales by the so-called Foundation Phase for children between 3 and 7 years of age. As in England, the age of the child on September 1 determines when they should start school.


In Wales, in each school year (from Year 2 to Year 9) students take the National Reading and Numeracy Tests. Like England, teachers also conduct assessments at the end of Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, but students do not have to complete the SATs at the end of Key Stage 2. Students take the GCSE at the end of Year 11, and they have the option to continue studying Year 12 and Year 13 for AS, A-Levels, International Baccalaureate Diploma or the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma.


In Northern Ireland the curriculum is the Northern Ireland Curriculum of 2007. A central element of the curriculum is the concept of “Learning for Life and Work” which includes areas such as citizenship, employability and personal development. Under this Curriculum, schools and teachers have more flexibility to decide subjects and approaches that best suit their students. There is not a mandatory list of subjects that students must complete throughout the school year.


A fundamental difference between the educational system in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is the age at which compulsory education begins. Children must start school in the month of September after they have turned 4 years old. This means that there are 12 years of compulsory education (primary Y1-Y7 and secondary Y8-Y12) and not 11 as in the rest of the United Kingdom (Y1-Y6 or P1-P7 in primary and Y7-Y11 or S1-S4 in secondary).


The Northern Ireland Curriculum consists of 5 compulsory stages of education: Foundation Stage (Y1, Y2), Key Stage 1 (Y3, Y4), KS 2 (Y6, Y7), KS 3 (Y8, Y9, Y10) and KS4 (Y11 and Y12). There are no official exams in the primary stage; however, at the end of each year, teachers must assess and report on students’ progress in three areas: learning areas; cross-curricular skills (communication, mathematics and ICT); and thinking skills and personal abilities.


Likewise, at the end of KS 1 and KS 2 teachers evaluate their students in the subjects of language and mathematics. At the end of KS 3, all students must take official exams in language, mathematics and science.


In KS 4 they prepare for the GCSE. If they decide to access university, they will complete the AS and A-Levels in Y12 and Y13, the International Baccalaureate Diploma or the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma.


In Scotland, the national curriculum is the Curriculum for Excellence. The purpose of this plan is to help children and young people acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for life in the 21st century. It considers education in its full sense and not only what is taught in class.


This Curriculum is divided into two stages: The first is Broad General Education with five levels: Early (Preschool and P1), First (P2, P3, P4), Second (P5, P6, P7), Third and Fourth (S1, S2 and S3). The second stage is the Senior Phase (S4 to S6).


Children born between March and August begin compulsory education in the month of August after turning five. Those born between September and February start school before they reach their fifth birthday. However, they may have begun school education at the Early Learning and Childcare stage (3-4 years) which lasts two years and which is optional.


The primary stage goes from the first to the seventh year (P1-P7). In this stage, evaluations are carried out at the end of P1, P4 and P7.


Secondary schools start when students are between 11 and 12 years-old (S1), and not in Year 7 (10-11 years-old) or Year 9 (12-13 years-old) as in England. Most students take the official exams (National Qualifications, which have recently replaced the Access, Standard Grade and Intermediate qualifications) in S4, and the Highers Exams in S5, which already gives them access to university. However, they can also decide to perform more Highers and / or Advanced Highers in S6.


Traditionally, Scottish education has been more generalist than English education. Students take a wider variety of subjects before specializing. Generally, students are tested on five Highers at the age of 17 and the following year they are tested on three Advanced Highers, which means they do not specialize until the last years of education. In the English system, students usually take three A-Levels for two years, which means that they study fewer subjects but in greater depth than in the Scottish system.


Many Scottish private high schools follow the English educational system, which is more interesting for international students.