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What are the options for a UK education?

What are the options for a UK education?

In this article freelance education writer Nick Morrison gives Winter's readers the essential facts about the UK education system, looking at all the different types of school and some of their most important characteristics.


Parents looking for a UK education for their child can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed not just at the number but at the variety of schools available.

Firstly, there is a vast array of different types of schools, whether they’re junior, preparatory, pre-preparatory, secondary or senior; whether they’re co-ed or single sex; whether they’re boarding or day schools, and even whether they’re full boarding, flexi-boarding or weekly boarding.

And even within those categories, the UK’s depth of tradition means there is often a bewildering variety.

Compulsory school age in the UK is 5, when children start in Year 1, and goes through to Year 11, when children are 16, although in practice many children start at 4 or even earlier, and go through to 18, in Year 13.

The school year runs from September to June or July, and a school’s age of entry is the age the child will be on September 1.

"...there is an array of different types of schools..."

In state-funded schools, children normally spend Years 1 to 6 in a junior school before transferring to a secondary school for Years 7 to 11 and then either staying in that school or moving to a separate college, or sixth form, for Years 12 and 13.

In the fee-paying independent sector, however, it is more complicated. While some do run on the junior/secondary school lines, some operate a parallel system, although it is usually possible to transfer between the two.

Pre-Prep pupils at Chafyn Grove School

Pre-Prep pupils at Chafyn Grove School

In this alternative set-up, senior schools take children from 13, while preparatory, or prep, schools educate children from 7 or 8 to 13. Prep schools, as their name suggests, seek to prepare children for admission to senior school, and will often have close links with individual senior schools.

In London, competition to get into the leading prep schools, often those with links to the more prestigious secondary schools, is fierce. As a result, many parents favour pre-prep schools, which take pupils from 3 or 4 and are often linked to particular prep schools.

As a result, parents keen on specific senior schools can affect their child’s chances of getting a place at 13 by their choice of school at 3.

Admission to pre-prep schools varies from ‘first come first served’, which in practice may mean putting a child’s name down at birth, to a mini-assessment, involving an interview and observations.

Prep schools usually run more formal assessments, comprised of an entrance test and an interview. Some will have an additional intake at 11, allowing pupils to join after completing junior school.

Sandroyd School takes pupils aged from two-and-a-half to 13

Sandroyd School takes pupils aged from two-and-a-half to 13

At most independent senior schools, admission at both 11 and 13 is by examination and interview. Many schools use the Common Entrance (CE) exam, a standard set of papers, while others set their own exams.

In addition, there are a number of international schools in the UK, concentrated in London and largely falling into two categories:

1. There are schools that serve a specific nationality, teaching that country's home curriculum, with lessons generally taught in both the home language and English. They are often administered by the home government, and follow its admissions criteria.

2. Then there are schools that serve a number of different nationalities. Teaching is in English, although students are also encouraged to develop their mother-tongue, and they typically follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Application dates vary widely. For some schools, particularly the more prestigious senior schools, parents need to register several years in advance, while at others applications are still open weeks before the start of term.

Merchiston Castle School for boys aged 7 to 18

Merchiston Castle School for boys aged 7 to 18

Independent schools are self-governing institutions, administered by a governing body and appointing their own teaching staff, and funded through a combination of fee income and bequests. 

Teachers do not have to have a teaching qualification, a flexibility that allows independent schools to appoint experts who have never undergone formal training, although in practice most teachers will have worked in the state sector beforehand.

Single-sex education has a long tradition in the UK, although the number of single-sex independent schools has almost halved in the last 20 years. Many single-sex schools now admit both sexes in the sixth form, while a ‘diamond’ system has been adopted by some schools, where pupils are taught in co-educational classes up to 11, then in single-sex classes to 16, before going back into co-ed at 16-plus.

"...the number of single-sex independent schools has almost halved in the last 20 years."

Although most are day schools, one of the most distinctive features of the UK independent system lies in its boarding option, on a scale replicated nowhere else. Boarding provides a vast range of options, from full boarding, where students spend the entire term at the school, bar one or two weekends, to weekly boarding, where students go home most weekends, to flexi-boarding, where they can stay overnight when they choose.

All this adds up to an enormous - and what may seem a daunting - range of options. On the other hand, the sheer variety means there is a good chance there is a school to suit everybody.


Top image courtesy of Sherborne School. Other images courtesy of the following Winter's schools:

Chafyn Grove School


Merchiston Castle School

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