United Kingdom

United Kingdom

UK Education System and MKs

This paper provides an overview of the state education system available throughout the UK. There is a State education system with a National Curriculum throughout the UK, although there are faith-based schools, and independent schools, both day and boarding, which parents may choose to have their children attend; these are fee paying.

Each country of the UK has its own education system set by the respective governing bodies.

Education in most of the UK is compulsory for children and young people ages 5 to 16; in Northern Ireland compulsory education begins at the age of 4. In England the upper age limit for compulsory education is 18.

The education system is divided into nursery (ages 3–4), primary education (ages 4–11), secondary education (ages 11–18) and tertiary education (ages 18+). Children progress through education based on their age.

There is SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities) provision within mainstream schools and also some designated Special Schools for those who cannot be supported in mainstream schools.

Homeschooling is permitted throughout the UK. Each Local authority is responsible for overseeing any homeschooling families; the main criterion is that parents provide a well- balanced, age-appropriate curriculum for their children. The authority has the right to make an annual inspection of homeschooling families.

Secondary School

Most secondary schools in England and all secondary schools in Scotland and Wales are comprehensive, accepting pupils without regard to academic ability; in England there are a few areas where a selective system operates, which means that there are grammar schools in those areas which accept children on the basis of the results of a test known as the 11+. A selective system operates throughout Northern Ireland; there students are selected for places at grammar schools on the basis of a ‘transfer test’ at the age of 11.

The first set of public examinations are taken by students throughout the UK at the age of 16 after two years of preparation. These examinations are known as GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in England, Wales, and NI or Standard Grade exams in Scotland.

All young people are required to remain in an education or training programme until the age of 18. Secondary schools may offer courses for the 16-18-age range including A levels, International Baccalaureate, Pre-U exams, or, in Scotland, Intermediate, Highers or Advanced Highers. Students applying to university at the age of 18 are expected to have successfully completed this phase of education.

Vocational Schools and Colleges

Vocational courses are also available for this age group; this normally involves the study of a broad area of work and often includes some hand-on experience, such as Art and Design, or Health and Social Care.

Modern apprenticeships are available to 16 and 17 year-olds who choose to train towards vocationally related qualifications while working.


Those intending to apply to university in the UK or enter the education system at any earlier point from overseas either for Home Leave or because they are taking up an assignment based in the UK should contact families@wycliffe.org.uk for advice on the specific details of application to schools or universities.

Further information on education in the UK can be found at the following links:

Cultural Differences for Teachers to Know that May Affect Classroom Teaching

A teacher moving between education systems will encounter significant differences in methodology and expectations in teaching practice. Parental expectations of teachers and schools are also likely to differ. This article provides some insight into expectations of teachers or parents coming from a British background.

Challenges/Recommendations for MKs on Home Leave

While Home Leave (furlough) is intended to be a time of rest and reflection, reconnection with family and supporters, at the same time it can be a very challenging time for parents and children alike. This is particularly true for MKs who will be attending school during this Home Leave period; as well as leaving friends, they are likely to be entering a different school system which requires a good deal of adjustment on the part of the MK. Social adjustment to this new environment tends to have a greater impact than the adjustment to a different academic system. For advice contact families@wycliffe.org.uk.

Re-entry camps are available for MKs aged 6-12 and 13-18.

Challenges/Recommendations for MKs Returning to Passport Country for University

Returning to the UK for university, a gap year or for work purposes is quite different to returning for a Home Leave period; it is generally for a longer period and MKs may remain in the UK while the rest of the family return to their place of assignment, once an MK has settled. The document ‘Preparing for Re-entry to the UK for Study or Work‘ is intended as a help to young people and their families as they make this transition.

Other resource pages:

A British Perspective for American Teachers

This paper was originally written for British parents whose children attend American schools overseas. This version is trying to help American teachers understand where British children are coming from. Please forgive the gross generalizations of both cultures and look for what might be helpful in the paper. It may also help families and teachers from other cultures understand cross-cultural differences in their educational environment.

Educational theory and practice in the USA are different from those in the UK — not better, not worse, but undoubtedly different. Understanding the differences should help to remove the tensions which sometimes arise.

We will look at several areas of differences: