Understanding the UK Education System: Stages, Types of Schools, and More

In the UK education system, education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 16. During these years, students will progress through each of Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4.

Considering the amount of time a child spends in the education system during their developmental years, it is obvious to see the education system in the UK plays a vital role in shaping the personal and financial lives of individuals. It provides the necessary skills and knowledge that enable individuals to make informed decisions and pursue meaningful careers. A high-quality education equips students with critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and a strong work ethic that are essential for success in both personal and professional life. Additionally, education helps to improve financial well-being by providing individuals with opportunities to gain higher-paying jobs, and through the acquisition of financial literacy and management skills. A strong education system is therefore essential for individuals to achieve their full potential and lead fulfilling lives, both personally and financially.

The UK education system can broadly be defined as following five principal stages: early years, primary education, secondary education, Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE). The graphic below explains how a child progresses through these stages during the period education is mandatory.

National Curriculum

The national curriculum covers which subjects are taught in primary and secondary schools and the standards that children should reach in each subject. Not all schools are required to follow the national curriculum e.g. academies and private schools. Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum that includes English, mathematics and sciences as well as religious education.

The diagram above helps to link age of a child to year groups and the relevant part of the national curriculum, known as a “key stage”. Key stages normally end with a formal assessment and this process culminates in exams in Year 11 (although some may take place in Year 10). These Key Stage 4 exams are more commonly known as GCSEs (General Certificate in Secondary Education) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is an extension of the National Curriculum to cover the education for children aged three to five. Note that the EYFS only applies to schools and years providers in England as there are different standards in Scotland and Wales. All schools and Ofsted-registered early years providers (e.g. childminders, preschools, nurseries and school reception classes) must follow the EYFS.

In EYFS, children will mostly be taught through games and play. Learning will focus on:

  • communication and language
  • physical development
  • personal, social and emotional development
  • literacy
  • mathematics
  • understanding the world
  • expressive arts and design

From here to the end of primary education, the focus is achieving basic literacy and numeracy as well as establishing foundations in subjects such as science and mathematics.

You will see that courses on educ8all are divided into the groupings of EYFS, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, followed by A Levels.

Types of school

All children in England between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a state school; however, there are alternative types of school.

  • Community schools
    • Sometimes called local authority maintained schools
    • Not influenced by business or religious groups
    • Follow the national curriculum
  • Foundation /voluntary schools
    • Funded by the local authority
    • More freedom the way they operate and may involve religious groups
  • Academies and free schools
    • Run by not-for-profit trusts and are therefore independent from the local authority
      • Free schools are funded by the government (and not the local authority) and can be set up by any group (teachers, parents, businesses, charities etc.)
      • Academies also receive funding direct from the government. Some schools choose to become academies whereas those local authority funded schools that are judged to be inadequate by Ofsted are required to become academies.
    • Freedom extends to being able to follow a different curriculum
  • Grammar schools
    • Can be run by the local authority, a foundation body or an academy trust
    • Pupils are selected based on academic ability via entrance exams

Special schools with pupils aged 11 and older also exist to assist those with special educational needs. Such schools tend to specialise in one of four categories:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional and mental health
  • Sensory and physical needs

Faith schools have to follow the national curriculum but have flexibility when teaching religious studies. While the admissions criteria can vary, anyone can apply although faith schools may prioritise children based on their religion. Note that faith academies do not have to teach the national curriculum.

City technology colleges are schools funded by the central government that are free to attend. They emphasise teaching science and technology. The city college for the technology of the arts teaches technology in its application of performing and creative arts.

State boarding schools provide free education but charge fees for boarding. They are mostly academies although some are free schools and others are run by the local government.

Private schools (also known as ‘independent schools’) charge fees to attend instead of being funded by the government. Pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum.

Admissions criteria

All schools in the UK education system have admissions criteria and these can be set by the school or the local council. The admissions criteria are not the same for all schools but they may generally prioritise children who:

  • who live close to the school
  • who have a brother or sister at the school already
  • from a particular religion (for faith schools)
  • who pass an entrance exam (for selective schools, for example grammar schools)
  • who went to a particular primary school (a ‘feeder school’)
  • who are eligible for the pupil premium or the service pupil premium
  • whose parent has worked at the school for 2 years or more


In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are nine qualification levels: “Entry level” and Levels 1 through to 8. The higher the level, the more difficult the qualification is. An example of an Entry Level qualification is entry level English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). GCSE grades 3,2 and 1 are equivalent to a Level 1 qualification whereas grades 9, 8, 7, 6, 5 and 4 are a Level 2 qualification. The age at which a child is no longer in compulsory education is 16 and coincides with the end of Key Stage 4 where most pupils work towards national qualifications – usually GCSEs.

AS Level and A Level qualifications are Level 3 qualifications and are usually 1 or 2 year programmes of study respectively that can be undertaken following Key Stage 4 (i.e. Years 12 and 13 if the diagram above were extended). Example A Level subjects include Maths, English, Biology. Chemistry, Physics, Economics and so on.

Apprenticeships and T-Levels

The UK education landscape continues to evolve with COVID-19 even prompting many who have long desired GCSE reform to state their case with renewed vigour.

Beyond compulsory education, government policy has focused on making apprenticeships more attractive. Apprenticeships offer young people the option to learn on-the-job while also earning through that job. A minimum of 20% of the apprenticeship must be spent on off-the-job training leaving 80% of the time on-the-job. This therefore provides an alternative path into a career to FE and HE.

T Levels are new courses (launched September 2020) which follow GCSEs and are equivalent to 3 A levels. These 2-year courses have a much smaller work component (about 45 days) than apprenticeships which are better suited to those who are ready to enter the workforce. T Levels are free if you start when you’re under the age of 19 and have not already enrolled in another type of post-16 education.

The idea is that T-Levels will be an alternative path for those not wishing to undertake A-Levels or an apprenticeship. In a small number of cases students may opt for other qualifications not served by A levels or T levels, including sport science, performing arts and small qualifications designed to be taken alongside A levels.

You can learn more about careers here and careers provision here.

Further Education / Higher Education

Following compulsory education, the UK education system breaks down into further education and higher education.

Further education can be used as general term to cover all education following the period of compulsory education but excluding that which is offered in universities, as that is known as higher education. Further education may be at any level from basic skills training to higher vocational education such as City and Guilds or Foundation Degree.

Higher education is defined as courses that are of a standard that is higher than GCE A level, the Higher Grade of the SCE/National Qualification, GNVQ/NVQ level 3 or the Edexcel (formerly BTEC) or SQA National Certificate/Diploma.

Adult education

The adult education system is about to go through some changes with the Lifelong Learning Bill which will also have an impact on higher education.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) is part of the Government’s reforms to post-18 education and training, which aim to support more people to access high-quality courses to leave them with skills that employers are seeking.

From 2025, the LLE will offer people a loan worth £37,000 in today’s tuition fees, which can be used flexibly over their working lives to pay for short courses, modules or full courses, whether at college or at university.

Key UK education system statistics

How many schools are there in the UK?

Based on BESA‘s collation of data available up to July 2021, there were 32,163 schools in the UK. Of these, 3,079 were nurseries or early-learning centres, 20,806 were primary schools, 23 were middle schools and 4,190 were secondary schools. There were 2,461 independent schools, 1,546 special schools, 57 non-maintained special schools and 348 pupil referral units (PRUs).

How many pupils are there in the UK?

There were 10,320,811 full and part time pupils at school in the UK. 8,890,357 in England, 469,176 in Wales, 794,364 in Scotland, 341,402 in Northern Ireland.

How many teachers are there in the UK?

There are currently 624,520 full-time teachers in the UK. 264,804 work in primary schools, 247,378 work in secondary schools, 76,442 work in independent schools and 27,883 work in special schools.