UK Schooling Overview: Timing, Academic Year and GCSEs/A Levels

                                                            By: Ann Dinsdale, GMS,



*This article is the second part of an 8 part series on the UK schooling system.  See the foot of this article for links to the other 7 parts.*

UK Schooling relocation

We’ll cover the timing of birthdays and the academic year and what the GCSEs and A Levels are.

Age Timing

Just like in the US, the age your child is and when their birthday falls during the year affects when they can start school in the UK.  

We’ve highlighted a few of the important dates to remember below:

  • Age 3

o    Start of nursery is the term following 3rd birthday

  • Age 5

o    Must start primary school full time from the term after their 5th birthday

  • Age 11

o    Will move to secondary education in the September following their 11th birthday

  • Age 14 – 16

o    Study for GCSEs

  • Age 16 – 19

o    Study for A Levels

  • Age 18

o    Must stay in some form of education or training until their 18th birthday

Academic Year

The academic year in the UK runs from 1 September to 31 August.  There are 3 terms at 5-7 weeks of schooling, versus the US that traditionally has 2 terms at 14-16 weeks or 4 quarters.  Additionally, each term has a week holiday called ‘half term’ where the children are off.

Terms are more broken up in the UK with 2 weeks holiday at Christmas, 3 weeks at Easter and 6-7 weeks for the Summer Break.

GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education)

The GCSEs are an academic qualification awarded in a specified subject, school-leaving qualification required in the UK.  They are available in more than 50 subjects such as technology, humanities (history, geography, religion), business, languages and more.  Core/compulsory subjects include (but are not limited to):

  • English language
  • English literature
  • Mathematics
  • Science

GCSE examinations (mainly written) are typically taken at the age of 16 but may be taken at any age.  The exams are in May/June and results are published in August.

A level 1 GCSE covers grades C to G or 1 to 5 (commonly referred to as the foundation tier) whereas a level 2 GCSE covers grades A* to C or 4 to 9 (commonly referred to as the higher tier).  Five level 2 GCSEs, including English and Maths, are generally required (as well as an A or B in the specific subject) to continue to the level 3 Advanced GCE level (A-Level) or equivalent level 3 qualifications

Whereas in the US a high school diploma is the required educational qualification for entry into college, in the UK the high school diploma is considered to be at the level of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), which is awarded at Year 11.

A Levels

The A Level (Advanced Level) is a subject-based qualification conferred as part of the General Certificate of Education, as well as a college or sixth form school leaving qualification, generally progressed to following GCSE results.  They are not compulsory, however, unlike the GCSEs.  The student is expected to have received 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C with at least a B grade in chosen subject. 

A Levels are generally worked towards over two years and split into two parts, with one part studied in each year. The first part is known as the Advanced Subsidiary Level, A1 Level or AS Level.  The second part is known as the A2 Level and is more in depth and academically rigorous than the A1 Level.  Exams are taken in May/June and results are published in August before the GCSEs.

There are over 80 subjects to choose from.

It’s always important to plan your move overseas carefully, especially if you have children.  There are many things you need to cover at both ends of the move.  People moving abroad make big mistakes by failing to get good, independent advice and support.

As international relocation specialists, the experts at Saunders 1865 – The VIP Relocation Company – can help you avoid making the common mistakes and we can make sure you accomplish everything that needs to be done around:

  • Helping parents navigate the complex education systems
  • Relieving parents’ worries about finding the right schools & securing places
  • Providing a quick & efficient service that saves time & provides independent, objective advice

Why not arrange a free consultation with one of our relocation experts today?  Just message us using this Contact Form