Saunders 1865 | The UK schooling system

The UK schooling system

The UK’s schooling system is very complex and it’s ever-changing. It can be overwhelming and especially hard for Assignees who arrive in the middle of a school year when a great many of the available school places have already been filled.

Transferring to a new job in a foreign country can be both exciting and challenging – but it isn’t just about the workplace. Moving one’s spouse and children abroad cannot be undertaken lightly and one of the most important elements is to identify and access an appropriate school for each child involved.

Picture the scene: you’re ten years old, you’ve had to leave behind the home where you grew up, the school that you love and all of your close friends and relatives. You’ve been brought to a foreign country and you’re going to a new school; but it’s the middle of the term and everyone else already knows each other… No wonder most parents find this the most stressful aspect of the move. They need their child’s experience to be positive and exciting – to learn about a new place and to make great new friends.

The chosen school has to be 100 per cent right to ensure that the relocation is an overall success.

The Complexities of the UK Education System

Every child between the age of 5 and 16 living in the UK is legally required to receive full-time education. But this simple mandate is served by a wide variety of schools and educational establishments offering a multitude of differing learning experiences. Most British children are educated within the state system for free which, while adhering to the National Curriculum, encompasses a number of different types of schools. In addition to the state system, parents can choose from a multitude of fee-paying or independent schools or enrol their children into one of the growing number of International Schools that have been established to cater for the ex-pat community.

For those unfamiliar with Britain’s schooling system, it can seem a little overwhelming to be faced with such a range of options. Each type of educational establishment will have its pros and cons and every school is different. The main thing is to match the school to the child’s needs and the best way to do this is to use the services of someone who is familiar with the system as a whole and with the availability of schools within the target area.

The State System

Britain’s state schools range from high-achieving, highly-selective grammar schools to voluntary-aided faith schools to independently-run Academies. More than 90 per cent of British children attend state schools, of which there are some 30,000. Primary schools run from five to 11 years, while secondary schools take pupils from 11 to 16 or 18.

There are also separate sixth form colleges for 16 to 18 year olds. State schools follow the National Curriculum, which is divided into four Key Stages, and public examinations are sat in Year 11 (GCSEs, taken by 16 year olds), Year 12 (ASs, sat by 17 year olds) and Year 13 (A levels, sat by 18 year olds and required to gain access to university).

For more details about subjects studied, visit the National Curriculum website at .

In England, Scotland and Wales education is funded through the Local Education Authorities, while schools in Ireland are financed through the Education and Library Boards. There are other regional differences to the system: in Scotland, the curriculum is not set by law and pupils take Standard Grade, Higher Grade and Advanced Higher exams, resulting on year less of secondary education than the rest of the UK. Throughout Britain, the state education system is undergoing a series of reforms and changes – to keep up to date, visit .

Types of state schools:

  • Community schools – run and funded by the Local Education Authority (LEA)
  • Voluntary controlled schools – these are usually church schools but are run by the LEA
  • Voluntary aided schools – these are run independently of the LEA, usually by the Church of England, the Catholic Church or other charitable foundations. They set their own admission policy and may select on the basis of religious affiliation
  • Foundation schools – run independently of the LEA by a governing body
  • Grammar schools – select pupils for higher academic ability
  • Academies – publicly funded schools that run outside the National Curriculum
  • City Technology Colleges – offer a more vocational slant of education

Standards in the state system vary widely and the difficulty encountered by assignees arriving in the middle of the school year is that, in the better state schools, all the places will already be filled. Good state schools that rank highly on the government school and college performance tables ( are generally oversubscribed and many have long waiting lists. Priority is given to the siblings of existing pupils and then by proximity to the school, a factor which has pushed up property prices in the vicinity of highly-rated state schools.

Before admission can be sought, a UK residential address is required. This puts relocating families in a Catch 22 situation: they don’t want to commit to a home until they know their children have a place at a nearby school, but they can’t get that place until they have committed to the property. The school year runs from September to July, so for assignees arriving in the middle of the school year, finding a place in a good state school for their children can be incredibly difficult. For this reason, it’s vital to use a relocation expert like Saunders 1865 to carry out a coordinated home and school search.

The Independent Sector

Independent schools, private schools, public schools, fee-paying schools – although it appears confusing to the uninitiated, all these names refer to privately run schools for which parents pay fees. The more illustrious in particular are known as ‘public schools’, historically to differentiate them from a church or home-based education. In fact, they are anything but public; the best, such as Harrow, Eton and Westminster, are particularly exclusive.

However, there are more than 2,500 independent schools up and down the country and the sector encompasses schools with a wide variety of teaching styles, philosophies, settings and priorities.

There are single-sex and mixed schools to choose from, faith schools, schools that are fiercely competitive to those that espouse a more progressive style of teaching such as Steiner schools. Most offer first-class facilities and resources, with typically smaller class sizes than are to be found in the state sector.

In the independent sector, parents will find both day and boarding schools and establishments that cater to a wide range of abilities, from academic high achievers to those with a more artistic, musical or sporting bent. Most private schools follow the National Curriculum and offer the chance to sit GCSEs and A Levels, though a growing number are now offering the International Baccalaureate, as it is more widely recognised as a qualification by universities around the world. Standards within private schools are maintained by regular inspections by OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education) and in fact the UK schools league tables are generally dominated by fee-paying schools.

With a wider choice of schools, more flexible admissions policies and a perceived academic advantage, most assignees look to the independent sector to educate their children. However, private schools are expensive, particularly boarding schools, and the top establishments have long waiting lists and competitive entrance exams – either the Common Entrance Exam that is sat at 11 for girls or at 11 or 13 for boys, or an exam of their own devising. Most fee-paying schools will also want to interview both the child and the parents to assess how the child will fit in and whether the school is right for the child.

International Schools

There are a growing number of international schools up and down the UK, particularly in London and the major cities. These cater for the children of ex-pats, often offering teaching in their own language and adhering to the education system of the country in question.

The advantage of this is that it maintains continuity in your child’s education and is particularly useful for older children who are coming to the UK without being able to speak English. International Schools generally offer the International Baccalaureate, so allowing the children to achieve an internationally recognised educational qualification.

The problems associated with selecting an international school is that they usually represent an extremely expensive option and that there may not be an appropriate international school within the geographic reach of the relocation, especially if it is outside London. Some parents might also feel that their child would be missing out on the experience of integrating into British society and the chance to become really fluent in English.

Using an Integrated School and Home Search

If securing a place for a child at a state, independent or international school in the UK seems like a daunting task, it would be a good idea to put your school search in the hands of a professional relocation expert like Saunders 1865.

They will:

  • Be able to discuss with you which system of education would be best suited to the child and the family circumstances.
  • Be able to explain the choices available within the geographic area of the relocation.
  • Discuss with parents the relative merits of boarding or day school with regard to their child.
  • Be able to present relevant information on a range of schools to choose between, including prospectuses, league table position, academic results, class sizes, reputation, experience in teaching children for whom English is the second language and areas of special interest such as sport, music, drama or languages.
  • Know to whether the school has vacancies, is likely to be over-subscribed or problematic to get in to.
  • Be able to put the child’s name down on appropriate waiting lists as soon as the decision to relocate has been made.
  • Know which junior schools act as ‘feeder’ schools to the best secondary schools in the area.
  • Know how much one should expect to pay in fees and whether there are likely to be extra and additional charges.
  • Have contacts within the schools and be able to organise a tour of the chosen shortlist.

To try to achieve this alone without prior knowledge of both the system and the individual educational establishments is not to be recommended and if an accommodation search needs to be conducted at the same time they need to be co-ordinated. If the dream home is in one area and the chosen school in another, then something will have to give; using a relocation professional for the task means that this won’t happen.

Moving whole families around the world can be a challenge, not only for the primary worker but for the spouse and children as well. Finding a great home and settling into a new school in a foreign country are tough. Putting in place a proper network of support to make the move easier will help to assure a successful outcome for everybody involved.

Contact us for a free initial consultation about your specific situation.
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