The UK Independent Education System

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Do you know the difference between a state school and independent school in the UK? Jenny McGowan offers an overview and defines the key terms you might see when conducting research on UK schools and the UK Independent Education System.

The UK education system can be confusing, especially for international families whose children are being educated elsewhere, hopefully this article can shed some light for families considering educating their children in the UK.

The UK Independent Education System

Schools by Funding Type

State schoolsaccount for 93 per cent of children in the UK and are not fee-paying; they are funded by the government. To be eligible for a place parents must have ‘right of abode’ (automatic as a British Citizen) or a visa that stipulates their children are eligible for a state-funded school. The admissions process is managed by the local authority and the allocation of a school is based on where you live and address proof will be required to apply.

Independent schools, also known as private/public schools are fee-paying and each school has its own admissions process – you apply to schools directly. Many independent schools will sponsor Tier 4 child student visas which allows international students to study in the UK when their parents do not have the right, or do not want to live in the UK.

For the purpose of this article, we will discuss independent schools.

Schools by Age

Pre-prep schools: Children will usually start at the age of 3 or 4 and the aim is to prepare them for a move to prep school at age 7 or 8 (Year 3 or 4). Pre-prep schools are often linked to prep schools and many children will transition from one to the other.

Prep schools: Entry is usually at age 7 or 8 (Year 3 or 4), where children will take the appropriate 7+ or 8+ exams but it is possible to start at 9 or 10 if there are places available. Prep schools prepare children to gain entry to senior schools, usually at the age of 11 or 13.

Senior schools: Senior schools can start at age 11 or 13 and go through to age 18. Common entry points to senior school are usually at 11+ (Year 7), 13+ (Year 9) or 16+ (Year 12) and most schools will have an established admissions process for these. Most senior schools are selective and prospective students may have to sit computerised and/or paper tests, interviews, assessment days before being offered a place. Depending on student movement, some schools may have occasional spaces for entry at 12+ (Year 8) and 14+ (Year 10). Years 12 and 13 are collectively known as the Sixth Form.

Sixth Form colleges: These cater to students aged 16 to 18 after they have finished their GCSEs. They provide AS and A-level courses, as well as other more vocational courses, and are usually more flexible than a traditional school in terms of subject choices and duration of study. The environment is more informal (no uniform) and students are expected to be fairly independent and take responsibility for their own education. Many sixth form colleges are academically selective and applicants will be required to take entrance exams in the subjects they will study and/or an interview.

The UK Independent Education System - Girls and Boys walking

Main entry points for international applicants

Some prep schools offer boarding, therefore international students can start at a UK school before senior school. However most students will enter at the following points:

– 11+: Your child will start Year 7 at their new school.

– 13+: Your child will start Year 9 at their new school.

– 16+: Your child will start Year 12 at their new school.

Occasional places might be available outside of the usual entry points, into Year 8 or 10 for example. It is worth noting that entry into Year 11 or 13 is extremely unlikely as it is half-way through a two-year course (GCSE/A Level/IB).

Schools by boarding type

Day schools: Students live with their parents and commute to school each day.
Boarding schools: Students live at school for all or part of the week.

  • Weekly: Students will live at school Monday to Friday and spend weekends with their parents.
  • Flexi: Parents can choose how many nights a student will spend at school or at home.
  • Full: Students live at school all the time apart from exeat weekends (designated weekends in each term where students can leave) and school holidays. This is the most common choice for international families as it allows the parents to live outside the UK.

There are many schools that will have both day and boarding options.

Note – guardians: if parents live outside of the UK they will be required to appoint a guardian who is responsible for the child. You can choose a family member or friend, or there are paid guardianship services. As this person will be responsible for attending school meetings and dealing with any emergency situations you need to do your research and make sure they are accredited by AEGIS or the BSA.

Single-sex or co-educational schools

Single-sex: schools that have only boys or girls. 

Co-educational: schools that have both boys and girls 

There are schools that are single-sex at some ages and co-ed for others. For example, single-sex until Year 11 and then co-educational in the Sixth Form.

National Qualifications

Most schools will have their own assessments or mock exams throughout the academic year but students only take National Qualifications, as determined by the government, at the age of 16 and 18.

GCSE: Qualifications taken by students at the age of 16; Years 10 and 11 are usually dedicated to GCSE preparation, although some schools may start in Year 9. Students usually take around 10 GCSE subjects. English, Maths and Science are compulsory, and students choose from a list of optional subjects which include humanities, languages, creative arts and technology-based subjects. The optional subjects available will depend on the school provision – not all schools offer all subjects. GCSE grades are awarded on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 9 (highest) and the results will be used to assess whether students can study certain subjects at Sixth Form, for university applications and some jobs will have minimum GCSE requirements.

International GCSE: Introduced to enable students from overseas to receive the IGCSE qualification but can also be taken in UK independent schools. There is not a significant difference between the two qualifications and they are viewed in the same way by universities. IGCSEs can be graded in two ways; A*-G or 1-9.

A Levels: Qualifications taken by students at the age of 18; Years 12 and 13 (Sixth Form) are dedicated to the preparation. Students will generally take 3 or 4 A Levels and they can choose whichever subjects they wish to, assuming their school offers the subject. Each subject is studied in great depth and some subjects are essential for university courses (e.g. Maths and Physics to study Engineering) so consideration needs to be given to one’s aptitude for the subject and the university courses they are interested in before Year 12. A Levels are graded A*-E.

AS Levels: One-year qualifications usually taken in Year 12 if a student doesn’t want to continue with the subject for 2 years. AS and A Levels can be taken alongside each other – for example, a student might take 3 A Levels and 1 AS Level.

Note – exam boards: For GCSEs and A Levels there are several exam boards (AQA, CIE, Edexcel, and OCR) that offer the qualifications. Exam boards provide the specification and write the exam papers. Schools will choose which exam board they use for each subject so students do not have a choice. The relevance for students is when they are independently studying and revising – they need to focus on the specification for the right exam board. If you have a tutor make sure you tell them the exam board as soon as possible.

Pre-U: An alternative to the A-Level, the Pre-U is a two-year course with examinations at the end that can be taken alongside A Levels. Pre-U subjects are graded as Distinction (D1, 2, 3), Merit (M1, 2, 3) or Pass (P1, 2, 3).

Note – Pre-U last examinations in June 2023: since the A-Levels were reformed, the Pre-U is no longer seen as a distinct alternative and therefore the decision has been made to withdraw them.

IB: The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) is a two-year qualification taken in Years 12 and 13 (Sixth Form) that requires students to take 6 academic subjects across various subject areas. Students will take 3 subjects at Higher Level and 3 at Standard Level. In addition, they take a course called Theory of Knowledge (ToK), participate in an independent research project to produce an Extended Essay (EE), and engage in extracurricular activities related to Creativity, Action and Service (CAS). Each academic subject is graded from 1 to 7 and 3 further points are gained from the components – the highest possible IBDP score is 45 and a minimum of 24 is required to be awarded the diploma.

Jenny McGowan is the Asia Director for Keystone Tutors, one of the UK’s leading educational consultancies. Keystone consultants provide families, firms and individuals with comprehensive advice relating to UK independent schools and universities as well as tutoring support.

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