An introduction to the key features of the UK education system, including details of the Department for Education, OFSTED, key stages, exams, the National Curriculum, and some straightforward definitions of the different types of school in the UK.
I wrote this post to give students studying A-level sociology a more focused intro the topic than the Wikipedia entry on education in the UK, which IMO is a bit too formal, and not focused enough on the things people actually want to know about!
This post mainly deals with education in England, I’ll update with a focus on Wales and Scotland as and when I can…
Education in the United Kingdom is overseen by the Department for Education (DfE), which oversees the delivery of education to almost 12 million pupils aged 5-18 in 21 000 state primary schools, 4100 state secondary schools, as well as hundreds of further education colleges, with a total budget of £84 billion in 2015-16.
The DFE works with a further 17 agencies or public bodies, the most well-known of which is probably OFSTED, which has the responsibility for inspecting schools on a regular basis.
Local government authorities (LEAs) are responsible for state-funded schools and colleges at a local level, but in recent years most LEA schools have converted to Academy status which means they are free from local education control and receive their funding directly from central government and do not have to follow the National Curriculum.
There are five stages of education
- Early Years Foundation Stage (ages 3–5)
- Primary education (ages 5 to 11)
- Secondary education (ages 11 to 16)
- Further education (ages 16 to 18)
- Tertiary education (for ages 18+).
School Leaving Age
Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged 5 to 18, either at school or otherwise. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 are entitled to 600 hours per year of optional, state-funded, pre-school education. This can be provided in “playgroups”, nurseries, community childcare centres or nursery classes in schools.
Students can leave school at 16 but must then do one of the following until they are 18:
- stay in full-time education, for example at a college
- start an apprenticeship or traineeship
- spend 20 hours or more a week working or volunteering, while in part-time education or training
The National Curriculum
The national curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.
Academies and private schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum. Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, maths and science. They must also teach religious education.
Key Stages, and National Assessments/ Exams
The national curriculum is organized into blocks of years called ‘key stages’ (KS). At the end of each key stage, there are formal assessments of how children have progressed:
The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)
GCSEs are the main type of exam taken by pupils at the end of secondary education, aged 16, although they may be taken at any age. From 2017, GCSEs will be graded from 9 to 1 with 9 being the highest grade, replacing the old A* to G grading system)
BTECs can also be taken. The difference between BTECs and GCSEs is that the BTEC course is heavily coursework-based.
Most students will sit 8-10 GCSEs or BTEC equivalents.
There are a number of GCSEs available to students – English and Maths are both compulsory, but besides those students can choose from a range of science and humanities subjects, including sociology!
Achieving five or more A*–C grades, including English and Maths, is often a requirement for taking A-levels and BTEC Level 3 at a sixth form college or at a further education college after leaving secondary school.
Types of State-Funded School in England and Wales
The main types of state school include:
Local Education Authority Maintained schools
A local education authority maintained school is one in which the governing body (the head teacher, and governors) are responsible for the day to day running of the school, but the Local Education authority controls the following:
- It owns the land and buildings, and is responsible for funding and the school.
- It employs the staff and provides support services, for example, psychological services and special educational needs services.
- It determines the admissions policies of the school
- The pupils have to follow the national curriculum
(Voluntary aided) Faith Schools
Voluntary aided faith schools still follow the national curriculum, but they are free to teach what they want in terms of religious education. There are two important differences with regular LEA schools.
- The land and buildings are usually owned by the religious organisation.
- The religious organization, through the governing body, has more of a say in employing the staff and setting admissions criteria.
Academies receive their funding directly from the government, rather than through local authorities. In contrast to Local Education Authorities:
- Funding goes directly to the governing body of the school from central government.
- The governing body employs staff directly and can vary pay and conditions from staff member to staff member.
- The governing body can select its own admissions criteria (in line with national guidelines)
- The pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum
There are two types of academy: Converter academies – those deemed to be performing well that have converted to academy status; Sponsored academies – mostly underperforming schools changing to academy status and run by sponsors).
Free schools are essentially a type of academy, but ‘any willing provider’ can set up a free school, including groups of parents.
Grammar Schools are selective schools – they select pupils on the basis of academic ability, typically testing at the age of 10 or 11.
93% of schools in England are funded by state (ultimately paid for by the taxpayer), the remaining 7% are Independent, or private schools, funded privately by individuals, mainly by fees paid by the parents of the pupils who attend them.
Independent schools have more freedoms from government control than state schools.
Somewhat confusingly, some independent schools call themselves ‘grammar schools’ and ‘faith schools’.
This was a brief post designed to provide some introductory material on the education system of the United Kingdom, for students studying A-level sociology.
I teach this material as part of an introduction to education, right at the beginning of the sociology of education (SCLY1) module, typically taught in the first year of study.
A related post to be studied alongside this is Education in the U.K. – Key statistics
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Sources/ Find out More
Citizens Advice – Types of School
Full Fact – Academies – what do we know?
Government Web Site – Faith Schools.