Education and Schools in the United Kingdom

For expats moving to the United Kingdom with children, making the right choice when it comes to picking a school is a top priority. Attending the right school will play a significant role in ensuring a successful transition into expat life in the UK for little ones.

Factors that will affect the choice of school for expat children include the child’s previous schooling experience, academic ability and English language capability.

Expat parents should note that most government-funded schools in the UK and some private schools base admission on catchment areas. Therefore, it is important to choose a school before deciding where to live within a city. Private schools and international schools with boarding facilities for students offer greater flexibility.

Education system in the United Kingdom

The education systems and schooling options do vary slightly between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Typically, the academic year in the United Kingdom starts in September and ends in July, with the main breaks in December, March/April and July/August.

The schooling system is divided into four levels:

  • Early years: Ages 3 to 4

  • Primary education: Ages 4 to 11

  • Secondary education: Ages 11 to 18

  • Tertiary education: Ages 18+

Education is compulsory in the UK for children between the ages of five and 17. Children usually start primary school during the school year in which they turn five. Secondary school for most children start aged 11. Secondary schools correspond broadly to the public high school in the United States, Canada and Australia and to the Gesamtschule in Germany. Students have the option of finishing school at the age of 16 or 17 after completing their GCSEs or continuing their secondary studies for a further two years where they have the option of studying for A-levels or BTEC awards.

More and more schools in the UK are now offering students the opportunity to study for the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is recognised internationally. 

There are a confusing number of different options when it comes to schooling in the UK. Each type of school is unique and offers different benefits. With such a wide variety of options, there is sure to be something to suit the needs and budget of every expat family. 

State-funded schools in the United Kingdom

State-funded schools in the United Kingdom State schools are provided by the government at no cost to British citizens and foreigners legally living in the UK. These schools are effectively funded by tax payers.

The standard of education at state schools varies considerably. Some offer excellent teaching and facilities, while other schools continue to perform badly in terms of the academic results of their students every year. Generally, the better state-funded schools will be found in more affluent areas.

Expats should consult the school's Ofsted (Office of Standards in Education) report to find out about the quality of teaching and facilities at a particular school as well as how the students at the school are doing academically.

Admission criteria vary from one school to the next. Most of the popular state schools will base admissions on a particular catchment area, and expats should be aware of this when deciding where to live in the UK. While international students are treated equally to British students, some schools will be reluctant to offer places to those that have no long-term plans to remain in Britain.

Most state schools are either community schools, which are run by the local Council, foundation schools or voluntary schools, which have more freedom in the way they operate.  Faith schools also have to follow the National Curriculum, but can choose what they teach in religious studies and have more flexibility over admissions. There are some Special Schools that are designed for children with special educational needs and can specialise in areas such as autism and speech and language needs.

Other types of state-funded schools include Grammar Schools, Academies and Free Schools.

Grammar Schools

Grammar schools are state secondary schools that are academically selective.  Their pupils are selected by means of an examination taken by children at age 11, known as the 11-plus.  There are only about 163 grammar schools in England, out of some 3,000 state secondary schools. There are 69 in Northern Ireland. 


Originally, Academies were established to replace struggling inner-city schools. While part of the state system of education they are not controlled by the Local Council. Academies only have to follow the National Curriculum only in core subjects such as English, maths and science. They receive their funding mostly from the central government but also partly from private sponsorship. There are nearly 4,000 academies in the UK, most of them secondary schools for students aged 11 to 16.

Free Schools

Free Schools are a type of Academy and are run by non-profit making trusts, like parent groups, charities or religious associations. Some expat parents opt for a free school for their cultural and religious emphasis, for instance a Jewish or Hindu Free School. There are around 400 Free Schools in the UK.

Private schools in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has a tradition of private schools, which are also called independent schools. These schools generally follow the British curriculum but offer a wider range of subjects. However, more and more private schools in the UK are starting to offer students the opportunity to study for the International Baccalaureate.

Private schools tend to offer a higher standard of teaching and smaller class sizes. However, fees at private schools are high. On top of school fees, parents should also budget for other expenses such as uniforms and stationery. Most private schools do offer a limited number of scholarships for students who are particularly gifted.

The admission criteria for private schools vary from school to school. Students will be expected to attend an interview and pass an entrance exam for admission to most private schools in the United Kingdom.

International schools in the United Kingdom

International schools are a popular option for expat families living in the United Kingdom. These schools follow a variety of different curricula from across the globe.

International schools allow students to continue studying the same syllabus as they were studying at home, and are good for those who do not plan on living in the United Kingdom in the long-term.

There are a range of international schools in the UK following the American, French and Japanese national curricula. London has the largest variety of international schools, as this is the city with the biggest expat population.

Fees charged at international schools in the United Kingdom are hefty. Expats considering this option should try to negotiate an allowance into their employment contracts to cover the cost of school fees.