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Schools in the UKIntroduction

For the uninitiated, the English education system can take a little getting used to. All children are entitled to be educated for free in the state sector; however, many parents prefer to educate their children privately at a public or independent school. Fees for public schools vary enormously from less than £6,000 per annum for a day place in a nursery or pre-prep to more than £30,000 p.a. for some top boarding schools.

Which sector and what type of school you choose is an individual and often painstaking decision; it will depend on your personal and financial circumstances as well as the needs of the individual child. Many parents use a combination of state and independent schools; common times to move from the state to the independent sector are 8+, 11+ and 16+ (although at 16+ there is sometimes movement from the independent sector to the state, especially in areas where there are reputable state grammar schools for which perhaps a child failed to make the grade at 11+).

Legal requirements

In England, all children must be in full time education from the term following their 5th birthday until a designated time during the school year in which their 16th birthday falls. Exceptionally, the child may be educated at a place other than a school -such as at home. If you are thinking of following such an option contact the Local Education Authority (LEA) where you live or will be living for advice and guidance.

The majority of children begin their education in nursery at 3 or 4 years of age. All children are entitled to a free nursery place from the term following their third birthday; this can be in a state nursery or parents can opt to pay top up fees and send their child to an approved private nursery. In England the academic year runs from September to August. A child is expected to attend for the full academic year and permission must be sought from the school for any planned leave of absence (other than medical) outside of normal school holidays.

Class size legislation ordinarily limits to 30 the number of children permitted in a key stage one class (ages 5 to 7). There is provision for a class to exceptionally take an additional child, especially where a family have just moved into an area. However, the balance of prejudice must be considered, so this is not an automatic right but certainly one of which you should be aware.

Special Education Needs (SEN)

If your child has special needs, and an estimated one in five children have, this may be the driving force behind the type and nature of school you seek out. The lack of reliable and specific information in this crucial area drove the publishers of the Good Schools Guide to develop the new comprehensive Good Schools Guide - Special Education Needs. For details, definitions, recommendations- much of it free- you may link to that site. In addition to an entire and separate guide on the subject, The Good Schools Guide has a whole section dedicated to SEN. This free-to-view section outlines conditions and sources of help including extensive links to charities, looks at provision in school and the roles of those who work with SEN and explains the English system in much greater detail.

Most schools will offer some help or support for children with mild specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia and some are aware of autistic spectrum disorders. An increasing number are looking at ways of including children with physical or sensory impairments and many appreciate that some children with special needs may also be extremely gifted or talented. Schools are often less willing to accept children with behavioural issues EBD, ADD, ADHD.

Remember, provision will vary considerably from school to school, so it is essential you seek out advice and question schools in detail. It may be prudent to track down a good Educational Psychologist who can assess your child and outline areas of difficulty and need.  If your child is one of the two per cent of children with more complex needs, help may be available in the shape of a local authority statement.

The statementing process as laid down in the SEN Code of Practice produced by the DfES is a lengthy and often emotionally exhausting process. The time frame for a statement to be determined is 26 weeks. If a child is granted a statement, the local authority must pay for the provision outlined including any therapy and the funding of a place at the school named on the statement. Statementing is a very complex process and we suggest you seek out expert help and guidance for any special needs that are not likely to be met within a mainstream school, as well as for complex needs that can be met in a mainstream school - provided additional help and support is given.

Statements are expensive to maintain and local authorities are often reluctant to grant a statement. Places in state special schools were in decline but that decline has now halted. The DfES publishes a list of approved non-maintained (independent) special schools. 

Independent schools

Independent schools do not come under the administrative control of the LEA or Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and are not bound by the rigours of the National Curriculum but have educational independence. Most take the good bits and eschew the rest in favour of what they see to be good practice. Examination results tend to be better in the independent sector, but many factors affect results so read league tables with care. The independent sector benefits from being able to offer smaller classes, and a varied diet (separate sciences; Latin and Greek are more readily found, though this isn’t always the case). Usually a greater number of extra-curricula opportunities exist, not just trips and visits but clubs and activities too... largely in better and more extensive resources. However, do be aware that not all have grand facilities and acres of land. Some schools, especially London day schools, may be very small, on restricted sites and have limited opportunities for PE and expressive arts, so bear this in mind if these things matter.

Senior schools

These usually admit children at either 11+ or 13+ (16+ into sixth form). Some, such as Eton, close their registration lists in the term following a child’s 10th birthday for admission at 13. Many top schools interview applicants 18 months prior to entry and if deemed suitable, the applicant will be offered a place subject to gaining the required pass mark at common entrance (CE)(the Common Entrance exam). At this stage parents are usually asked to pay as much as a term's fees to secure the place. Other schools always have the odd place available and even with the most popular schools, a quick call to admissions explaining your situation may prove fruitful.

Senior schools prepare children for GCSE’s at 16 and A-levels at 18 (now split into AS and A2). Some schools offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an alternative to A-levels. The vast majority of pupils from most independent senior schools go on to university at 18 or 19 following a gap year. Senior schools usually have between 400 and 800 pupils though this can vary considerably. Increasingly, senior schools are co-ed though single sex schools do exist. Some single sex schools accept the opposite sex into sixth form. 

Prep schools

The full title is preparatory schools but this is seldom used. Prep schools take children from 8+ years and prepare children for entry to senior school - traditionally at 13 but increasingly at 11. The recognised route to senior schools at 13 is via common entrance. Most schools give guidance on the percentage pass needed at common entrance and a good prep school will be skilled not only in preparing children for the demands of common entrance but in guiding children and their parents to suitable schools for this important next stage.

Some prep schools are directly linked with or attached to senior schools and in such cases schools often have their own exams and may stipulate different entry requirements for pupils already at the prep school, even guaranteeing automatic entry in some case. Demand for prep school places is not usually as great as senior, but they do get full and there are some that require a child’s name to be put down almost following conception.

Schools in London fill very quickly but remember the population is highly mobile and places do become available often at short notice. Traditionally, prep schools offer French and Latin, though the latter isn’t as prevalent as it was. Some prep schools use specialist teaching and set children from the youngest years, in others children will be class-taught by the same teacher and be with the same children for much of the day. Commonly, preps will use the former system for the youngest pupils but gradually introduce specialists and setting as children progress through the school. Prep schools vary in size, the smallest having fewer than 100 pupils, the largest more than 700. The majority of prep schools are co-ed though single sex schools do exist.

Pre-prep Schools

Pre-preps take children from as young as 3 years of age often on a part-time basis until the child is of school age. Most pre-preps belong to an associated prep school and often share the same head or principal.

Money matters

Once you find a school in which you're interested, you will need to register your child for a place; the fee varies but is approximately £75 and is always non-refundable. Fees for independent schools vary considerably;, most show termly fees and there are ordinarily three terms per academic year.

Extras may also add a chunk to the overall bill and what is charged as an extra varies from school to school; some fees will include curriculum trips and stationery others won’t. All charge extra for individual instrumental tuition and most will levy a fee for additional special needs help or associated therapy delivered on a one to one or very small group basis. Options tend to include insurances: check to see if you are covered elsewhere.

Virtually all schools require a terms notice of intent to withdraw the child or a full terms fees in lieu; be prepared to be taken to court if you don’t comply. Most schools offer a limited number of bursaries (financial need) or scholarships usually for excellence in academia, music, sports or the arts. Scholarships can be worth up to half fees but many are means tested. Some schools will be prepared to negotiate a discount for siblings. For children with complex special needs, provision in a special school can be very costly. However, if a child is statemented and has the school named on the statement, the LEA must foot the bill though they will only pay for any therapy detailed on the statement.

How to choose an independent school

If you are thinking of independent education, we very strongly recommend you do your homework. Don’t just rely on the school; most have slick marketing departments with glossy prospectuses CD’s, DVD's etc. That doesn’t make them a good school and even if they are a very good school, they may not be right for your child.

At the risk of blowing our own horn, buying guides such as The Good Schools Guide (which is the only independent guide to schools) tell you so much more – what the head is really like, who goes there, the reality of getting into the school where pupils move on to after they’ve left, strengths and weaknesses not only academically but across the board, what the pupils and parents are like, what kind of child will fit in, and - for larger schools - background and atmosphere. The guide is known not only for its warts-and-all approach but also for its humour and bedtime readability!  There’s a wealth of other information, too, including advice on how to choose a school, questions to ask a detailed glossary, money matters and notes for foreign parents.

But here are some things to consider:

Day versus boarding

You may not have a choice, but if you do... think carefully. Many children abhor the idea of boarding but fall in love with it once they’ve had a taster day or night. Others fantasise about Hogwarts and Harry Potter, only to find they miss their mum and the Head’s nothing like Dumbledore!

Even if you don’t need to send your child to boarding school, don’t automatically dismiss the idea -- many children find the social aspect of boarding exciting and rewarding. However the key advantages of boarding tend to be in the extra-curricula opportunities offered through the very extended day (a massive relief to any parent who’s ever felt like a glorified taxi service) and it can work out cheaper than nannies and au pairs.

Different types of boarding are available- some within the same establishment: flexi-boarding offers the opportunity for a child to board when there is a need either at school or parental request, weekly boarding means outs every weekend and indeed full boarding usually means at least one exeat (weekend out) either side of half-term. Many boarding and some day schools require all children to attend Saturday school and most operate an extended day: anything between 4.30pm and 6.30pm up to 9pm for older children participating in clubs and activities. 

The school

Features you may wish to consider are:

  • location;
  • status - independent or state;
  • age-range;
  • single sex or co-ed;
  • religious affiliation;
  • boarding or day; academically selective or not;
  • special needs provision in mainstream or special schools
  • specialist features such as being a member of the Choir Schools Association or of the music and ballet scheme.

Your child

Do be as honest as possible. Look at academic strengths and weaknesses including issues that may impact: a touch of mild dyslexia or severe aspergers should always be taken into the equation. Brush them under the carpet and you’re courting a recipe for disaster. Similarly a gift or talent may need very careful nurturing.

Think about what interests and excites your child (which may not be the same as what they’re good at): does he/she love music, horse riding, sport, chess being involved, working alone? What subjects and activities are genuinely on offer – don’t rely on the word of the web or prospectus: schools do exaggerate and information does become dated. Will your child benefit from strong pastoral support or will she thrive anywhere?

Will the child flourish in a small school where everybody knows everyone or a larger school where there may be a degree of anonymity but possibly better or more plentiful facilities. If the latter point is something of a dilemma, many large schools operate a house system giving the benefits of scale alongside the intimacy of a smaller group settings. But again you will need to ask careful questions about the house system: how is it used – once a year on sports day, or does everybody meet up daily in their houses perhaps for lunch or a tutorial?

What teaching styles suit your child? Does he like to be given constant instructions, freedom for self-discovery or a varied diet? Do you want your child to have a hearty or healthy school lunch? School meals provision varies considerably, with some schools reliant on children bringing a packed-lunch. Trivial? Not at 8 o’clock in the morning when the school bus leaves at one minute past and the family fridge is empty because the computer crashed seconds before you placed your grocery order!

Getting the low down on schools

Do get the school's prospectus and read it very carefully... but with caution too: they are written by the school. Check out the school's web site and ask to see copies of recent newsletters- these will give a flavour not only of what happens in the school but of the tone of parental liaison, some can be incredibly bossy, others newsy or celebratory.

Virtually all schools in the UK will have been inspected either by the Office for Standards In Education (OFSTED) (state and some independent schools) or the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). Reports are available free of charge on their web sites.

NB The only schools abroad that are inpsected by Ofsted are the Ministry of Defence schools. Any school other school outside of the UK saying they have been Ofsted inspected is stretching the truth. They may indeed have privately hired a contract Ofsted inspector to do some form of inspection, but there is no guarantee that any report you see was done by that person, or that you are seeing all of it. Or that the alleged inspector really is connected to Ofsted in any way. Nor is there any requirement that the school show you this report at all.

Personal recommendation is a good starting point but remember, no two children are alike.  We would always strongly recommend you visit a school in person, meet the head and ask for a guided tour of the school. if you are unable to do this, try to send a trusted representative.

The UK state sector, parental choice, schools admissions and appeals

Every child is entitled to free education at a state school. Parents can choose the school they would like their child to attend and if they fulfil the schools admissions policy and a place is available, all things being equal the child should be offered a place. If a place isn’t available at a school of choice, the LEA must find a place in a suitable school though naturally the word suitable is open to interpretation.

Should you find yourself in difficulties with school admissions, the guidelines for schools are published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in the Schools Admissions Code of Practice. If you are not offered a place in your school of choice, you have the right of appeal and the school should inform you of how to go about this (there is a very limited time frame).

Information on this is published in the Code of Practice on Admissions Appeals. However, these are weighty documents so you may wish to seek out help and advice rather than wade through yourself.  State schools must make clear their admissions procedure and as a rule of thumb, key priorities tend to be proximity from place of residence to the school (so do bear this in mind when choosing accommodation) and having siblings at the school. If the school is a foundation or faith school, the key requirement is likely to be that you can show you and your children practice and live by the faith of the school. This will need to be supported by the vicar, rabbi, priest or equivalent for your faith.  Younger children 5 and up will usually attend a primary school moving onto senior school at 11+. 

Selective entry to a state school

State grammar school

Some areas have selective schools usually known as grammar schools. These often have fine reputations and although free, rival their independent counterparts. Children must not only pass an entry exam to gain a place but a place must also be available. The normal time to seek admission to a grammar school is in the year before entry to senior school ie the academic year of the child’s 11th birthday, but many schools have alternative arrangements for those who have recently moved into an area and have missed the selection date.

There is usually fierce competition for places at a state selective Grammar schools (do be aware, some schools that call themselves grammar schools are no longer selective, they are comprehensive. Others are part of the independent sector and charge fees). 

Specialist schools and colleges

These are schools that have been granted specialist status by the DfE perhaps for science and technology. PE. maths and science, modern foreign languages, the arts etc. In fact many senior (11+) schools have specialist status or are in the process of becoming a specialist school. These are comprehensive schools that will take the full ability range but are allowed to select a predetermined percentage of applicants who show an aptitude for the specialism should they wish.

Do look carefully at any school, specialist or not; just because they have specialist status does not mean they are good or exceptional. As always do your homework: research the school, check out the latest inspection report, visit, ask questions - not just of the school but check out the reputation with the locals. Or even better, hang around near the school at the end of the school day and watch pupils departing – will your child fit in?

Comprehensive schools

This covers most of the rest, though such schools may be called academies which - although rather grand sounding - may well be schools that have opened as a result of a forced closure of a previously failed school. City academies tend to have received both government and private funding (PFI) to help improve them. Academies are frequently in the news – typing in City Academies to the UK section of search engines such as Google will bring up a raft of information and news items for you to peruse.

Comprehensive Schools vary enormously not just between schools but also in their provision within the school. Strong leadership is a good determiner of a successful school, so see what Ofsted have to say. Ofsted inspect all schools and their reports are available free of charge on the web. Beware any report that is more than a few years old; things can and do change.  Many good state schools are independently reviewed in The Good Schools Guide. 

Primary schools

These vary, but most take from reception (rising 5) to year 6 (11 year olds). You may also come across infant, middle and junior schools so do confirm ages. The primary years are divided into key stage 1 for ages 5 to 7 and key stage 2 for the 7 to 11’s. All children take standard attainment tests (Sats) at the end of each key stage unless they are withdrawn from the tests by the school (this is unusual even for children with SEN). The tests take place in May; all children are expected to be present and tests are reported on both to parents and publicly. Primary schools follow the national curriculum; this incorporates the national numeracy and literacy strategies.

Nursery schools

These are primarily for pre-schoolers, usually 3 and 4 year olds; sometimes they are attached to and part of a school. You may also come across play groups, mums and tots or similar; mostly these are for the very youngest children accompanied by parents and can prove an excellent way to meet other parents and give your child valuable social contact with other children. Local libraries or the internet are good starting places to find out what’s available in your area.

Information for foreign parents

Most UK schools genuinely welcome foreign students, viewing a cosmopolitan mix as desirable and beneficial. However, the majority of schools are not geared to teaching the English language to those who don’t know it. If a school says it has provision for teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) (or English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as Another Language (EAL)), ask what that provision consists of and how much it will cost.

Various ‘international centres’ have sprung up, many attached to solid private schools. Most do a good job in preparing children with little English for entry to independent schools. Do ask which schools children move on to: this can be indicative of the success or otherwise of the course. Look for a school that is popular with the British as well as foreigners; British Embassies abroad and the British Council are often useful points of contact, but don’t rely on their advice for particular schools.

Placement agencies will give you lists of schools that may include the good, the bad and the ugly. Be aware most such agencies are usually paid a fat commission by the schools, even the ones you pay for. And finally, look to see whether the agency takes ads or sponsorships from schools.

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