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UK schoolsIt helps, when planning your child's journey through school, to know the main stages and options, public or private.

There's a strong private sector in the UK, educating about 6 per cent of children. If you're lucky enough to be able to afford to go private (or have a child who is seriously bright scholarship material), then these are the principal advantages of the competing systems:

Advantages of the private system are:

  • Usually a greater chance of doing well in public exams, especially for an average child (though NB there are many exceptions).
  • Wider choice - you're not restricted to your local schools.
  • Often better academic (as opposed to pastoral) care.
  • A wider range of extras and often at a higher standard.
  • The opportunity to study elite subjects such as Greek, and start modern languages earlier.
  • Exclusive social mix.
  • The opportunity to board and all that that implies.
  • Being an Old Etonian (or whatever) at the end of it all.

Advantages of state education are:

  • No fees – all that money you can spend on enriching you and your children’s lives in other ways.
  • Usually it’s close by, and part of community. Free school bus operates in country areas (often, but by no means always) avoiding need to become full-time driver.
  • Broad social mix.
  • A slight edge on the private sector when it comes to Oxbridge entrance (if your child has the determination and confidence to get straight As in the state school).
  • Often greater understanding of the wide world.
  • Not being an Old Etonian at the end of it all.

The main stages of education in the UK are:

Age 2+-4+. Kindergarten/playgroup/nursery.

Age 4. 'Pre-prep' starts in the private sector.

Age 5. Education is compulsory for everyone in the UK. Primary or First schools start. Year 1, in the English state system, is the year beginning in the September following the child's fifth birthday.

Age 7-8. 'Prep' school starts in the private sector, some state 'Middle' schools start too.

Age 11. State secondary schools and grammar schools usually start i.e. in year 7. However, in some areas secondary schooling starts at 12 or 13.

Age 13 (or thereabouts). Move to most private secondary (public) schools for boys, and to private co-educational establishments, though NB some have lowered their entry age to eleven.

In the year that the child becomes 15: start of two year GCSE course.

Age 16. Once GCSE is over, all change is possible: boys and girls may move from state schools to private ones (almost all now have entry at 16+, sometimes with scholarships), or from private schools to e.g. state sixth form colleges as petty restrictions begin to irk. Various two year courses on offer: A level (the main one), GNVQs now renamed AVCEs (their vocational equivalents), the International Baccalaureate and , in FE Colleges, a wide range of vocational courses.

Entry at sixth form level increasingly depends on GCSE results. Check with the school when applications need to be made. Girls applying to the sixth form of boys' or co-ed schools may expect tough-ish competition.

The Scottish System

Ages of transfer between stages are broadly in line with the rest of the UK.

The Scottish system consists, or at least used to consist, of:

  • Standard Grades (Lowers, as they used to be called), taken in fifth year (i.e. age sixteen, the same age as GCSEs in the rest of the UK).  Each pupil is expected to take seven or eight (or more).
  • Highers taken a year later in the sixth year - three or more is the norm (with exceptional schools such as Hutcheson's Grammar knocking up sixes and sevens).  Pupils can - and many do - leave school after taking Highers and are then qualified for university entrance (which can be a problem as a bright student may then hit university at 16, which is a bit young) - this is why Scottish university courses are a year longer than English ones.
  • Sixth Year Studies (SYS) taken in the second year of sixth form - a more general course which adds 'extra value'.

However, in their wisdom the Scottish Education board have introduced a new set of exams. Standard Grades are being replaced by Intermediate I (or Intermediate 2, which represents the old credit at Standard Grade) followed by Higher Level and Advanced Higher level, again taken in first or second year sixth. SYS may be phased out, as may some current vocational exams, but neither the Scottish Executive nor schools seem to know if or when. A good collection of Higher Stills at Advanced level may (and the jury is still out on this) allow students to go straight into the second year of a four year course at a Scottish university (as may good A levels).

As if this untidy transition were not enough, The Scottish examination marking system is in a muddle too. Across Scotland many candidates either did not get their 2000 results in time to take up their promised university places, or the results were so out of kilter as to be ridiculous, or they got passes in exams they didn't take. Consolidated results for exams taken in June 2000 are still (August 2001) not available.

And if you are looking at independent schools, remember always that quite a lot also do the English system in a sort of wobbly tandem - traditionally with the less academic doing the Scottish system.

Choosing a School:

...or rather, how to get chosen by a school.

In the private sector, the rules tend to be relatively simple. There will probably be some sort of selection procedure involving exam and/or interview. You repeat this at several schools. Private schools, on the whole, expect you to apply to their competitors also. You may end up with several offers, or not, but most likely there is a school in your area that will take your child, assuming you can pay the fees.

The state system is trickier, treacherous even. You may be lucky enough to have a good, well-funded comprehensive at the end of your road, where your child can proceed with plenty of primary school friends. Most likely, you haven't, and you will have to fathom the intricacies of which (if any) of the schools you would be happy with is likely to offer your child a place. Do your research early, ask anyone and everyone (local junior schools, parents, Local Education Authorities (the best have very helpful tomes on the subject). As with the private sector, it is the popular schools that choose their pupils, rather than vice versa. And while it may be quite easy to decide which school is your first choice, sussing out what to have in reserve is a lot harder.

"It's supposed to be about parental choice," says Jill Mahon, acting headteacher of Dartington primary school in Devon, "and parents come into Year 6 supposing they will have a wide choice of school. In actual fact they have to work that process quite carefully." Most of the Dartington primary school children go on to Kevics (King Edward VI comprehensive school) in Totnes. However, the presence of three nearby grammar schools can complicate matters.

"If they are trying for selective education, the nightmare is that they can sit the entrance exam and pass, but not be allocated a place," says Jill Mahon. "A hundred children might pass, but the school might only have places for 60. So it's difficult to give parents guidelines as to whether or not their child is likely to gain a place in those schools. "If they don't get a grammar school place, quite likely they won't get a place at Kevics either, because it tends to fill up with people who put it first. Then they go into what's called the pool, and they will be allocated a place in the nearest secondary school with a space. Which may be one a long way away where none of their peer group is going. "This year I've had some very bright pupils who have chosen not to go in for the grammar because they don't want to risk not getting it nor a place at Kevics, and I don't blame them."

"It's part of the risk assessment that parents have to take," says Tricia Hare of Devon Education Authority admissions office. "So is opting for a comprehensive outside their local area. It's a difficulty we have that we can't tell from year to year which schools will fill up on first preferences - it depends on demographics, and a particular school might suddenly become popular."

The whole process is liable to be more cut-throat in the inner cities, where popular comprehensives tend to have ever-shrinking catchment areas, to say nothing of ever-rising prices for the surrounding houses. It's not unknown for parents to take a short-term let on a flat next door to their chosen school, to say nothing of a sudden move in with granny. "I wouldn't condone it," says a London primary school headteacher, "but unless they were taking a place from another child in this school, I wouldn't complain. Getting a secondary school place round here is such a desperate business that I'll do what I can to help."

To arm yourself with as much information as possible about your child's chances, study the prospectuses of any possible schools. C of E schools are, naturally, likely to give preference to churchgoers. Some schools reserve a few places for talented musicians or linguists. After special educational or medical needs (usually a tiny category) and siblings, most comprehensives offer places by distance. How near you need to live to be in with a good chance is not always easy to ascertain.

If your local education authority produces a booklet on secondary transfer, it's worth a careful read. This may be a depressing experience. The London Borough of Camden booklet gives the following information:

  1. Eight out of ten Camden secondary schools are generally filled by applicants that put them as first choice.
  2. Of those eight, one takes only Jewish children and two take only Catholics.
  3. Three of the remaining five, in 2000 and the two previous years, accepted only children living within half a mile. The other two took applicants living up to a mile and a mile and a half away respectively.
  4. The most popular girls' comprehensive divides children by ability into four bands, taking an equal number from each band. Each band, in 2000, had a different size catchment area, ranging from 0.3 to 0.7 miles.

A close reading of the booklet reveals that these distances are for initial offers made by the schools. Once some of these offers had been rejected and waiting list applicants offered places, some catchment areas spread to three miles. Most, however, did not.

If you miss out on your first choice of school, whether through failing the selection test or because you live a hundred metres too far away, quite likely your second choice will already have offered all its places to children that put it first.

So how can you avoid being landed with Sink Comprehensive three bus rides away? Plenty of parents hedge their bets by applying to schools in more than one LEA area. You will need to research a) whether or not to tell your local authority what you are doing and b) whether you can up your chances by a judicious order of preference.

Many LEAs, like Camden, insist that applicants must list out-of-borough applications on their form, and that you are liable to be bounced if you are caught sneaking one in. In practice, says a Camden primary headteacher, he has never known it to happen. But some other boroughs (like Westminster), and some voluntary aided schools, aren't too interested in what other applications you are making. One Camden family listed their preferred school - a voluntary aided Westminster comprehensive - as second preference on the Camden application form. The school operates its own selection procedure which disregards other stated preferences. The family listed a Camden comprehensive (their second preference) as first choice, and were offered places at both.

The other fallback position, if you can afford it, is a not-too-selective private school. You will almost certainly have a pay a deposit to put your child's name down, but it won't care which state schools you have applied to, and you could look on it as an insurance policy.

The Department of Education and Skills explain the system on their site - the last time we looked it was here.

Other hints on playing the system:

1. Plan ahead - from well before conception if possible.
In the state sector, choosing where to live is usually the key to a good education. Look for a good secondary school - they are easier to spot than good primaries, and usually have good primaries associated with them - and study its entrance criteria.

In the private sector (and especially in London) you may need to register your child with schools and nursery schools soon after birth. If you know which secondary schools you want your children to be headed for, you may be able to plot the best, or at least the easiest, route to them.

2. If you have a boy headed for the private system, you may need to take him out of the state system at the age of 8 (NB this will understandably make the head shirty) in order to fit in with the changeover at 13 and to get in enough coaching to pass the entry exam. A few private prep schools open up a new class for very clever ten/eleven-year-olds from state schools in order to coach them up for entry to their senior schools at 13 CE.

3. State grammar schools are by definition selective, and a wheeze used by some parents is to put children into private schools until the age of 11 in order to train them up for getting into the grammar of their choice - thus avoiding the fees thereafter.

4. Girls may move from the state system to the private one at the age of 11, which can work well as there is a 'break' in both state and private systems for them. Extra tuition may be needed in English and maths if moving to the private sector - coaching after school is the answer.

5. If it looks as though A level may be a struggle for your child and he/she has set his/her heart on university, it is possible (though the logistics may defeat you, and it will almost certainly mean going to school in Scotland) to change from the English exam system to the Scottish one of Highers. This is much more broadly based - more subjects at a slightly lower level - and is now accepted by most English as well as all Scottish universities.

Another possibility for the less academic is to find a school or college that offers GNVQs (now AVCEs). Many universities are now happy to admit students with AVCEs (particularly business).

(*see also the extensive information at Tigerchild).

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