UK School System

This page provides an overview of school-level study in the UK, including information on terminology differences, types of schools, grade levels and assessment.

Terminology Differences

As you begin your research of UK schools, you should note the following differences in terminology between the US and UK:


Types of Schools

There are two types of schools in the UK, state-funded or independent (privately-funded) schools.

State-funded schools

Approximately ninety percent of British students attend state-funded schools. State schools follow the “National Curriculum,” with core subjects including English, mathematics and science.

State schools (and some independent schools) are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Child Services and Skills (Ofsted) every three years and publishes the results online.

Independent schools

Also referred to as ‘public schools,’ independent schools set their own curricula and are funded by student fees and interest earned on school endowments/investments. There are approximately 2,600 independent schools in the UK. About half of these institutions participate in a voluntary accreditation program facilitated by the Independent Schools Council.


Grade Levels and State Exams 

Age Level of Study Grade US Grade
3 - 4/5 Nursery School  N/A N/A
4/5 - 11 Primary School  Years 1 - 6 Kindergarten - 5th
12 - 16  Secondary School  Years 7 - 11  6th - 10th
17 - 18 Sixth Form or Work-based Training  Years 12-13  11th - 12th (Junior - Senior)


As described in the chart above, formal education in the US is generally mandatory to 16. School-level education is divided into ‘years’, and US grades K (Kindergarten) - 12 in the US correspond to Years 1 - 13 in the UK, as summarized in the chart below. Schooling usually begins with nursery or primary school (Years 1-6), followed by secondary school (Years 7 - 11).

GCSE Exams

Unlike in the US, assessment is not on a continuous, but is primarily cantered on national standardized exams. At the end of Year 11, students take national standardized exams, the GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education). Students may choose the number and subject of their exams (from the 48 GCSE exams available). They may opt to sit higher (possible results: A* - D) or lower (C-G) level exams. However, English, Math and Science are required subjects, and UK universities typically expect students to sit at least five GCSE exams.

Post-16 Qualifications

After GCSEs, students may choose to pursue either an academic or vocational track. Students on a vocational track can choose to obtain a work qualification such as the BTEC or OCR Nationals. Students continuing on an academic track attend sixth form colleges during Years 12-13.

Students may choose the number and subjects of their A levels (from approximately 80 subjects available). However, universities typically expect students to complete at least 2 A level qualifications, and some university degree programs may specify A level subjects and results required for admission.

A level results range from A – E and are awarded by external examination bodies. Scores are based primarily on the AS and A2 level examinations, but may also include teacher assessment of coursework. AS level exams are sat at the end of Year 12, while A 2 level exams are sat at the end of Year 13.

Scottish Education System

Please note that Scotland’s education system operates under a different framework. Students attend seven years of primary education and four years of compulsory secondary education. Following this (at the age of 16 or 17), student may earn the Scottish Certificate of Education which is considered the equivalent to England’s A-levels.  For more information on the Scottish educational system, please see the Scottish Government’s Schools webpage.