18th July 2022

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Guide to the UK Schooling System

The United Kingdom is renowned the world over for its education system, from early-years private and state schooling through to undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD university programmes.

Many international buyers move to London specifically to access the UK schooling system. Others come for the city’s many other attractions, but still want to give their children the best educational opportunities.

There are many types of school and qualification in the UK that can be confusing. At Black Brick, we can refer you to leading education consultants who will help you to choose the best school for your child.

In the meantime, here’s our guide to the UK schooling system.

How does the UK education system work?

Most children in England start school in September at the age of 4. This first year is called Reception, and is sometimes referred to as Year 0. It is an opportunity for schools to assess the child’s literacy, numeracy and communicative abilities.

At age 5, children enter Year 1, the start of ‘Key Stage 1’. This is where their formal education begins, and from this point the National Curriculum sets out the subjects they study and the progress they should make in each subsequent year.

In general, the Key Stage system is as follows:

  • Early Years: Age 3-5, including Reception at age 4-5.
  • KS1: Age 5-7, ending with national tests in English reading and maths. KS1 is usually completed at a primary school.
  • KS2: Age 7-11, ending with national tests in maths, reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling. KS2 is usually completed at a primary school.
  • KS3: Age 11-14, preparing pupils for GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). KS3 is usually completed at a secondary school.
  • KS4: Age 14-16, ending with GCSE exams or equivalent national qualifications. KS3 is usually completed at a secondary school.

The school year normally runs from early September to mid-late July, with holidays (vacation) around Christmas, Easter and an extended six-week summer break.

Each year is numbered from Year 1 at age 5 through to Year 11, when GCSE exams are taken. After Year 11, pupils must either remain in full-time education until the age of 18 (for example studying A-Levels in Year 12 and Year 13), or start an apprenticeship or traineeship.


Pupils may be asked – or required – to sit a number of exams during the course of their education.

Entrance Exams

Many of the UK’s fee-paying secondary schools require applicants to sit an entrance exam, as do all state grammar schools. This is separate from any standard national assessments, and the test itself often varies between schools. If you are applying to these schools, remember to take into account the number of different entrance exams your child will have to sit.


GCSEs are normally completed at age 16, as described above. Pupils may study a relatively large number of subjects – around ten – including maths, English, sciences, humanities (e.g. geography or history), a foreign language and a technology.


If pupils progress to Further Education, they may study 3-5 A-Levels (short for ‘Advanced Level’) which offer a more detailed education in specific subjects, and are the normal precursor to qualify for a university degree. Many schools are also starting to offer equivalents, such as the International Baccalaureate.

How to choose a school in the UK

It takes real insight and experience to choose the perfect school for a child, which is why we refer our clients to independent education consultants. Broadly speaking, however, there are several key criteria to consider when choosing a UK school.

State-Maintained vs Independent Schools

State-maintained schools are owned by the local authority and funded by the government. They are usually subject to a ‘catchment area’ which means only children who live nearby can attend.

Independent schools are typically funded by an annual subscription fee from students, and are therefore independent from the local authority. These fees can vary greatly between depending on the school

Independent schools may also be called ‘private schools’ or ‘public schools’. Though this can be confusing, both terms have a reasonable origin:

  • Private school means the school is owned privately instead of by the local authority.
  • Public school means the school is open to applicants from beyond its local area.

In general, the term ‘independent school’ has been preferred in recent years, to prevent the confusion that can arise from ‘private’ vs. ‘public’ school.

There are some key differences between state schools and independent schools that will affect your child’s experience.

For example, because independent schools have a subscription fee, they typically have smaller class sizes. This means pupils benefit from more one-on-one tuition, but might also mean that the school offers fewer subjects.

Independent schools also have different freedoms from state schools: for instance, concerning teaching, admissions and curriculum. However, they are still monitored by the Department for Education, which can take enforcement action if the school does not meet the Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations.

Specialist Schools

As the name suggests, these have a specific focus. This might be an academic focus, or it may be an emphasis on sports, music or a particular religion. You should consider what type of environment will suit your child, and which subjects you consider a priority in their education.

International Schools

International schools are ideal for pupils who have limited English fluency or who are likely to relocate partway through their education. The curriculum is typically designed to be more transferable to other education systems and will be more adaptable for pupils learning English as a second-language.

Boarding Schools

‘Boarding’ at a school means the child has access to overnight accommodation, food and pastoral care. Not every school offers boarding, and it is typically (though not exclusively) a feature associated with independent schools.

Boarding schools are a good choice for pupils whose parents travel a lot, or for parents who live in London and want their child to attend school elsewhere in the UK. Some parents may even send their child to a British boarding school but live in another country themselves.

Options generally include full-time boarding during the school year, week-time boarding with weekends at the parental home, or a flexible basis that can be agreed as required with the school.

What to consider when choosing a UK school


You can assess a school’s performance and reputation by checking its Ofsted grading.

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. It inspects and grades schools, creating (in theory) a consistent basis for comparison between schools of different types and in different areas.

After inspection, schools receive an overall grade on a simple 4-point system:

  1. Outstanding
  2. Good
  3. Needs improvement
  4. Inadequate

Schools that perform extremely badly, or consistently perform poorly, may be subject to intervention by the government in an effort to improve education standards.

You can also look at school league tables, which compare schools by measuring students’ performance in national examinations.

Catchment Areas

A ‘catchment area’ is the geographic remit of a state-funded school. Generally, pupils who attend a state school must live (or spend the majority of their time) within that school’s catchment area, which can be as specific as just a few streets in any direction from the school.

This means that there is very high demand for property in prime locations within an outstanding school’s catchment area. Indeed, some parents buy a property close to a desirable school solely so their child qualifies to attend that school. Catchment areas can also change, for instance when a school becomes oversubscribed, affecting house prices in these areas even further.

Public schools are not normally subject to strict geographical requirements, but this can vary. Schools without boarding facilities may put a sensible limit on how far away pupils can live, whereas boarding schools may allow pupils to travel from any distance (even internationally) to live on-site during the school term.

Choosing a school in London

Choosing a school in London is much like choosing a school in the UK in general, but with added demand and some other considerations to take into account.

State-funded schools in London often have extremely small catchment areas, in light of the higher population density, so it’s crucial to consider this when buying property in London if you have school-aged children.

Some schools reserve a percentage of places for academic high-achievers, so your child may have a wider choice of secondary schools if they perform well in exams.

Private schools in London are also in high demand, so it can be valuable to get your child into independent schooling as early as possible. Pre-preparatory schools start from around age 3, so it’s worth exploring this as early as you can.


When choosing a UK school, you should consider the quality of the institution, its suitability for your child, and practical considerations such as fees, location and entry requirements.

The key questions to ask yourself are:

  • Type of school
    • Would your child prefer or require an international school?
    • Does the school have a specialist focus, and if so would this suit your child?
  • Entry requirements
    • Is entry to the school based on an entrance exam, or other conditions such as location or religion?
    • If your child is younger, can they attend a preparatory or ‘feeder’ school to help them access your preferred school?
  • Fees
    • If the school charges a fee, how does it compare with the fees at other schools? Remember to consider additional charges for boarding.
  • Reputation
    • How does the school perform in Ofsted reports and league tables?
    • What do other people say about the school? Check online forums and social media, and speak to parents in the area with older children.

A renowned education system is just one of the UK’s attractions for international buyers, but it can be the biggest and most complex to navigate. To make sure you find the best school for your child, Black Brick can refer you to a leading education consultant, while ourselvewe find you the perfect property to access these opportunities.

Contact us today to learn more.

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