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Education for students aged 16 and under

Group photo of young students from Oswestry School outside school buildings

This section gives an overview of UK education for children and teenagers aged 16 and under.

  • Many international pupils who study in the UK live and study at a boarding school. Find out more in Introduction to UK boarding schools.
  • Most pupils with disabilities and special educational needs attend mainstream schools, but there are also special schools which offer more support. See Disabilities and special educational needs for more details.
  • This section does not cover English language courses for young learners. If you are interested in these courses, please go to Learn English.

Schools and home schooling

In the UK, children and teenagers up to the age of 16 must either be taught at home, or attend school.

State schools

All UK children and teenagers aged five to 16 are entitled to a free-of-charge place at a state school. Most UK children attend such a school. State schools are maintained and funded either by the government or by a local education authority.

Independent schools             (Also known as private schools or public schools)

There are 2,600 independent schools in the UK, educating around 625,000 children and teenagers (6.5% of the total number of school pupils in the UK). Most independent schools are funded privately from fees charged to pupils’ parents. Many offer scholarships and bursaries. Many independent schools are charities – any profits from fees are invested in improving the school.

Home schooling

A small number of 4- to 16-year-olds are schooled at home, taught by their parents or tutors. You can find out more about home schooling on the relevant government websites for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Another useful website is Education Otherwise, a UK charity offering support to parents who are interested in home schooling.

Scroll down to find out about international pupils entering the UK school system.

The UK education path

  • Age 3–4: In the UK, many children start their education aged 3 or 4 by attending a nursery school, playgroup or the reception or nursery class of a primary school. This education is not compulsory.

  • Age 4–16: Full-time education is compulsory for all UK children and teenagers between the ages of five and 16. All UK children are entitled to a free place at a state school between these ages. 

  • Primary education is for children aged four or five up to 11 or 13. Terms you might hear are primary school, infant school, junior school, pre-preparatory (pre-prep) school and preparatory (prep) school. The terms ‘pre-preparatory’ and ‘preparatory’ are most commonly used in the independent sector.

  • Secondary education is for pupils aged 11 or 13 to 16. Terms you might hear are secondary school, high school and senior school. The term ‘senior school’ is more commonly used in the independent sector.

  • Age 16 and over: After the end of compulsory education, students might enter further education and then higher education.

The Citizens Advice Bureau website has lots of information about the school system in the UK. Please note – this site presents separate content for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is a box on the right-hand side which says ‘This content applies to…’. Make sure you select the country you are interested in.

Subjects and qualifications

In the final two years of secondary school (aged around 14–16), most UK pupils take one of the following sets of qualifications:

  • GCSEs: The General Certificate of Secondary Education is an academic qualification taken by students aged 14–16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is the most common qualification for students at this age in the UK. International GCSEs (IGCSEs) are very similar to GCSEs and are a popular option for international students based overseas.
  • International Baccalaureate Middle Years programme: The International Baccalaureate (IB) is available at an increasing number of schools in the UK. Students study languages, humanities, sciences, mathematics, arts, physical education and technology, usually in preparation for the main two-year IB programme.
  • Standard grades and Intermediates (Scottish qualifications): Standard Grades are generally taken over two years of study, in the third and fourth year of secondary school, with an exam at the end of the fourth year. There are three levels of study: credit, general and foundation. Exams are usually taken at two levels – credit and general, or general and foundation. Intermediate 1 and 2 are designed for students who have passed Standard Grades at general or foundation level, and for any student wishing to take up a new subject at school or college.

These qualifications usually require a mix of exams and coursework. Most students take a number of subjects – for example, a student taking their GCSEs might study between 7 and 10 subjects including maths, English literature, English language, physics, chemistry, biology, information technology, geography and history.

All of these qualifications are highly regarded by universities, colleges and employers in the UK and around the world. The aim is to give pupils a good grounding in a variety of subjects, to help prepare them for further education or for a career.

The school curriculum

Most state schools in England follow the National Curriculum. In Scotland, schools follow the Curriculum for Excellence. In Northern Ireland, schools follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum. In Wales, schools follow the National Curriculum for Wales.

These curriculums are set by the government to specify what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach, to ensure that pupils receive a good education in a broad range of subjects.

Independent schools are not obliged to follow a government curriculum, but many do voluntarily. Schools that do not follow the National Curriculum generally offer a broad range of subjects too.

International students at UK schools

  • Pupils from the European Economic Area (EEA) can attend a UK state school and have the same rights to education as British citizens. The European Economic Area comprises all member states of the European Union (EU) together with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.
  • Pupils from outside the EEA must attend an independent, fee-paying school. They cannot attend a state school unless coming for a short exchange or educational visit.
  • British overseas territories citizens and British overseas citizens are in the same position as Non-EEA Nationals, as described in the paragraph above. However, please note – the majority of British overseas territories citizens also hold British citizenship. British citizens are entitled to free state school places. (Find out more about Types of British nationality.)

For full details, please visit the UK government website.

Depending on your nationality, you may need a visa to study in the UK. Find out more in UK student visas.

If you need a visa, you must study at a school that has been approved by UK Visas and Immigration – so make sure to check before applying.