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The boarding school system, subjects and qualifications

Crowd of students eating in the dining hall at Queen's College in Taunton, Somerset

A boarding school is a residential school where pupils live and study during the school year. There are approximately 500 boarding schools across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The UK boarding school system

Most UK boarding schools teach a mix of international pupils and local UK pupils. ‘Boarders’ are pupils who live at the school. ‘Day pupils’ live with their families and return home at the end of the school day. This mix helps to create a good social atmosphere.

Most UK boarding schools are co-educational, teaching both boys and girls (classes are mixed, but accommodation is separate). There are many single-sex schools too.

There are two main types of school:

Independent boarding schools
(Also known as private or public boarding schools)
State boarding schools
There are around 465 independent boarding schools in the UK. There are 38 state boarding schools in the UK.
Applications are accepted from pupils of any nationality.

UK pupils and European Economic Area pupils are accepted.

For full details, see Education for students aged 16 and under and UK qualifications explained.
They charge fees for tuition and boarding. Most schools are charities and invest any profits they make back into the school. Tuition is free (this is funded by the state) but there is a charge for boarding accommodation.

All boarding schools charge fees for accommodation, with independent boarding schools also charging for tuition. Academic standards across boarding schools are high, but independent schools can sometimes have more money to invest in facilities and have smaller class sizes. If you are eligible to attend a state boarding school, it is worth looking at what each school offers and judging each on its merits.

Subjects and qualifications

Below the age of 7, children can attend boarding schools as a day pupil. From the age of 7 and upwards, children can attend as either day pupils or boarders. To join a UK boarding school, you don’t have to start at the age of 7. Most international pupils join at the age of 7, 11, 13, 14 or 16.

The UK boarding school system is split into three levels:

  • 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 school and preparatory school. The terms ‘pre-preparatory’ and ‘preparatory’ (or ‘pre-prep’ and ‘prep’) are most commonly used in the independent sector.

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

In the last two years of secondary school (age 14 to 16), most pupils study for GCSE qualifications. Alternatives include Standard grades and Intermediates in Scotland, or the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme. See Education for students aged 16 and under for more details.

  • Sixth form is for students aged 16 to 18. The two years are often called Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth.

At sixth form level, most pupils take A-levels. Alternatives include Standard Grades and Highers in Scotland, or the International Baccalaureate. Please see Further education for more details.

Boarding schools offer a wide range of subjects – including maths, sciences (physics, biology and chemistry), history, geography, drama, IT, literature and foreign languages – in addition to extra-curricular activities.

All of these qualifications are highly regarded by universities, colleges and employers in the UK and around the world.

Find out more

Learn more about UK boarding schools at the Boarding Schools’ Association and State Boarding Schools’ Association websites.