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March 2013

School System in the UK (4-16)

This article will explain the UK school system. I’m attempting to give you a long detailed post that hopefully is understandable. (This article only covers compulsory education because it was far too long).

So, an overview of this article:

Primary School:

  • Reception
  • Key Stage 1
  • Key Stage 2
  • Curriculum
  • SATs

Secondary School:

  • Years and age ranges
  • Curriculum
  • GCSE’s


Extra Information

If this is the information you are looking for, read ahead!

Primary School- Ages 4-11.

Some schools have one building for children aged 4-11 other schools have two sites split into an ‘Infants school’ (KS1) and a ‘Juniors School’ (KS2)

Reception (Ages 4-5)

To start in reception, you have to be four years old before September the first (which is the cut off for new pupils). Reception is the first year we have at school, it’s play-orientated and most of the day is spent in ‘free play’. There will always be things around the room to encourage and support independent learning such as a ‘writing area’. 

Key Stage 1- is the legal term for the two years of schooling in maintained schools in England and Wales, normally known as Year 1 and Year 2, when pupils are aged between 5 and 7. [wikipedia]

Year 1 can be thought of as a transition year, it moves away from free play and delivers instead a far more structured curriculum however there is still free time and play in most schools which is supported by the government.

Year 2- Is more structured, pupils know what is expected of them and they have no ‘free play’. (Except golden time!)

In Key stage 1 the school must follow the National Curriculum which is made be the government. This covers ten main areas.

It states that all schools must cover at least these ten statuary areas. Religious Education is also compulsory in most schools.

In Reception and Key stage 1 phonics is taught for twenty minutes a day.

What is phonics? You might never have learnt phonics, as it is only more recently it has become part of the curriculum. You probably have been taught a version of this; ‘sound out the word’ is what they used to tell you to do (which is using phonemes to decipher text).

Phonics is a method for teaching reading and writing the English language by developing learners’ phonemic awareness—the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes—in order to teach the correspondence between these sounds and the spelling patterns (graphemes) that represent them. (wikipedia)

At the end of KS1 pupils take a SATS test. More on SATs can be found here.

Key Stage 2 ages 7-11. 

Key Stage 2 is the legal term for the four years of schooling in maintained schools in England and Wales, normally known as Year 3, Year 4, Year 5 and Year 6, when pupils are aged between 7 and 11. The term is applied differently in Northern Ireland where it refers to pupils in Year 5, Year 6 and Year 7 (pupils aged 8 to 11).

  • Year 3: age 7-8
  • Year 4: age 8-9
  • Year 5: age 9-10
  • Year 6: age 10-11

 In Key Stage 2 the school must focus on 11 subject areas rather than the 10 in KS1.

As you can see, there is no difference between what is taught in KS1 and KS2. However, the areas that must be covered in each subject area is very different and in more detail. The National Curriculum website is hard to navigate so I went on the BBC webiste. If you click a subject it will come up with some areas that are covered in primary school. (Note: NOT ALL SUBJECTS WILL BE COVERED, IT IS UP TO THE SCHOOL TO DECIDE WHAT TO TEACH.)

At the end of KS2 the year 6’s take their SATs. They should be aiming to get a 4c-4a at this age.

SAT grades

The SATs grades go from an 1 to an 8. But the highest achievable grade in primary is a 5. Each number is split into three sub-grades. So for example:

1c,1b,1a,2c,2b,2a etc. 

So a 1a is a high 1. They are achieving everything in the 1 category. Whereas a c is achieving some aspects of that grade but mostly on the grade below. I couldn’t find an online explanation, so here have my less than stellar one!


Scotland’s education system is very different to the rest of the UK. Here is a link that explains the Scottish education system.

Secondary School. Ages 11-16.

In England and Wales, secondary school is for children from the ages of 11 to 18.[3] Secondary school incorporates Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum (Year Seven to Year Eleven) and can also include sixth form. After 16 years of compulsory education ends, and young people can decide whether to continue their studies further at school or sixth form college, or leave the education system. [wikipedia]

We carry on with the same year system so the years go:

  • Year 7: 11-12
  • Year 8: 12-13
  • Year 9: 13-14
  • Year 10: 14-15
  • Year 11: 15-16


‘Core Subjects’ (Taken throughout secondary)

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science (Sometimes split into Biology, Physics and Chemistry)

Other key foundation subjects (taught compulsorily till year 9

  • Geography
  • History
  • Art
  • Design technology
  • Music
  • Drama
  • MFL (Modern foreign language)

Other compulsory subjects (taken until year 11)

  • PSHE (Personal Social Health Education)
  • PE (Physical Education)
  • ICT
  • RE (Religious Education)

At the end of year 9, students choose which GCSE’s they want to take in addition to the compulsory subjects. It depends on which school you are at for the amount of optional GCSE’s you can take, in my school we could take three. It also depends on what school you go to to what GCSE’s are available, some schools will be more limited in what subjects they can offer you.

Here is a list of subjects that can be taken at GCSE

GCSE grading system

There is normally two different exams offered where is the higher paper only A*-C being a pass and the foundation where the highest grade you can get is a C but it runs from C-G.

The aim is for every student to get 5 A*-C with it actuality more than half of students getting their 5 A*-C.

We leave school at 16 in the UK and education is then optional. Further education can be an apprenticeship, college/sixth form.


We have three terms in a year.

Autumn- September- December

Spring- January- Easter holiday

Summer- April-July

In each term we have ‘half term week’ the dates fluctuate in different areas but it’s roughly the last week in October, Mid February and the start of May.

We have two weeks off at Christmas (normally from about the 20th of the month) and two weeks off at Easter. (Good Friday is normally at the end of the first week of the Easter holidays.)

We are off from school/college from the end of July till around the 7th of September. This varies over the country.

Extra information

We refer to ‘classes’ as ‘lessons’.

Lessons are normally an hour long, we don’t often have ‘double’ lessons.

Break time is in most schools between 10:30 and 10:45. Dinner time is normally 12-1pm but in some secondary schools it can be from 1-2pm. (Mine was.)

Some primary schools have an additional break time in the afternoon from about 2-2.15pm.

From 2014 (or the current year tens) education is compulsory till the age of 18. 

I hope this has been useful in explaining our school systems and hopefully you know a little more than you did before you started reading this. Remember to check what I’ve written here against other sources as this is very English centric. 


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