Schools in the UK
Understanding the fundamentals
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Schools in England
State schools in England
State schools are provided by the government at no cost and are largely funded by taxes. The standard of education at these schools varies considerably, however. Some offer excellent teaching and facilities, while others have a record of performing poorly in terms of academic results.
All schools are regularly inspected. For comprehensive reports on quality of teaching and facilities as well as the academic performance of students at a particular school, parents can consult the Ofsted (Office of Standards in Education) website.
Independent schools in England
Private schools, known as independent schools in England, are run by a governing body and largely funded by fees. Fees at private schools in England are high, but standards are excellent, class sizes are small and students often perform better academically than those in government-funded schools.
Most private schools follow the English National Curriculum, but some have introduced the IB programme as an option for post-16 education. There are also private schools that teach through a religious lens such as Christianity, or make use of an alternative education philosophy such as Montessori.
International schools in England
International schools are a popular option for expat families living in England. These schools follow a variety of different curricula from across the globe. Students at international schools have the opportunity to continue studying the curriculum of their home country, and as an added advantage, the familiar modes and language used for instruction are often comforting for newly-arrived expat children.
As such, they’re a good option for those who don’t plan on living in the UK for the long term. But fees are hefty, so expats considering international schools should try to negotiate an education allowance into their employment contract.
There is a range of international schools in England following various curricula, including those of countries such as the US, France and Germany. International schools can be found throughout England, but London, as the country’s international hub, has the largest variety.
Schools in Northern Ireland
While there are no schools offering an international or foreign curriculum in Northern Ireland, expat parents can rest assured that their children will have access to a high standard of education.
The education system in Northern Ireland is similar to those in England and Wales, especially in terms of curriculum content. However, year groups work differently and religion plays a more prominent role in Northern Ireland education than it does in the rest of the UK's.
Schooling is compulsory from the age of four, culminating in the GCSE exams at age 16. Post-16 education is optional. Those who continue will usually pick a path that is either academic (A Levels) or vocational (Applied A Levels).
Expat parents unsure of which school to choose can consult the website of the Education and Training Inspectorate, which conducts frequent assessments on all Northern Irish schools.
Public schools in Northern Ireland
Religion plays an important role in public schooling in Northern Ireland. While there are non-religious public schools available, Protestant schools (known as controlled schools) and Catholic schools are most common.
Controlled schools make up about half of the country’s schools and are managed by boards of governors. Some are entirely funded by the state while others are funded by a foundation or trust, usually of a religious nature. Though controlled schools have open admission policies, most were originally Protestant schools and retain Protestant representatives on their boards, which greatly influences the running of the school.
Catholic schools are also commonly found in Northern Ireland, numbering in the hundreds. These schools are owned and managed by the Catholic Church.
Catholic and Protestant schools remain highly segregated from one another. The integrated education movement, which is gaining traction, aims to bridge the gap between the two denominations and has opened a number of integrated schools throughout Northern Ireland.
Independent schools in Northern Ireland
Private schools, known as independent schools, are rare in Northern Ireland, with only a few available. Most are religious. As they receive no grants from the government, they are privately funded and require fees.
It can be difficult to gain entry to a private school, as they are able to set their own admission policies and are usually academically selective. That said, there are many advantages to private schools. They have more freedom in their curriculum and teaching style than state schools, for instance. This flexibility may suit some expat families. Because there is a high demand for spaces, it’s best to apply well in advance of the move.
Schools in Scotland
In Scotland, parents have a range of public and private choices with regard to the school their child attends. Though there are no international schools to serve the needs of children from particular countries, a handful of schools do offer students the option to study the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. Widely recognised throughout the world and easily transferable to different schools, the IB is often an ideal choice of curriculum for the globally-mobile family.
State-funded schools in Scotland
Schools throughout the country follow the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, which is divided into three broad stages. Early Learning and Childcare is from ages three to five, Broad General Education is from ages five to 16, and the Senior Phase is from age 16 to 18.
The early learning and senior phases are both optional. From the age of 16, students can either continue with their academic path at school or they can leave school. School-leavers can work, attend a college, volunteer, or undertake skills training through vocational courses, apprenticeships, and internships.
Education at public schools is funded by the government for the entirety of primary and secondary education.
Public schools operate according to a catchment system. Each area is divided into a catchment area, and households are given admission priority at the school associated with their catchment.
Expat parents should note that the school nearest in proximity might not necessarily be the catchment school associated with their area. For this reason, it is highly recommended to conduct extensive research into which schools serve which areas before choosing accommodation.
Independent schools in Scotland
Private schools in Scotland, also known as independent schools, are not funded by taxpayer money or government agencies.
Although the country’s state-sponsored school system is commendable, many expat parents still prefer to send their children to these tuition-based schools because they are generally regarded as having even higher and more consistent academic standards. Furthermore, private schools usually have fewer students per class, typically boast first-class facilities, and offer an extensive range of extra-curricular activities.
Spaces at these schools can fill up fast, but admission is not necessarily limited to a specific period of time, so expat parents can try to gain entrance for their child at various points in the school year. Sometimes students must pass an examination or undertake an interview to satisfy admission requirements.
Whatever school one chooses for their child, it is important that it meets their needs and works well logistically for the whole family. In addition, the high cost of private schools means that substantial tuition fees must be worked into the family budget.
Schools in Wales
Though education in Wales has traditionally run parallel to that in England, various Welsh education policies have caused an increasing divergence between the two. With a complete curriculum overhaul in the works, currently being rolled out as of 2022, Wales continues to distinguish its education system from England’s. The new Welsh curriculum aims for a holistic approach to learning, with teaching methods being based on experiences and skill-building.
Though there are no schools teaching foreign curricula in Wales, there are schools that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB). Many globally mobile families find the IB an ideal curriculum choice as it is standardised across the world.
School in Wales is compulsory from age five to 16, but most students continue until age 18. Publicly funded education is available from age three.
Public schools in Wales
The language of instruction in most schools across Wales is English, but there are also schools where Welsh is the main language. Other schools are bilingual. Regardless of the school’s language, Welsh is taught as subject up to the age of 16, at least.
GCSE exams are taken at age 16, concluding compulsory education. After this, students can leave school to begin working, stay in school to continue with academics, or transfer to a further-learning college.
Independent schools in Wales
Private schools in Wales are known as independent schools. These schools are funded through fees rather than external funding. Fees can be extremely high at some of the more prestigious schools. However, private schools offer distinct advantages such as smaller class sizes, better facilities and a wider range of extra-curricular activities.
The selection of private schools in Wales is limited, numbering only around 30 (this compared to the more than 1,500 public schools in the country). Some private schools offer weekly or full boarding facilities, which can be useful for families whose nearest private school is too far for a daily commute.
Most private schools teach through the lens of a specific denomination of Christianity, but others are non- or inter-denominational. A few are open to all faiths. Co-educational schools are the norm, though there are a handful of single-sex schools.