For expats moving to England with children, making the right choice when it comes to picking a school is a top priority. Attending the right school will play a significant role in ensuring a successful transition into expat life. Factors that will affect the choice of school for expat children include the child’s previous schooling experience, academic ability and English language capability.

Expat parents should note that most government-funded schools in England and some private schools base admission on catchment areas. Therefore, it’s important to choose a school before deciding where to live within a city. Private schools and international schools with boarding facilities for students offer greater flexibility.

Education is compulsory in England for children between the ages of five and eighteen. At fifteen or sixteen, students take GCSEs. For the remaining two years of schooling, education options broaden with a number of academic and vocational paths available. Continuing on to A-levels is a popular route, but specialist colleges or professional apprenticeships are another option. More and more schools in England are now offering students the opportunity to study for the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is recognised internationally.

State schools are provided by the government at no cost to British citizens and foreigners legally living in the UK. These are effectively 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 the academic results.

State schools are run by the government, follow the national curriculum and give priority to pupils resident in the catchment area. This means that expats should consider where they want to have their child schooled when choosing an area to set up home in.

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 are privately run. 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 using an alternative education philosophy, such as Montessori.

Admission requirements for private schools vary. In some instances, students will have to attend an interview or pass an exam.

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 can also be comforting for expat children.

As such, they’re a good option for those who don’t plan on living in the UK in the long-term. But fees are hefty, so expats considering international schools should try to negotiate an education allowance into their employment contract.

There are a range of international schools in England following various curricula, including those of countries such as the USA, France and Germany. London, as the capital and city with the biggest expat population, has the largest variety of international schools.

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. In fact, when it comes to academic prowess, the country often outperforms other parts of the UK.

The education system in Northern Ireland is similar to the schooling system in England and Wales, especially in terms of curriculum content. However, year groups work differently and religion plays a much more prominent role in education in Northern Ireland than it does in the rest of the UK.

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.

Schooling is compulsory from the age of four, culminating in the GCSE exams at age 16. Post-16 education is optional. Those that continue will usually pick a path that is either academic (A Levels) or vocational (Applied A Levels).

Education in Northern Ireland is divided into primary education from Year 1 to Year 7 (ages 4 to 10) and secondary education from Year 8 to Year 12 (ages 11 to 16). The final stage of secondary education – namely Years 13 and 14 (ages 17 and 18) – is optional.


Types of public schools

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 admissions 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.

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 attending. For instance, private schools have more freedom in their curriculum and teaching style than state schools. 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.

In Scotland, parents have a range of public and private choices with regards to the school their child attends. Though there are no international schools to serve the needs of children from particular countries in Scotland, some private 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.

Whichever option expats choose to go for, it is best to apply as far ahead of time as possible.


Schools throughout the country follow the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, which is divided into two broad stages: primary and secondary.

Children attend the first year of primary school (known as Primary 1) at age five, concluding the primary curriculum at age 11 (Primary 7).

Children attend secondary school from age 12 (known as S1 or Year 1) to age 18 (known as S6 or Year 6). Years 4 to 6 form the senior phase of secondary school. The senior phase is optional. Students can 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.

It is possible for parents to place a request for a school other than those that appear within their catchment, but these demands are not necessarily granted.

Independent schools in Scotland, also known as private schools, are not funded by taxpayer money or government agencies. Even though 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, have first-class facilities and offer an extensive range of extra-curricular activities.

Available space 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.

It is always worth organising tours of the schools, ideally during a school day, so that one gets a feel for the school’s approach and ethos. Some topics worth addressing include the length of the school day, extracurricular activities, class sizes, assessments and possible summer school activities.

Many schools offer taster days where the prospective pupil can experience time in class with the other children. This is a worthwhile exercise, as the child can get an idea of where they feel most comfortable.

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.

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, set to be implemented between 2022 and 2026, 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.
public schools

School in Wales is compulsory from age 5 to 16, but most students continue until age 18. Publicly funded education is available from age three.

The language of instruction in most schools across Wales is English, but there are also schools where Welsh in the main language. Other schools are bilingual. Regardless of the school’s language, students must take Welsh as a subject up to at least the age of 16.

The Welsh curriculum is divided into four major stages:

  • Foundation Phase (3 to 7)
  • Key Stage 2 (7 to 11)
  • Key Stage 3 (11 to 14)
  • Key Stage 4 (14 to 16)

GCSEs are taken at the end of Key Stage 4, concluding compulsory education. After this, students can leave school to begin working, stay in school and take A Levels, or transfer to a further learning college.


Private schools in Wales are commonly known as independent schools. As private schools don’t receive government funding, they charge fees, which can be particularly high at the most prestigious schools. However, private schools offer distinct advantages such as smaller class sizes, better facilities and a wider range of extra-curricular activities.

Overall, the selection of private schools in Wales is very limited. Some 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.

There are no schools in Wales that teach a foreign curriculum. However, there are a few private schools, sixth-form colleges and further education institutes which offer the International Baccalaureate (IB). Many globally mobile families find the IB an ideal curriculum choice as it is standardised across the world.