1. A Guide to the British Education System

A Guide to the British Education System

Published on 25 Apr 2023

The British education system has long been famous for being one of the best in the world. A British curriculum is offered to learners in more than 160 countries across the world, and UK and International A levels are the most popular qualifications among international schools.

Why do so many people choose a British education for their children? Well, its global renown is well deserved. A British curriculum offers a structured and comprehensive education, with students encouraged to think analytically and critically. British qualifications are recognised worldwide, offering young people a passport to the best universities and enabling students to achieve their potential.

Let’s take a closer look at the British education system, the different stages of the curriculum and the exam system.

A guide to the British education system

When we talk about the “British” system in this article, we mean England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own curriculum, qualifications and other differences including the age at which students take the key exams.

The two main stages are primary and secondary education, with a third, tertiary/further education, for those who go on to study beyond the compulsory age of 16.

British Primary education: ages 4–11

In the early years of primary school the emphasis is on learning through play, and learning to read and write using a phonics system.

As children move from “infant” to “junior” school at about age 7, they continue to learn core subjects like English, maths, and science, alongside other foundation subjects such as art, music, geography, history, languages and religion as they move through the “Key Stage” system. Each Key Stage has national testing and schools are ranked according to their performance on these tests.

Children usually have one main classroom teacher in an academic year, who uses a range of teaching methods, from whole class teaching to group activities and individual work. Children are sometimes grouped according to previous academic performance, and specialist teachers visit the class for subjects like music and art.

British Secondary education: ages 11–19

In secondary school, the structure of the school day shifts. Children go from spending most of their day in one classroom, to moving around the school building to different departments. Subjects are now separately timetabled throughout the day, with individual teachers who specialise in their subject area delivering classes to students.

At age 16/17, students who wish to stay on in education attend sixth form (lower and upper sixth) which might be at the same (or a different) secondary school. Another alternative is to attend a college that offers a broader range of both academic and vocational courses for post-secondary education.

Transferable skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, leadership and collaboration are integrated through the British curriculum, from primary onwards.

The British education exam system

At about 14, children can choose to drop or pursue some subjects to GCSE level (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The minimum number of GCSE subjects is five, while the majority of students take 9–10 UK or International GCSEs.

The core subjects of maths, English and the sciences are mandatory, however students have the freedom to select the other subjects they wish to study further in the fields of humanities, business, arts and design as well as languages. Often, students are encouraged to follow their interests, keeping in mind what they may like to study at university.

Students spend the next two years preparing for their exams at which point compulsory schooling ends. GCSE grades go from 9 to 1, from highest to lowest, with 4 being a standard pass and 5 a strong pass.

The academic pathway after GCSE is via the UK or International A Level (Advanced Level) system or the IB (International Baccalaureate). At A Level, students can choose to specialise in three or four different subjects from a wide range of choices. Most people will find that their choice of subjects is usually grouped under either Arts or Sciences, though it is perfectly possible to choose a mix of Arts or Sciences subjects.

The British university system

A Levels represent a chance to align interests with a student’s hopes for university and to study subjects that weren’t available at their school as GCSEs. The subjects on offer lend themselves to a smooth transition to a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or BSc (Bachelor of Science) degree.

A Levels are rigorously academic and train students to write essays and sit exams, with some coursework. There are 6 possible grades going from A* to E, with C considered a pass. Oxford and Cambridge, which are the #1 and #3 best universities in the world, require A*s and As but each university in the UK and Scotland sets its own entry requirements.

Why choose a British education for your child

When you’re weighing up international schools for your child, the British curriculum is an attractive option.

The curriculum is streamlined, offering children a staged approach with content that is relevant to their age and stage from primary onwards. When it comes to A-Levels, Pearson qualifications lead seamlessly into the British university system, giving your child a passport to the world’s best universities and providing them with the skills and knowledge they’ll need to excel. A degree from a British university is held in very high esteem all over the world, opening up lots of exciting opportunities for your child.

Learn more about the benefits of a British education and the Pearson Edexcel qualifications.

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