A guide to the education system in the UK: ages, assessments, scope, and more

In the academic year 2020/21, more than 600,000 international students were enrolled in UK higher education, making up 22% of all HE students. This figure only includes undergraduate students.

The reason why such an overwhelming number of international students are choosing the UK as a study abroad destination is its high-quality education, post-study work visa, and numerous work opportunities.

But, higher education isn’t the only note-worthy aspect of the British education system.

There are five stages of education in the British education system. And, you don’t have to wait till your Bachelor’s to reap the benefits of an excellent education.

  1. Early years
  2. Primary
  3. Secondary
  4. Further Education (FE) and,
  5. Higher Education


Starting age

Learning focus

Early years


Communication and language


Physical development


Personal, social and emotional development






Understanding the world


Expressive arts and design


Nursery (under 5)


Infant (5 to 7 or 8) (Key Stage 1)


Junior (up to 11 or 12) (Key Stage 2)

Achieving basic literacy


Numeracy among all pupils


Establishing foundations in science, mathematics and other subjects




Core subjects – English, Maths, Sciences + additional 4 or 5 subjects like French, German, Business Studies, Design and Technology, Music, and more.

Further Education


Ranges from basic skills training to higher vocational education

Higher Education


Undergraduate courses – first degrees like BA

Postgraduate courses – Master’s taught and research, PG diploma courses

This information will come in handy for your child or you, if you want to join at any of the above-mentioned stages.

We will also cover:

  • Detailed information on each stage with assessment types and schooling options
  • Inputs on the UK education system for international students
  • Information on getting into each stage as an international student
  • Eligibility criteria for higher education
  • Admission help from SelectRight.

1.Early Years education system in the UK

In the British education system, all three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year.

As per the education system in the UK, the education takes place in a variety of settings like:

  • Nursery classes and exception classes within primary schools,
  • Voluntary pre-schools,
  • Privately run nurseries or childminders.

As per the Education system in the UK, the standards of learning, care and development are governed by the early years foundation stage (EYFS).

Children mainly learn through games and play.

The areas of learning are:
  • Communication and language
  • Physical development
  • Personal, social and emotional development
  • Literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Understanding the world
  • Expressive arts and design

International students typically cannot enroll at this stage.

2.Primary education system in the UK

The primary stage covers three age ranges:

  • Nursery (under 5)
  • Infant (5 to 7 or 8) (Key Stage 1) and,
  • Junior (up to 11 or 12) (Key Stage 2)

For younger children, some primary schools may have an adjoining nursery or children’s center.

The majority of public primary schools have mixed classes that include both boys and girls.

Middle schools are either categorized as primary or secondary schools, depending on their specific age groupings.

The education system in the UK focuses on:

  • Achieving basic literacy
  • Numeracy amongst all pupils,
  • Establishing foundations in science, mathematics and other subjects.

Enrollment at the primary stage

You can send your child to study in the UK at this stage. Any foreign child is eligible to study in a private school from the age of 4.

Until your child turns 12 so till the Junior stage, you can stay with them under a special Parent of a Child Student accompanying visa.

If you can’t accompany your child, they can stay in a boarding school or with a local guardian.

3.Secondary education system in the UK

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, students typically go directly to secondary school at age 11 or 12.

In Scotland, however, some students choose to go through middle schools, which serve students in a range of ages from 8 to 14.

The education is influenced by different types of schools, policies adopted by local authority and history of the place. Hence, education at this stage diversifies.

There are both Comprehensive schools and Academies.

You can get into comprehensive schools without excellent grades. These schools all the children in a neighborhood.

Academies however enjoy greater freedom. They decide their own curriculum, admission standards and teaching days.

Under the education system in the UK, student have to enter a range of external examinations like:

  • GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • Standard Grades in Scotland
  • In Scotland pupils study for the National Qualifications (NQ) Standard grade (a two-year course leading to examinations at the end of the fourth year of secondary schooling)
  • NQ Higher grade, requires at least a further year of secondary schooling.

Enrolling into the UK education system for international students at the secondary stage

Some international students may want to receive secondary education in the UK. This can be understood as High School.

Here are some things you should keep in mind.

  • You can only attend private schools.
  • Your age should be 11-13.
  • You should have proficiency in academic English.
  • Schools will conduct additional entrance tests in basic subjects in English.

This is a great opportunity for international students as according to the international assessment program PISA, in Reading, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences, English schoolchildren are ranked 17th, 14th, and 14th, respectively.

4.Further education (FE) system in the UK

In the British education system, FE is a stage between school and university.

It is not compulsory to get into university.

Students are usually over 16. They take it to cover all non-advanced courses after secondary education. It can range from basic skills training to higher vocational education such as City and Guilds or Foundation Degree.

Under the education system in the UK, these courses are primarily taught in:

  • FE colleges
  • Work-based learning, and a
  • Adult and community learning institutions

5.Higher education system in the UK

Higher education is defined as courses that are of a standard that is higher than GCE.

Here are the three primary levels of a HE course in the education system in the UK.

1.Undergraduate program

Undergraduate programs include first degrees (honors and ordinary).

Types of first degrees:

  • First degree with qualified teacher status
  • Enhanced first degrees
  • First degrees obtained concurrently with a diploma
  • Intercalated first degrees (where first degree students, usually in medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine, interrupt their studies to complete a one-year course of advanced studies in a related topic).
UK education system for international students

To get an admission you should have your country’s equivalent to AAB grades at the A level.

For example, as per the UK education system for Indian students an Indian equivalent would be Indian High School Leaving Certificate (from CBSE and CISCE boards only) from Standard XII with 80% overall.

If you have studied from IB, you usually need 35 points including 665 at Higher Level.

The percentage and points will vary depending on your course and university.

2.Other undergraduate courses

These include higher education courses, for example SVQ or NVQ: Level 5, Diploma (HNC/D level for diploma and degree holders), HND (or equivalent), HNC (or equivalent) and SVQ or NVQ: Level 4 and Diplomas in HE.

3.Postgraduate programmes

Students can pursue  higher degrees, diplomas, and certificates.

Such as:

  • Doctorates
  • Master’s degrees in both research and instruction
  • Postgraduate diplomas, and
  • Postgraduate certificates of education (PGCE)
  • Professional certifications. This typically requires a first degree as an entry qualification.

UK education system for international students

Most students come to the UK to pursue postgraduate programs. Given that there are almost a 100 UK universities in the QS World University Rankings, it’s no surprise.

Top universities in the UK:


Times Higher Education Ranking (2023)

Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking (2022)

QS World Rankings (2023)

U.S. News & World Report Ranking (2023

University of Oxford





University of Cambridge





Imperial College London





University College London (UCL)





The University of Edinburgh





King’s College London





London School of Economics and Political Science





The University of Manchester





University of Bristol





University of Glasgow





Coming for a Master’s is also a great idea financially. You will only have to cover tuition and living expenses for a year. After which, you can work in the UK for two years on your visa.

For example, one year of an undergraduate for a three or four-year program costs around £30,000 the same as one year Master’s.

The British education system accepts 3-year Undergraduate degrees which is a relief. Good universities like Oxford, and UCL expect a GPA in the range of 7.5-8.5.

Note – Usually, international students are not allowed to enroll into part-time Master’s degrees under the student visa regulations.

Find a university you are suited to and which has the program you want to study with the help of SelectRight. SelectRight uses 6 million+ data points across 10,000+ STEM, CS & MBA programs to give you unbiased recommendations.

But a good GPA isn’t all you need. These colleges provide world-class education and only want the best students.

The education system in the UK assesses your different abilities and doesn’t just rely on admission tests. Here are some of the prerequisites.

  • Statement of Purpose – Determines why you are a good fit for the course and university.
  • Letter of Recommendation – Your professors/employers have to convey if they think you have the ability to complete the course.
  • Essay – A prompt will be given to you by the university.
  • English Proficiency tests like TOEFL or IELTS.
  • Academic writing ability- Gauges your ability to write academically with proper citations.
  • GRE/GMAT (for some courses)

Depending on the course and university, you might be asked to submit supplementary material like a CV or a research proposal.

Create an account on SelectRight and get connected with your own personal mentor. They will help you with the above-mentioned areas and answer any further questions you have about the education system in the UK.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *