United Kingdom Country Profile - Education System

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System structure

The UK system consists of four separate areas: primary, secondary, further and higher education. Primary and secondary education, for children aged between 5 and 16, are compulsory. The majority of pupils attend publicly-funded state schools, but there are also independent private schools and home schooling options available.

The Scottish education system differs from the rest of the UK. It has its own legislative framework, curriculum and qualifications system. Education is still compulsory from ages 5 to 16, but once students have completed secondary school, they can study for the Scottish Certificate of Education which is an entry qualification for university.

Academic year

The academic year in the UK generally runs from around September to July and is usually split into three terms, although some schools – particularly in Scotland – opt for a four-term system. Term dates for universities are decided by the individual institution, but school and college terms are dictated by the local authority, which often results in slight regional variations.

Higher education

The UK is home to some of the oldest universities in the world, and with over 150 higher education establishments there is no shortage of choice for students or academics. All differ in terms of their location, facilities and atmosphere. Although these are not mutually exclusive, institutes are sometimes categorised as:

  • Campus universities – where the majority of the university buildings are located on one large site
  • City universities – where university facilities are spread out around various locations in a town or city
  • Collegiate universities – where different colleges of the university operate with varying degrees of independence

Other labels you may hear applied to universities in the UK are ‘red brick’, ‘plate glass’ and ‘post-1992’. These refer to particular groups of institutions by their age or design style. There are also various professional and research associations to which UK universities may belong, such as The Russell Group, University Alliance and million+. Institutions are ranked annually by The Times according to a range of criteria including teaching, research, influence and innovation.


The way that universities are funded in the UK has changed significantly in recent years. The amount of financial support that institutions receive directly from the state has dropped considerably. Instead, universities have been allowed to charge students tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year. Although socially and politically controversial, this move has seen universities challenged to innovate and become more successful commercial entities.


Degree courses in the UK are offered in a huge range of subjects and can take different lengths of time to complete. Typical full-time course lengths are:

  • Undergraduate degrees – three years
  • Postgraduate degrees (taught) – one year
  • Postgraduate degrees (research) – two years
  • Doctoral degrees – three years

Some students choose part-time courses to accommodate family commitments or work around their studies, making the duration longer. Undergraduate courses at most Scottish universities take four years instead of the usual three, and professional courses like medicine and veterinary science take more years to complete. However, some institutions have also begun to offer fast-track courses which take less time and offer students significant savings on tuition fees.


UK institutions have a proud history in research, and as part of the university ranking criteria it is a high priority for most. Funding for academic research is available from several sources but competition can be fierce. The Euraxess website provides links to resources for researchers across Europe. To read more about research jobs in the UK, visit the job profiles section.

Further education

Further education is optional learning that takes place in schools or colleges after the completion of compulsory education at the age of 16. It precedes entry to higher education, and a range of different types of further education qualification are available.

Primary and secondary education

All state schools and many private schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland follow the National Curriculum. The system is divided into four Key Stages and pupils are assessed at the end of each. Examinations taken at the age of 16 (Key Stage 4), represent a child’s first set of formal academic qualifications. These can dictate whether they continue on to further education.

In Scotland, there is no statutory curriculum and the qualifications obtained through primary and secondary education differ to those in the rest of the UK.

Preschool and childcare options

For people relocating with children below school age, there are many preschool and childcare options including:

  • Local authority (state-run) nursery schools
  • Nursery classes in independent schools
  • Children and family centres
  • Community childcare centres
  • Privately-run day nurseries
  • Workplace nurseries
  • Playgroups

Many of these are privately funded and can be very expensive for parents. The Free Early Education scheme can help with these costs by providing a certain amount of free childcare per week. Some employers may directly offer help and support with childcare. Others offer salary sacrifice schemes such as childcare vouchers to help parents who are paying for preschool education.

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