Working in Britain - how the system works


Over 90 per cent of children in the UK attend publicly funded schools. Most do not select by ability, but reflect the social composition of the local area.

England and Wales - Every school is run by the head teacher and a board of governors representing parents, staff and the Local Education Authority (LEA).

Overall funding and policy is set by central government through the Department for Education and Skills . It determines the National Curriculum and the inspection system (run by Ofsted). Schools’ test and exam results and attendance figures are published annually in league tables

Scotland has a different system with less government control.

Northern Ireland has selective secondary education and most of its schools are distinctively Protestant or Roman Catholic.

Since 1998, some powers have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly.


School attendance is compulsory from 5 to 16.

This sector is divided into:
Early years: Nursery (3+) and Reception (4 – 5) \
Key stage one, or Infant (5-7)
Key stage two, or Junior (7-11).

Secondary schools have at least two age ranges within them:
Key stage 3 (11 – 14)
Key Stage 4 (14 – 16)

Some secondary schools have a sixth form for 16 to 18 year olds. Universities usually take students from eighteen.


Most schools are maintained schools. They are publicly funded and run by a head teacher with a board of governors.

Foundation schools are similar but their premises are usually owned by a religious or charitable foundation. The foundation may have influence over the appointment of teachers, governors and other staff, and determine the right of students to attend.

Comprehensive schools are state-funded secondary schools, which take all children living locally regardless of talent or ability and educate them together.

Specialist schools and City Technology Colleges are also state-funded. They teach the National Curriculum but emphasise a particular subject, such as technology or the arts.

Special schools teach children with physical, educational or behavioural difficulties.

Independent schools charge fees and are privately run


The academic year in England and Wales runs from September to July and totals 195 days. There are three terms, each with one week’s half-term break.
autumn term – early September to Christmas with two weeks Christmas holiday
spring term – early January to Easter with two weeks Easter holiday
summer term – Easter to late July with six weeks summer holiday


Primary classroom teachers usually:

  • teach one class exclusively
  • are responsible for that class’s academic and pastoral progress
    teach all subjects.

    They may also:
  • lead the school’s development in a particular subject, such as science
    lead development in a cross-curricular theme, such as literacy or citizenship.

Secondary classroom teachers usually work in a number of teams:

  • subject-based department or faculty, such as maths or geography
  • pastoral team, usually based on year groups divided into forms (classes).  Form tutors are responsible for daily registration and every day pastoral matters
  • cross-curricular team, such as special educational needs or personal, health and social education.

Support teachers may specialise in dealing with particular groups of students, such as:

  • those with special educational needs (SEN)
  • children with English as a second language, ethnic minority children and traveller children (known as EMTAG teachers).


State-funded schools in England and Wales follow the National Curriculum. Scottish and Northern Irish schools have their own systems.

The National Curriculum is organised into Key Stages by age group:
KS1 age 5-7
KS2 age 7-11
KS3 age 11-14

English, maths and science are tested formally by National Tests (known commonly as SATs) at the end of Key Stages 1-3 (science from KS2). Other subjects are teacher-assessed.

KS4 age 14-16 – students study for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in English, maths and science and a choice of other subjects. Assessment combines formal exams at age 16 and coursework.

From 16-18 students can take:

  • Advanced Level - academic style courses or
  • General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) which are more technical or practical vocational qualifications.