Teaching in the UK: everything you need to know

Teaching in the UK is an exciting prospect. Here’s all you need to know to make a success of it
27th January 2020, 10:00am


Teaching in the UK: everything you need to know

Coronavirus: Will Uk Teachers At International Schools Choose To Remain Abroad?

Teaching in the UK is an exciting prospect. Here’s all you need to know to make a success of it

Where better to develop your teaching career than in the UK?

It has a rich history of educational progress, and is home to some of the best universities in the world.

It’s got great cities; Glasgow, Bangor, Derry, Bristol, as well as London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. And a benefit of being an island? Beaches. Lots of them. 

So, what are the essentials you need to know if you want to teach in the UK? 

How schools are organised

The most important thing to know about education in the UK is that all children are entitled to a free education in a state school from the ages of 5 to 16.

Although there is a private sector, only 6.5 per cent of children in the UK attend non-state schools.

The state sector

The UK state sector is made up of primary and secondary schools, with either sixth-form colleges attached to secondary schools, or as separate institutions. Children attend primary school from age 4-11, secondary school from 11-16.

After that, students can either leave or attend further education institutions (such as sixth-form colleges), and then higher education institutions (such as universities).

The private sector

In the private sector, you will usually find pre-preparatory (or pre-prep) schools for children aged 3-8, and preparatory schools for 8-13. These schools will prepare their students for the Common Entrance Examination, which students take at 13. 

Following this, if students remain in the private sector, they will attend either an independent selective school, a private senior school or a public school. These schools will take students until they leave either at 16 or 18. 

A public school is different to a private, independent school. In 1868, seven boys’ schools were given independence from the Crown, church or government and, instead, were managed by a board of governors.

These seven schools were CharterhouseEton CollegeWinchester CollegeHarrow SchoolRugby SchoolShrewsbury School, and Westminster. Today, ”public school“ refers to schools whose headteacher is a member of the Headmasters‘ and Headmistresses‘ Conference

School-leaving age

In England, students can leave school at the end of June if they turn 16 by the end of the summer holidays, although they must either stay in full-time education, start an apprenticeship or traineeship, or work or volunteer for 20 hours a week while being in part-time education or training until they are 18.

In Scotland, you can leave school at 16. The term you leave depends on when your birthday falls. In Wales, you can leave at the end of the school year when you turn 16. In Northern Ireland, you can leave the academic year you turn 16.

Find out more about the UK school-leaving age

Types of state schools

There are many different types of schools in the UK, and the type of school you teach in will make a difference to what your teaching responsibilities will be.

Comprehensive and grammar

Grammar schools exist in some parts of the UK, with students in Year 6 (aged 11) taking an exam (the 11+) to try to win a place.

The results of this test will then decide which school a child goes to. Some grammar schools set their own entrance examinations, others operate a one-exam system with multiple grammar schools offering places on the basis of the results.

Students who either do not choose to take the 11+ or do not live in an area where there are grammar schools attend other state schools, sometimes called comprehensive schools. 

Faith schools

State-funded faith schools are often either voluntary aided (VA) or voluntary controlled (VC). This means that a religious organisation contributes towards the funding of the school and usually owns the school’s buildings and land. In return, faith schools are expected to maintain the school’s faith ethos. 

While faith schools are required to follow the national curriculum, they are entitled to set their own syllabus when it comes to religious studies. 

Also, faith schools may have different admissions criteria and staffing policies to state schools, though anyone can apply for a place. 

Community schools

Community schools only operate within England and Wales. They are a type of state-funded school in which the local education authority employs the school’s staff, is responsible for the school’s admissions and owns the school’s estate. 

The aim of a community schools is to foster meaningful partnerships between the school and other community resources. Alongside conventional academic education, community schools are integrated with health and social services as well as community engagement programmes in order to offer a host of opportunities and support systems for pupils. 


Established in 2000, academies now account for almost a third of all secondary schools in England. Academies are self-governing, publicly owned independent schools and receive funding directly from the government as opposed to the local authority.

Academies are run by a multi-academy board of directors or trustees. This means that while academies have to follow national regulations concerning admissions, special educational needs and exclusions, the board do have autonomy over curriculum, staffing structure, finances and term times. 

Some academies have sponsors, such as universities, businesses or faith groups, but cannot be run for profit.  

Though academies do exist in Scotland, they still operate under the jurisdiction of the local authority, unlike their English counterparts. 

Academies do not exist within Wales or Northern Ireland. 

Free schools

Since 2010, groups of teachers, charities, parents or other organisations can set up what is known as a free school. These are a specific type of academy and are funded by the government but not run by the local authority. 

Typically established in response to a need for a new school in the community, free schools may be set up to provide extra places, offer choice for parents or to raise educational standards in the local area. 

Like academies, free schools are not required to administer the national curriculum. Like state schools, free schools are free to attend, open to all children and are run on a not-for-profit basis. 

Free schools only exist in England and do not operate elsewhere in the UK.

Special needs schools

Special needs schools operate throughout the UK and exist to provide an education for students whose needs cannot be met by a state school, usually owing to the child having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Like any other school, special needs schools can be state-maintained, independent or academy. Some special needs schools admit children as young as 3 and cater for pupils up to the age of 25. 

Special needs schools are categorised according to their specialisms:

  • Cognition and learning.
  • Social, emotional and mental health.
  • Sensory and physical needs. 
  • Communication and interaction. 

Special needs schools aim to support SEND children by offering higher staff-to-pupil ratios as well as smaller class sizes. Special needs schools also have the resources, facilities and specialist teaching staff that typical comprehensive schools do not. 

Most children attending a special needs school will have an education, health and care (EHC) plan - a legal document detailing the educational, health or social care needs of a child. It outlines the extra help that will be made available to meet the needs of the individual and how that help will be beneficial to the child.  

In order to teach children with special educational needs or disabilities in the UK, you will need an SEND qualification that is not older than three years. You may need more specific qualifications to work with children with particular disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments. 

Alternative provision

Alternative provision (AP) schools provide education for pupils who are unable to attend mainstream schools for reasons such as behavioural issues, school exclusion, school refusal or short- or long-term illness.

AP schools are designed to offer support to children and parents in crisis, and offer smaller class sizes and more tailored support to pupils. 

Government spending on AP schools has increased by nearly £7 million since 2016. 

University Technical College (UTC)

Introduced in 2010 under the free schools programme, university technical colleges are a type of free school led chiefly by a sponsor university, an employer or a further education college. They specialise in vocational subjects, such as construction and engineering, with the intent of equipping students with knowledge that can be directly applied to the workplace. 

UTCs teach academic subjects alongside practical subjects that lead to technical qualifications, such as industrial apprenticeships or foundation degrees. The sponsor university appoints the majority of the UTC’s governors and members of staff, working closely with local businesses and employers to design the curriculum.

Like free schools, UTCs exist only in England.

The national curriculum

Across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, curricular structure and content is largely very similar.

The national curriculum is a selection of subjects and standards used to ensure that children and young people all learn the same content, to the same degree. Public schools, independent schools, free schools and academies are not required to administer the national curriculum. 

The national curriculum lays out a range of mandatory subjects that all students must learn:

  • Maths
  • English
  • Science 
  • Information and communication technology (ICT)
  • Geography 
  • Music 
  • Physical education 
  • A foreign language 
  • History 
  • Design and technology 
  • Art and design.

There are three additional non-statutory subjects within the national curriculum. Schools are obliged rather than mandated to teach these subjects:

  • Religious education (RE)
  • Personal, social and health education (PSHE)
  • Citizenship.

Parents are allowed to remove their child from RE if they choose. 


Students in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are typically awarded two main qualifications throughout their education. 


After two prior years of study, students generally take their GCSE exams at the end of Year 11 (age 15 or 16). Maths, English literature, English language and science (either single, double or triple award) are all compulsory subjects at GCSE, and students are allowed to pick up optional courses such as history or drama. 

GCSE grades range from 9-1, with 9 being the highest. A grade of U is awarded to students whose work doesn’t meet the standard necessary to pass the GCSE.  

Students are generally expected to take 9 GCSEs in total, though many choose to undertake 10 or more. 

Students living in Wales and Ireland are additionally required to undertake Welsh and Irish GCSEs respectively.  

Scottish National 5

The National 5 (N5) is essentially the Scottish equivalent of a GCSE. Though very similar, Scotland does have its own individual education system, independent of the systems used by England, Northern Ireland and Wales. 

A level

After GCSEs, students choose whether or not to remain in a standard education setting. Those who choose to remain can work towards obtaining their A levels.

Students typically take three or four A levels, and often aim to attend university at the end of year 13 (age 17 or 18). Unlike GCSEs, A levels are still graded from A-E. 

There are no mandatory A levels and students are free to pick from a range of subjects. A-level results tend to be the key determiner that British universities use to offer places to students. 

While students are not required to remain in a conventional school setting post-GCSE, they are required to be in full-time education. For those who don’t feel they want to continue with conventional academic education, there are other options available. 

International Baccalaureate

An alternative to the traditional British curriculum, the International Baccalaureate (IB) offers a broader range of subjects and a more cross-curricular approach to learning.

Popular with international schools, the IB is also offered by some UK state and independent institutions.

Find out more about the IB


Apprenticeships are programmes that train young people to become skilled in a specific trade. Apprenticeships provide an alternative to A levels, combining study with practical learning on the job. Apprenticeships help those who prefer practical learning experience to build meaningful careers. 

Some of the UK’s largest companies offer apprenticeships, such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems. The government views apprenticeships as full-time employment as well as full-time education. Unlike with A levels, those who undertake apprenticeships are paid for their work. 

Students can undertake apprenticeships at many different levels, ranging from GCSE equivalent to degree-level equivalent. 


The Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) award is offered as a vocational and work-related alternative to  GCSEs and A levels. 

Unlike GCSEs or A levels, BTECs don’t offer conventional exam-based assessment. Instead, candidates are evaluated in practical situations. BTECs are a route into a variety of industries, such as travel and tourism, and sports coaching. 

Although the BTEC award is designed to be work-focused and vocational, it is important to note that taking a BTEC does not eliminate the possibility of going to university. In fact, for some courses such as nursing or midwifery, a BTEC award can often be the most common pre-university qualification. 

Completing a BTEC can take one or two years depending on whether a candidate chooses to study full-time or part-time. 


A National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) is a work-based award that is undertaken at a college, school or workplace. The NVQ award recognises a candidate’s competency in a specific vocation and cover a wide range of occupational sectors.  

The NVQ is not exam based; candidates build a portfolio that proves their competency in the field. Candidate portfolios are then assessed against the relevant occupational standard. 

Standardised testing

Like many other nations, the UK uses a variety of standardised tests to track students’ progression. In early years (age four), there is a new baseline test that has been introduced. 

In key stages 1 and 2, there are SATs in English and maths. In KS2, there is also a times table check. The next testing period happens in KS4, with GCSEs and BTECs, and then KS5 with A levels.

Qualifications to teach 

To teach in a state-funded school in England you will need a degree, and to have gained Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). In order to gain QTS, teachers are required to have obtained an undergraduate degree, completed  initial teacher training (ITT), achieved certain minimum attainment requirements at GCSE level, and have passed professional skills tests in both numeracy and literacy. 

Independent schools, public schools, free schools and academies are not legally required to hire staff with QTS. 

If you are already a qualified teacher in Canada, New Zealand, Australia or the US, you can apply for the UK QTS by filling out this form.

If you are already a qualified teacher from the European Economic Area (EEA), you can apply for QTS here.

Visas for teaching in the UK

There are a variety of ways to qualify to live and teach in the UK:

EU Citizenship

The UK values qualified teachers from the European Economic Area (EEA) and still complies with EU law and regulation. Following the UK’s EU membership referendum result, EU nationals beginning teacher training between academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21 are still eligible for a tax-free bursary or scholarship and tuition-fee loan as per current EU law. 

Youth mobility visa 

The youth mobility scheme visa (YMS) allows young people to live and work in the UK for up to two years, and is available to citizens from eight countries, including Canada and Australia.

In order to be eligible for a YMS, you must meet the following requirements:

  • You are aged between 18-30.
  • Have £1,890 in savings. 
  • Do not have any children living with you. 
  • No dependent children.  
  • Have not previously been in the UK under the scheme.

For more details, look here.

Points-based immigration system

You can acquire a visa through the points-based immigration system. This is  called ”tier 2 immigration“ and teachers need to be sponsored by an employer.

There are programmes run by the Department for Education to help teachers apply using this system. For more details, you can look here

Ancestry visa

An ancestry visa grants any Commonwealth citizen working rights in the UK for up to five years. You are eligible for an ancestry visa if you meet the following requirements:

  • You can prove that one of your grandparents was born in the UK.
  • You have enough money in your savings account without the help of public funds to support and house yourself and any dependants. 
  • You are applying from outside the UK.

Ancestry visas must be applied for within three months of your expected departure. There are more details here.

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters