Primary schools: Everything you need to know

Your guide to the different stages of primary education in England, including performance tables and assessment

Primary school children in England

What is a primary school?

Primary schools generally cater for pupils aged from 4 to 11 years old. In the UK state school system, children begin in the Reception class before moving through from Year 1 to Year 6, when they take assessments known as Sats.

In some other countries, including the US, primary schools are known as elementary schools.

State school pupils start in Reception at age 4 or 5, but may begin at different points in the school year – depending on the season in which they were born.

After this, pupils enter Year 1. Primary education finishes at the end of Year 6, by which point the majority of pupils have turned 11.

Years 1-6 are split into two phases: key stage 1 (Years 1-2) and key stage 2 (Years 3-6).


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What are the different types of primary school?

Primary schools come in many different shapes and sizes. The most common types are:

  • Local authority maintained schools. Also known as community schools. These are state-funded and are not influenced by business or religious groups. They receive their funding from the local authority and must follow the national curriculum.
  • Academies and free schools. Also state-funded, but run by not-for-profit academy trusts, which makes them independent from the local authority. They receive their funding directly from central government and do not have to follow the national curriculum.
  • Foundation schools and voluntary schools. Local authority maintained schools with more freedom to change the way they operate. They receive their funding from the local authority and may be supported by representatives from religious or charitable groups. They must follow the national curriculum.
  • Special schools. For children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). May be state- or privately funded. If state-funded, they may be local authority maintained schools or academies.
  • Private schools. Also known as independent schools. Private primary schools may be known as preparatory or pre-preparatory schools, depending on the age range of the pupils they take on. These schools charge fees in place of government funding and do not have to follow the national curriculum. However, they must be registered with the government and are subject to inspections, either by Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

How are primary pupils assessed?

At the end of Reception, pupils are assessed against the early years foundation stage framework.

The following year, in Year 1, there is a phonics screening check (see below).

Pupils are also tested, in assessments known as Sats, at the end of both KS1 and KS2.

Sats results are published on a school-by-school basis for KS2 assessments but not for KS1 assessments.

A multiplication tables check in Year 4 will also be mandatory from June 2020.

What is the phonics screening check?

The phonics screening check is an assessment of five- and six-year-olds' ability to read words. The test is made up of 40 words, half of which are genuine and half of which are pseudo-words, such as “joil”, “shig” and “quisk”.

The nonsense words are printed next to a picture of a monster to make it clear to children that each word is a monster’s “name” – and not a real word.

The test is taken on a one-to-one basis with the child reading the words aloud to their teacher, who marks them as they go along.

It is attempted by almost all children at the end of Year 1. Those who fail to reach the pass mark then resit the test at the end of Year 2.


Phonics check results 2019


What is the multiplication tables check?

The multiplication tables check will be mandatory from June 2020. The online, on-screen test will be sat by eight- and nine-year-olds in Year 4.

Pupils will be tested on the 6, 7, 8, 9 and 12 times tables. There will be 25 questions, and pupils will have six seconds to input each of their answers.

What are Sats?

Sats stands for “standardised assessment tests”. They are national tests sat by children in state schools across the country.

At KS1, children are assessed in English, maths and science. They sit four mandatory papers: two reading papers and two maths papers. There is also an optional spelling, punctuation and grammar (Spag) test.

The results are not reported to the government. Instead, they are used to feed into teacher assessments of pupils’ achievements.

It is these teacher assessments in reading and maths, together with further assessments in writing and science, that are reported on a national and local authority level.

At KS2, children are assessed in English and maths. They sit six papers: one grammar and punctuation paper, one spelling paper, one reading paper, and three maths papers. All tests are marked externally.

The English Sats assess pupils on their knowledge of the rules of punctuation, grammar and the accuracy of their spelling, whereas the reading tests assess their reading comprehension skills and their vocabulary.

The maths Sats assess pupils on their knowledge of mathematical operations, their mathematical fluency, their ability to solve problems and their reasoning.


KS2 Sats results 2019


Are KS1 Sats being scrapped?

KS1 Sats results are currently used as the benchmark for measuring progress between KS1 and KS2. 

But the government has proposed the implementation of a new baseline assessment in Reception, which is due to begin in autumn 2020. 

The government has said that it will scrap KS1 Sats “as soon as the Reception baseline assessment has become fully established”. 

This means that the KS1 Sats could be scrapped in 2023 when the first children who have Reception baseline scores reach the end of Year 2.

How do primary school performance tables work?

The government's primary school league tables measure overall performance at the end of KS2.

Each school's ranking is based on four main factors:

  • The percentage of pupils meeting the "expected standard" in reading and maths. This is the proportion of children that have achieved a scaled score of 100 or more in their reading and maths tests, and are judged to be working at or beyond the "expected standard" in writing.
  • The percentage of pupils achieving a "higher standard" in reading and maths. This is the proportion of children that have achieved a scaled score of 110 or more in their reading and maths tests, and are judged to be working "at a greater depth within the expected standard" in writing.
  • The school's average progress score for reading, writing and maths. This indicates how much progress pupils have made between the end of KS1 and the end of KS2, compared to pupils across England who got similar results at the end of KS1.
  • The pupils’ average scaled score in reading and maths at the end of KS2.

The performance tables are very controversial. Some believe they put too much pressure on teachers to produce top results, while others question their usefulness as a measure of any kind.

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