Education in the United Kingdom

At the beginning of the 20th century school attendance was compulsory but the average class size was 50 and most pupils left by the age of 14. Many teachers were not professionally trained and learning consisted mostly of cramming lists and memorising. In England and Wales, local authorities became responsible for state schooling in 1902 and the 1944 Education Act subsequently led to an expansion of secondary education. Eleven year olds took a test (the ‘11-plus’) which determined the type of secondary school that they attended. Those who passed (about 20%) went to grammar schools and the rest to secondary modern or technical schools. In the 1960s a new system of comprehensive education was adopted by most education authorities. The emphasis switched to mixed ability teaching and the 11-plus was largely abandoned, although it continued in Northern Ireland. Since the 1980s approved national curricula have been introduced and pupils are assessed against the level of attainment expected at certain ages. Measures have also been taken to increase parental choice and involvement.


Children in Britain must attend school from the age of 5 (4 in Northern Ireland) until they are 16. Before the start of formal schooling, many children attend nursery schools or nursery classes attached to primary schools. In addition, some parents elect to send their children to private (fee-paying) nursery schools or kindergartens. Education is free until age 18, however about 6% of students attend fee-paying schools.  Only one third of all students go on to higher education after age 18.  


The education system in the United Kingdom varies in important respects between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Education is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. Most children in the UK are educated in state funded schools financed through the tax system and so parents do not pay directly for the cost of education.


1. National Curriculum

2. Pre-School Education

3. Primary Schools

4. Secondary Schools

5. Assessment and Exams

More details on the school system in...


Northern Ireland



6. Education After GCSE

7. Higher Education



National Curriculum

Similarly to Hungary, but unlike in the US, there is a National Curriculum in England.  All government funded schools have to follow the NC.

The National Curriculum requires students to take the following subjects:

§  Compulsory from age 5 to 16: English, Mathematics, Science, Information Technology, and Physical Education

§  Compulsory from 5 to 14: History, Geography, Art, Music

§  Compulsory from 11-16: 1 Foreign language and Citizenship


On top of that:

§  Every primary school student has the opportunity to learn to play one musical instrument

§ All state schools provide Religious Education which mainly deals with Christianity but also touches upon the main religions found in the UK.  Religious education is not compulsory.  Parents have the right to decide if their children should partake in Religious Education or not.

§ All state secondary schools (age 11-16) provide Sex Education, of which only a small number of classes are compulsory for every student, afterwards the classes are elective similar to Religious Education.



School day:

The school day is normally from 9 am to 4 pm. 



Scotland:  There are 57 primary schools where students use Gaelic as the first language of instruction. (2002) Most of these schools were established in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first Gaelic-only primary school opened in 1999, in Glasgow.

Wales:  Welsh is a compulsory subject for all students in mainstream state schools.



A major attitudinal drawback of Hungarian teachers in general is that they focus almost exclusively on the absorbtion of factual information and do not encourage nor appreciate critical evaluation of the material.  This is clearly not the case in the UK or in the USA.  Teachers in the Anglo-Saxon culture are trained to equip students with the skills and to provide ample opportunities for expressing their questions, doubts, or differing opinions.  Cramming lists there is not part of students' life. 



School holidays in primary and secondary education are distributed in time quite differently from the Hungarian practice.  The school year runs from September to July.  The summer holiday is only 6 weeks long as opposed to the 10-11 weeks given to students here.  Instead of having a very long summer break, students in the UK will have 5 holidays throughout the school year: a one week holiday in October, February and May, and a 2 week-long Christmas and spring break.



Pre-School Education

There is no state funded nursery school like we have in Hungary. However, since fairly recently there is free part-time pre-school education (childcare) available for almost all 3 and 4 year olds in most places throughout the country.  Pre-school education is expanding considerably in order to ensure that all children begin school with a basic foundationin literacy and numeracy. The proportion of three and four year olds enrolled in UK schools rose from 21% in 1970–71 to 63% in 2000–01.

Children in the UK start infant school at the age of 5  ( In Hungary Óvoda is only compulsory from age 5. In fact, it is becoming ever more common that nursery schools refuse admittance for kids under the age of 5 for lack of funds, for having limited space available – a result of closures…). At 7 they move to junior school and the usual age for transfer from junior to secondary school is 11 (12 in Scotland).



Primary Schools

The major goals of primary education are achieving basic literacy and numeracy as well as establishing foundations in science, geography, history and other social sciences.


Age Ranges

In England and Wales, infant schooling begins at age 5, primary schooling at age 7 and secondary education at age 11. However, some schools cater for different age ranges. Primary education in Scotland starts at the age of 5 and continues until the age of 12.  School classes are organised by age group, from primary 1 to primary 7.  In Northern Ireland, children attend primary school for seven years from the beginning of the school year following their fourth birthday.


Class Sizes

In recent years steps have been taken to reduce the size of infant school classes.  In England, for example, only 2% of infants were in classes of 31 or more in 2001, compared with 29% in 1998.  The overall average class size in primary schools is 27  in England (2001) and 24 in Scotland. ( 20 in Hungary)



Secondary Schools

There are 4 types of secondary schools:

1. Comprehensive Schools: Around 85% of students attend comprehensive schools.  CS provide a wide range of education and there is no entrance exams to get into these schools.  (Parents have the right to elect a school of their choice for their children.)

§ City Technology Colleges: Within the Comprehensive School system there are 15 City Technology Colleges throughout England which were set up in 2000 especially for inner city children between ages 11-16 with a focus on math, science and technology.  These schools are state funded (free) but are run by private sponsors.  It is the government’s intention to increase the number of CTCs throughout the country.

§ State Specialist Schools: less than 15 per cent of all secondary schools are SSS,  representing roughly 1% of all students studying in the UK.  These schools provide the National Curriculum as well as additional classes in either technology, science, languages, arts or sports for high performing students in one of these fields.  (A Hungarian example would be Fazekas Mihály Secondary (Specialist) School, which specializes in math and science.)  The specialist schools are not fee-paying schools, so the extra expenses incurred have to be funded by private sponsors.


2. Grammar Schools:  are selective schools which means that students are admitted based on an entrance exam, called the '11 plus' (at age 11).  GS are fee-paying schools, but not boarding schools.  So grammar school pupils generally live at home.  (The name 'grammar school' comes from emphasizing Latin as the number one subject back when these schools were founded.  Even though this is no longer the case, the name stuck.)  About 4% of students attend grammar schools.


3. Secondary Modern Schools:  A small minority of children attend secondary modern schools (4%). These schools provide a more general and technical education for children aged 11-16.


4. Public Schools/Independent Schools: ~5% of students attend these selective, fee-paying schools.  The larger and older independent schools (meaning independence from the local government or the regional educational boards) usually

Why are 'public' schools so called?

The independent school sector is separate from the state educational system, and caters for some 7 per cent of all schoolchildren in England and 4  per cent in Scotland.

Parents of pupils attending independent schools pay for their education, and in some cases fees can amount to several thousand pounds a year.  Some pupils gain scholarships and their expenses are covered by the schools.

About 250 of the larger independent shools are known for historical reasons as public schools.  Eton, which was founded in 1440, is said to have been the first grammar schools to be called a 'public shool' because scholars could come to it from any part of England and not, as was generally the case, just from the immediate neighbourhood.

Originally, many public schools stressed a classical education, character training and sports, but the curriculum is now closely allied to state education.

In Northern Ireland there are a few independent fee paying schools catering for a very small proportion of the school population; they do not receive any support from public funds.

Schools in Scotland supported by public funds are also called 'public schools' but they are not fee-paying, independent schools.

with a long tradition are known as public schools.  (The name 'public schools' used to indicate that these institutions were open to anybody from the country who could afford to send their children there.)  The cost of public schools is much higher than that of grammar schools since public schools are normally boarding schools.   This incurs the cost of living over and above the cost of studies.  Scholrships are available for students of outsanding achievement but low economic means.  The most famous public schools are Eton (1440), St Paul's (1509) and Westminster (1560). Public schools are portrayed as institutions of discipline which instill a strong sense of group loyalty and an elitist identity in their students.

Eton College


Public Schools in Scotland are independent schools supported by public funds, but are not fee-paying schools. Scottish state secondary education is nonselective, there is no reference to ability or aptitude.


In Northern Ireland 90% of schools are operated by either the Protestant or the Catholic Churches, leaving only 10% of schools which are integrated (they educate students of all backgrounds together).  The integrated schools have recently been created with the obvious objective of helping children and their families toward an integrated society.  These schools are state financed. Another difference between secondary schools in Britain and Northern Ireland is that in NI most schools are selective, meaning that students have to take an entrance exam in maths, English and science.



Assessment and Exams

Throughout the 11 years of compulsory education in England students have to take 4 SATs (Standardised Assessment Tests:  szintfelmérő) at the end of each key stage, at the ages of 7, 11, 14 and 16 (see chart bellow) to determine their progress in the core subjects with respect to standards set by the National Curriculum.  Scotland has no National Curriculum, instead she has national guidelines.  Should students fall bellow standards in reading and maths they are recommended to attend free summer schools.


School System in the UK


At age 16 students take the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) examination in 9 subjects, which is roughly comparable to our 'kisérettségi':

§  English literature

§  English composition

§  Mathematics

§  History

§  Foreign language

§  Biology

§  Physics

§  Chemistry

§  An elective subject



A noteworthy difference between the certificates of GCSE and 'kisérettségi/érettségi' is that while in Hungary the results only reflect the performance of the students given on the day of the exam, in Britain they also include the students' work throughout the year!


University entrance is based on good grades in approximately six GCSEs and three A levels. 


Vocational GCSEs (is an extension to the GCSE system which offers students the opportunity of applied knowledge courses;  ~ szakmunkásképzés/szakemberképzés ill. szakmunkás vizsga) are available also at age 16 in the following areas/subjects:

§  Arts and design

§  Business

§  Engineering

§  Health

§  Social Care

§  ICT

§  Tourism

§  Manufacturing



Education After GCSE - Age 16 and onwards

70% of students continue their studies after age 16 preparing for examinations leading to higher education (A-levels), professional training in further education colleges or vocational qualifications.  (They can also take non-examination courses.) The government is currently investing a lot of funds in helping further educational colleges specialize and thus meet the economy’s rising skill needs by developing centres of vocational excellence in subjects such as construction, engineering, electronics and ICT.

There have also been substantial increases in the number of students in higher education in the United Kingdom.  In 1970 there were 0.6 million students in higher education, 33 per cent of whom were women.  In 2003 there were 2.4 million students in higher education and the proportion of women had increased to 57 per cent. The number of enrolments has increased for both sexes over the last 30 years. For women, there were almost seven times as many enrolments in higher education in 2003 than in 1970/71. For men, enrolments increased by two and a half times over the same period SEE TABLE.



Why are 'Sixth Form Colleges'  so called?

In the past children starting secondary school were known as first years so entered Year 1 as first form,  progressed to Year 5 called fifth form and subsequently to the Sixth Year (for 2 years of A Level).  A few years ago this changed so that primary school started as Year 1 moving through to Year 6 and Years 7 to 11 at secondary school.  So in effect sixth form became years 12 and 13.  However, ‘Sixth Form College’ rolls off the tongue rather better than ‘College for years 12 and 13!  In England, of course, the term indicates the age group attending this particular type of college.  To complicate matters further there are also Further Education Colleges.  These colleges have a much wider age range, from 16 to quite possibly 80 offering fulltime, part-time and short courses which may be just a few weeks.  Mostly they offer vocational courses such as building trades, hairdressing, music, performance, beauty therapy and many others although some also offer academic courses.

Those students who have their GCSEs and intend to go on to university study 2 more years in preparation for their A-levels exam ( ~érettségi/felvételi) dedicating their entire time to 2-3 subjects in so called sixth form colleges. New A-level specifications were introduced in 2000, offering candidates the choice of 'end of course' or staged assessment.


Similarly to the new Hungarian system students in Britain take their A levels in 2-3 subjects which are comparable to our ' Emelt szintű érettségi vizsga'.  Concerning the other 'érettségi' subjects in Hungary (3-4) their level of difficulty is akin to the level of GCSE exams taken 2 years earlier by British students. Two striking differences in the way exams are administered and corrected are that while students in Hungary are tested both orally and in writing and they have to give their names on the written exam, in Britain pupils do not have oral exams and it is forbidden to indicate their names on the papers.  Not to mention the fact that in Hungary exams are corrected (at O levels) by the students' own teachers, while in Britain they are marked by independent exam boards!  Fair play or objective marking is much more stressed in British culture and education than in ours...



Students in further and higher education: by type of course and sex




Higher Education

Around 30% of young people in England and Wales, 40% in Scotland and 45% in Northern Ireland take degree and other advanced courses in universities or other colleges.  (That figure was under 10% in the late 1970s!) 

There are 87 universities in the UK for students to choose from.  These are independent institutions from state or local governments.  Oxford and Cambridge Universities were founded in the 13th century, the first three Scottish universities were established in the 15th century, Glasgow University was launched in the 16th century, while the remaining 81 universities were all founded in the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, there are 64 higher education colleges.  Some are very specialised, such as art and design, teacher education and agriculture colleges, while others are multidisciplinary.


Just as in Hungary (from the academic year of 2006/7 onwards), university education is divided into an undergraduate and a postgraduate part.   Undergraduate studies normally take 3 years after which students have to take the university examinations and write their dissertation to get their Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree.  Postgraduate studies take one or two years after which students receive a Master of Arts or of Science degree (MA or MSc).  In Scotland, however undergraduate studies take 4 years, not three.



Admission in general:   There is a centralized admission system that is managed by UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) Applications can be made on line for admissions. Applications must be made by October 15th of the previous year for Oxford and Cambridge (and most medicine courses) and by January of the same year for admissions to other UK universities.



Main types of universities


Most United Kingdom universities can be classified into the following categories:

The University of London and the University of Wales have since their foundation been federal universities. That is, a governing body with over all responsibility for the maintenance of standards at the constituent colleges.  Recently, however, there has been considerable pressure from the larger colleges to become completely autonomous institutions.  An example of this would be the continued efforts of Imperial College London to gain autonomy from the federal University of London, or Cardiff University leaving the University of Wales.



The name Oxbridge is short for the two most prestigious universities in Britain: Oxford and Cambridge.  Both universities are a federation of semi-independent colleges.  Oxford University consists of  35 separate colleges, with a student body of about 22 thousand, whereas Cambridge is made up of 31 colleges and has a student body of about 25 thousand, including postgraduates. The combined student body of the two universities makes up about 3% of university students in the UK.


Admission: Successful applicants are expected to have at least 3 A-gradeA-level qualifications in their chosen undergraduate course. College Fellows also evaluate candidates on factors such as original thinking and creativity as expressed in extra-curricular activities and at interview. (In recent years, an increasing number of admissions tutors in certain subjects have required applicants to sit the more difficult STEP papers (Sixth Term Examination Papers) in addition to achieving top grades in their A-levels.) Between one-half and two-thirds of those who apply with the correct grades are offered a place. Almost half of all successful applicants come from public schools.

The Student/Fellow (the lecturers, readers, professors collectively are called fellows) ratio is the lowest in Oxbridge.  Tutorials (or supervisions/seminars) take place in very small groups or on one-to-one.


Civic Universities (Red Brick universities):

Victoria Building, University of Liverpool

Civic universities were founded around the beginning of the 20th century in six industrial centres (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield) with a focus on technical studies and not soley on academic subjects. Students attneding civic universities typically live at home.












Campus/New universities:

The University of York's Central Hall

Located on the edge of cities (e.g. University of Essex), campus universities were established with those potential students in mind who found access to the traditional universities too difficult either because they did not come from those privileged, private secondary schools or simply because they were the first generation in their families to ever go on to tertiary education.   The emphasis at these new universities is on relatively new sciences, such as social sicences.  Though most of these universities used to be looked down on, by now they have clearly earned their place among the top ranking universities in their own field of specialty (e.g. the University of Essex has one of the best economics and sociology departments in Europe). 




Open University:

Open University founded in 1968 is Britain's only distance-learning university.  It offers courses for those students who want to do their studies on their own, flexible schedule.  Tuition takes place through correspondence online, videotapes, CD-ROMs, printed texts and short, intensive residential classes.  There are almost 200 degree courses to choose from.


Many universities now operate the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) enabling easier transfer between courses and institutions.


Tuition fees:

Top-up fees (not their official name) are a new way of charging tuition to undergraduate and PGCE students who study at universities in the United Kingdom from the 2006-2007 academic year onwards. 

The vast majority of British universities are state financed, with only one private university - the University of Buckingham - where students have to pay all their fees. None of the universities are actually state-owned, however.


Before 2006-7 most British students (except Scottish students studying in Scotland) had to pay a contribution towards their tuition fees (anything from £0-£1,250 a year). The amount they paid was based on their or their parents' income (called means-testing) in the tax year preceding each academic year. The fees are paid at the beginning of each academic year.  In addition, students are entitled to a means-tested student loan of up to around £4,000.  The loan is separate from the tuition fees and is paid back by the students after they have graduated.  It is repaid at the rate of 9% of gross income over £15,000 a year (different limits apply to unearned income and non-residents).  The interest rate on loans is changed on 1 September each year and the annual rate is set to the Retail Prices Index increase the previous April (making the loans interest-free in real terms).

The new top-up fees operate as follows (figures are given for the academic year 2006-2007, and may rise by no more than the inflation rate until 2010):

Universities are able to charge students anything from £0 up to a maximum of £3,000 per year.  In order to charge more than a basic £1,250 fee universities must satisfy a new Office for Fair Access (OFFA) that their admissions policies are equitable.  Nearly all universities have chosen to charge the full £3,000.  All Scottish universites will charge £1,700 per year (£2,700 for medical courses), but only to non-Scottish students (see below).

Rather than paying the fees at the beginning of the school year (as prior to 2006), now fees are paid by the governement-owned Student Loans Company (SLC), the same body that provides student loans.  The SLC also continues to pay means-tested student loans directly to students. Students will repay their loans and tuition fees after graduation in the same income-dependent way as at present. Interest on the loans will still be tied to inflation, so they have a zero 'real' rate of interest.

In addition to student loans, new means-tested grants are available to students from lower-to-mid-income families, and universities have started to offer a range of grants for students. The Training and Development Agency for Schools will partially pay the fees of PGCE students.

Whether the new fees apply varies depending on where the student is from and where they go to university:


Student Support:

Support for higher education students in England and Wales includes:

1. help to pay tuition fees—a maximum feecontribution of £1,050 is charged per student, but the amount paid depends on student and family income; more than half of students do not pay any fees;

2. student loans—these are the main form of help for students in meeting living costs. The maximum loan in 2001–02 for full-time students was £4,590.  Loans are repaid on the basis of income after the student has completed his/her course;

3 a number of additional grants, allowances — available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, disabled students, young people leaving local authority care and students with children or other dependants; and

4. hardship funds—made at the discretion of the institution, the amount depending on the student’s individual circumstances.






information and communications technology




learn more:

Understanding SATs, Test & Reports




100 Questions Answered; Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London

National Statistics, UK 2002, The Official Yearbook of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

James O'Driscoll: Britain Oxford University Press 1997

Károly Pintér: Introduction to the Civilisation of Great Britain Piliscsaba 1998

Wikipedia, Education in the United Kingdom