Dr. Mary Richardson
Dr. Tina Isaacs
UCL Institute of Education

Overview of Education System

The school system in England is directed centrally by the Department for Education, which sets educational standards and regulations. In 2015, there were 8.4 million students in 24,000 schools and 350 further education colleges.1 Full time education is compulsory through age 16, after which young adults are required to continue in full time education, an apprenticeship or traineeship, or part time education or training alongside paid or volunteer work through age 18.2 The Education Reform Act (1988) introduced a national curriculum, which mandates that schools teach certain subjects and carry out certain assessments.3,4 The act authorized a testing regime that includes assessing students at or near the end of each of four key stages. Performance tables reporting student test and examination results for each school have been compiled and published annually since 1997.5

Compulsory education begins at age 5, although enrollment in preprimary programs is almost universal from age 3. In the most recent academic year (2014–2015), 8.4 million students ages 2 to 19 were enrolled in 24,317 schools (including nursery). Most students move from primary to secondary school at age 11. Many secondary schools offer education for students until age 18; however, students may choose to enter a Sixth Form or Further Education (FE) college, apprenticeship, or traineeship at age 16. Participation in one of these routes is mandatory to age 18. Schools are state funded or private (independent). State funded schools include Local Authority maintained schools, voluntary aided schools (which are mostly of a religious nature), academies, and free schools. The number of students in England attending private fee-paying schools is 580,000, or 7 percent.

The Academies Act6 made it possible for all publicly funded schools in England to become academies or free schools: these still are government funded but with an increased degree of autonomy in issues such as setting teachers’ wages and diverging from the National Curriculum. Approximately 2,100 state funded secondary schools (61.4 percent) are now academies or free schools, as is 1 in 7 primary schools. All schools are required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and there are statutory requirements for particular subjects.

The structure of education in England is detailed in Exhibit 1.

Exhibit 1: Structure of School Education in England

Phase Key Stage Ages School/College Structure
Early Years Early Years Foundation Stage 0–5 Nursery schools, nursery classes in primary schools, children’s centers, and registered child minders
Primary Key Stage 1 5–7 Infant school These two are more commonly combined in a single primary school
Key Stage 2 7–11 Junior school
Secondary Key Stage 3 (Lower
11–14 Secondary school (ages 11–18)
Key Stage 4 (Upper
Post-Sixteen 16–18 Sixth Form college (ages 16–18)
    Further Education college (ages 16+, sometimes 14+)

Key Stage 1 to 4 students are taught under the statutory national curriculum. The national curriculum is not compulsory in academies and free schools, but nearly all of these schools use the national curriculum, regardless. The national curriculum was reviewed in 1993–1995, 1998–2000, 2006–2007 (Key Stage 3), and 2012–2013. A new national curriculum came into force in 2014 and 2015. Subjects are divided into programs of study for each key stage, which set out national performance expectations. As of 2015, schools are responsible for setting student performance expectations according to national performance standards.

Languages of Instruction

The main language spoken in England is English. The language of instruction in schools in England also is English. Support for students for whom English is an additional language (EAL)a is provided in mainstream classroom settings. Local authorities can choose whether to include a factor reflecting EAL in their local formula for determining school budgets; 132 areas did so in 2015–2016,7 and local formula values varied significantly (£65–£4,500 per student). Whether or not they receive funding for students with EAL within their formula allocation, schools must decide how best to support students with EAL, and how much to spend on that support.

  • a The main languages for students aside from English are Punjabi (1.7%), Urdu (1.6%), Bengali (1.3%), Polish (0.7%), Somali (0.7%), Gujarati (0.6%) and Arabic (0.5%) — National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (2012).