Education in England
Education in England is overseen by the United Kingdom's Department for Education. Local government authorities are responsible for implementing policy for public education and state-funded schools at a local level.
|Secretary of State (Education)|
Minister for Universities and Science (with BEIS)
|Primary||4.50 million (in state schools) (2016)|
|Secondary||2.75 million (up to year 11 in state schools) (2016)|
|Post secondary||Higher Education: 1,844,095(2014/15)|
Further Education: 2,613,700(2014/15)
Total: 4,457,795 (2014/15)
|Secondary diploma||Level 2 and above: 81.0%|
Level 3 and above: 62.6%
(of adults 19-64 in 2014)
|Post-secondary diploma||Level 4 and above: 41.0%|
(of adults 19-64 in 2014)
England also has a tradition of independent schools (some of which call themselves "public schools") and home schooling; legally, parents may choose to educate their children by any permitted means. State-funded schools are categorised as selective grammar schools or comprehensive schools. Comprehensive schools are further subdivided by funding into free schools, other academies, any remaining Local Authority schools and others. More freedom is given to free schools, including most religious schools, and other academies in terms of curriculum. All are subject to assessment and inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, or Ofsted.
The state-funded education system is divided into stages based upon age: Early Years Foundation Stage (ages 3–5); primary education (ages 5 to 11), subdivided into Key Stage 1 (KS1) Infants (ages 5 to 7) and Key Stage 2 (KS2) Juniors (ages 7 to 11); secondary education (ages 11 to 16), subdivided into Key Stage 3 (KS3; ages 11 to 14) and Key Stage 4 (KS4; ages 14 to 16); Key Stage 5 is post-16 education (ages 16 to 18); and tertiary education (for ages 18+).
At age 16 the students typically take exams for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) or other Level 1/2 qualifications. While education is compulsory until 18, schooling is compulsory to 16, thus post-16 education can take a number of forms, and may be academic or vocational. This can involve continued schooling, known as "sixth form" or "college", leading (typically after two years of further study) to A-level qualifications (similar to a high school diploma in some other countries), or a number of alternative Level 3 qualifications such as Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC), the International Baccalaureate (IB), Cambridge Pre-U, WJEC or Eduqas. It can also include work-based apprenticeships or traineeships, or volunteering.
Higher education often begins with a three-year bachelor's degree. Postgraduate degrees include master's degrees, either taught or by research, and doctoral level research degrees that usually take at least three years. Tuition fees for first degrees are up to £9,000 per academic year for English, Welsh and European Union students, although these are set to rise to £9,250 for students starting from 2017.
The Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) covers national school examinations and vocational education qualifications. It is referenced to the European Qualifications Framework, and thus to other qualifications frameworks across the European Union. The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), which is tied to the RQF, covers degrees and other qualifications from degree-awarding bodies. This is referenced to the Qualifications Framework of the European Higher Education Area developed under the Bologna process.
History of English education
Until 1870 all schools were charitable or private institutions, but in that year the Elementary Education Act 1870 permitted local governments to complement the existing elementary schools in order to fill any gaps. The Education Act 1902 allowed local authorities to create secondary schools. The Education Act 1918 abolished fees for elementary schools.
Legally compulsory education
Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged 5 to 18, either at school or otherwise, with a child beginning primary education during the school year they turn 5. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 are entitled to 600 hours per year of optional, state-funded, pre-school education. This can be provided in "playgroups", nurseries, community childcare centres or nursery classes in schools.
The age at which a student may choose to stop education is commonly known as the "leaving age" for compulsory education. This age was raised to 18 by the Education and Skills Act 2008; the change took effect in 2013 for 16-year-olds and 2015 for 17-year-olds. From this time, the school leaving age (which remains 16) and the education leaving age (which is now 18) have been separated. State-provided schooling and sixth-form education are paid for by taxes.
All children in England must currently therefore receive an effective education (at school or otherwise) from the first "prescribed day", which falls on or after their fifth birthday until their 18th birthday, and must remain in school until the last Friday in June of the school year in which they turn 16. The education leaving age was raised in 2013 to the year in which they turn 17 and in 2015 to their 18th birthday for those born on or after 1 September 1997. The prescribed days are 31 August 31 December and 31 March. The school year begins on 1 September (or 1 August if a term starts in August).
The Compulsory stages of education are broken into a Foundation Stage (actually covering the last part of optional and first part of compulsory education), 4 Key Stages, and post-16 education (sometimes unofficially termed Key Stage Five, which takes a variety of forms including 6th Form (covering the last 2 years of Secondary Education in schools).
Schools and stages
Below is a table summarising the most common names of the various schools and stages. Grammar schools are normally state-funded but selective schools, admitting children from 11 years old onward, but there are exceptions.
|Key stage||Year||Final exam||Age||State funded schools||Fee paying independent schools|
|Early Years||Nursery||None, though individual schools may set end of year tests.||3-4||Primary||Lower||Infant||Pre-preparatory|
|Year 4||8-9||Preparatory or Junior|
A grammar school entrance exam, often the 11-plus
|comprehensive schools||selective schools|
|KS3||Year 7||None, though individual schools may set end of year tests.||11-12||Secondary||Lower school||High school||Grammar school|
|Year 9||13-14||Upper||Senior (Public)|
|KS4||Year 10||14-15||Upper school|
|KS5||Year 12||Advanced subsidiary level or school-set end of year tests.||16-17||College||Sixth form|
The government has been unable to recruit sufficient teachers and lecturers. There are 1,000 too few computing teachers, 1,200 too few physics teachers and 1,850 too few maths teachers. Lecturers in further education colleges fell by just under 20,000 from 2010 to 2017. The public sector pay cap is blamed. English secondary schools have 15,000 fewer teachers and teaching assistants than they had two years ago. This leads to larger classes as well as pupils getting less individual attention.
Thousands of children with special education needs are at home without a school place because funding for paces was not provided. The number rose from 1710 in 2016 to 4050 in 2017.
Some 93% of children between the ages of 3 and 18 are in education in state-funded schools without charge (other than for activities such as swimming, theatre visits and field trips for which a voluntary payment can be requested, and limited charges at state-funded boarding schools).
Since 1998, there have been six main types of maintained (state-funded) school in England:
- Academy schools, established by the 1997-2010 Labour Government to replace poorly-performing community schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation. Their start-up costs are typically funded by private means, such as entrepreneurs or NGOs, with running costs met by Central Government and, like Foundation schools, are administratively free from direct local authority control. The 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government expanded the role of Academies in the Academy Programme, in which a wide number of schools in non-deprived areas were also encouraged to become Academies, thereby essentially replacing the role of Foundation schools established by the previous Labour government. They are monitored directly by the Department for Education. In 2018 it was reported that several academies were struggling financially and running deficits.
- Community schools (formerly county schools), in which the local authority employs the schools' staff, owns the schools' lands and buildings, and has primary responsibility for admissions.
- Free schools, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition following the 2010 general election, are newly established schools in England set up by parents, teachers, charities or businesses, where there is a perceived local need for more schools. They are funded by taxpayers, are academically non-selective and free to attend, and like Foundation schools and Academies, are not controlled by a local authority. They are ultimately accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. Free schools are an extension of the existing Academy Programme. The first 24 free schools opened in Autumn 2011.
- Foundation schools, in which the governing body employs the staff and has primary responsibility for admissions. School land and buildings are owned by the governing body or by a charitable foundation. The Foundation appoints a minority of governors. Many of these schools were formerly grant maintained schools. In 2005 the Labour government proposed allowing all schools to become Foundation schools if they wished.
- Voluntary Aided schools, linked to a variety of organisations. They can be faith schools (about two thirds Church of England-affiliated; just under one third Roman Catholic Church, and a few another faith), or non-denominational schools, such as those linked to London Livery Companies. The charitable foundation contributes towards the capital costs of the school (typically 10%), and appoints a majority of the school governors. The governing body employs the staff and has primary responsibility for admissions.
- Voluntary Controlled schools, which are almost always faith schools, with the lands and buildings often owned by a charitable foundation. However, the local authority employs the schools' staff and has primary responsibility for admissions.
In addition, three of the fifteen City Technology Colleges established in the 1980s still remain; the rest having converted to academies. These are state-funded all-ability secondary schools which charge no fees but which are independent of local authority control. There are also a small number of state-funded boarding schools.
English state-funded primary schools are almost all local schools with a small catchment area. More than half are owned by the Local Authority, though many are (nominally) voluntary controlled and some are voluntary aided. Some schools just include infants (aged 4 to 7) and some just juniors (aged 7 to 11). Some are linked, with automatic progression from the infant school to the junior school, and some are not. A few areas still have first schools for ages around 4 to 8 and middle schools for ages 8 or 9 to 12 or 13.
English secondary schools are mostly comprehensive, although the intake of comprehensive schools can vary widely, especially in urban areas with several local schools. Nearly 90% of state-funded secondary schools are specialist schools, receiving extra funding to develop one or more subjects in which the school specialises, which can select up to 10% of their intake for aptitude in the specialism (though relatively few of them have taken up this option). In a few areas children can enter a grammar school if they pass the eleven plus exam; there are also a number of isolated fully selective grammar schools and a few dozen partially selective schools. A significant minority of state-funded schools are faith schools, which are attached to religious groups, most often the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church.
All state-funded schools are regularly inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, often known simply as Ofsted. Ofsted publish reports on the quality of education at a particular school on a regular basis. Schools judged by Ofsted to be providing an inadequate standard of education may be subject to special measures, which could include replacing the governing body and senior staff.
Approximately 7% of school children in England attend privately run, fee-paying independent schools. Some independent schools for 13–18-year-olds are known for historical reasons as 'public schools' and for 8–13-year-olds as 'prep schools'. Some schools offer scholarships for those with particular skills or aptitudes, or bursaries to allow students from less financially well-off families to attend. Independent schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, and their teachers are not required or regulated by law to have official teaching qualifications."
Education by means other than schooling
The 1944 Education Act (Section 36) stated that parents are responsible for the education of their children, "by regular attendance at school or otherwise", which allows children to be educated at home. The legislation places no requirement for parents who choose not to send their children to school to follow the National Curriculum, or to give formal lessons, or to follow school hours and terms, and parents do not need to be qualified teachers. Small but increasing numbers of parents do choose to educate their children outside the conventional school systems. Officially referred to as "Elective Home Education", teaching ranges from structured homeschooling (using a school-style curriculum) to less-structured unschooling. Education Otherwise has supported parents who wished to educate their children outside school since the 1970s. The state provides no financial support to parents who choose to educate their children outside of school.
Students at both state schools and independent schools typically take GCSE examinations, which mark the end of compulsory education in school. Above school-leaving age, the independent and state sectors are similarly structured.
In the 16–18 age group, sixth form education is not compulsory, but mandatory education or training until the age of 18 was phased in under the Education and Skills Act 2008, with 16-year-olds in 2013 and for 17-year-olds in September 2015. While students may still leave school on the last Friday in June, they must remain in education of some form until their 18th birthday.
Sixth form colleges / further education colleges
Students over 16 typically study in the sixth form of a school, in a separate sixth form college, or in a Further Education (FE) College. Courses at FE colleges, referred to as further education courses, can also be studied by adults over 18. Students typically study Level 3 qualifications such as A-levels, BTEC National awards and level 3 NVQs. Some 16–18 students will be encouraged to study Key Skills in Communication, Application of Number, and Information Technology at this time.
Apprenticeships and traineeships
The National Apprenticeship Service helps people 16 or more years of age enter apprenticeships in order to learn a skilled trade. Traineeships are also overseen by the National Apprenticeship Service, and are education and a training programmes that are combined with work experience to give trainees the skills needed to get an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships come in four levels: Intermediate (level 2), Advanced (level 3), Higher (level 4 – 7) and Degree (level 6 – 7). Intermediate apprenticeships are equivalent to 5 GCSEs at A* – C, Advanced to 2 A-levels, Higher to a foundation degree or above, and Degree apprenticeships to a bachelor's or master's degree.
A study in 2014 found that unemployment rates among former apprentices one year after completing their apprenticeships were one-third those of university graduates one year after finishing their degrees. A 2015 study by the Sutton Trust found that, while average net lifetime earnings for those who had completed level 5 apprenticeships were higher than those for graduates from non-Russell Group universities, most apprenticeships offered were at levels 2 and 3, providing little improvement over earnings from secondary school qualifications. The report also found that apprenticeships had a lower perceived value compared to degrees in Britain than in many other countries.
Post-16 area reviews
In 2015, the Department announced a major restructuring of the further education sector, through 37 area reviews of post-16 provision. The proposals were criticised by NUS Vice President for Further Education Shakira Martin for not sufficiently taking into account the impact on learners; the Sixth Form Colleges' Association similarly criticised the reviews for not directly including providers of post-16 education other than colleges, such as school and academy sixth forms and independent training providers.
Higher education in England is provided by Higher Education (HE) colleges, university colleges, universities and private colleges. Students normally enter higher education as undergraduates from age 18 onwards, and can study for a wide variety of vocational and academic qualifications, including certificates of higher education and higher national certificates at level 4, diplomas of higher education, higher national diplomas and foundation degrees at level 5, bachelor's degrees (normally with honours) at level 6, and integrated master's degrees and degrees in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science at level 7.
Historically, undergraduate education outside a small number of private colleges and universities has been largely state-financed since the 1960s, with a small contribution from top-up fees introduced in the 1990s, however fees of up to £9,000 per annum have been charged from October 2012. There is a perceived hierarchy among universities, with the Russell Group seen as being composed of the country's more prestigious universities. League tables of universities are produced by private companies and generally cover the whole UK.
The state does not control university syllabuses, but it does influence admission procedures through the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which approves and monitors access agreements to safeguard and promote fair access to higher education. The independent Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education inspects universities to assure standards, advises on the granting of degree awarding powers and University title, and maintains the Quality Code for Higher Education, which includes the Framework for Higher Education Qualification. Unlike most degrees, the state has control over teacher training courses, and standards are monitored by Ofsted inspectors.
The typical first degree offered at English universities is the bachelor's degree with honours, which usually lasts for three years, although more vocational foundation degrees, typically lasting two years (or full-time equivalent) are also available in some institutions. Many institutions now offer an integrated master's degree, particularly in STEM subjects, as a first degree, which typically lasts for four years, the first three years running parallel to the bachelor's course. During a first degree students are known as undergraduates. The difference in fees between integrated and traditional postgraduate master's degrees (and that fees are capped at the first degree level for the former) makes taking an integrated master's degree as a first degree a more attractive option. Integrated master's degrees are often the standard route to chartered status for STEM professionals in England.
- Graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, professional graduate certificate in education – level 6 courses aimed at those who have already completed a bachelor's degree, often as conversion courses
- Postgraduate certificates, postgraduate diplomas, postgraduate certificate in education – level 7 courses shorter than a full master's degree
- Master's degrees (typically taken in one year, though research-based master's degrees may last for two) – taught or research degrees at level 7
- Doctorates (typically taken in three years) – research degrees at level 8, the top level of the qualifications frameworks, often requiring a master's degree for entry. These may be purely research based (PhD/DPhil) or research and practice (professional doctorates). "New Route" PhDs, introduced in 2001, take at least 4 years and incorporate teaching at master's level.
Postgraduate education is not automatically financed by the state.
Until the academic year 2011-2012 most undergraduates paid fees that were set at a maximum of £3,375 per annum. These fees are repayable after graduation, contingent on attaining a certain level of income, with the state paying all fees for students from the poorest backgrounds. UK students are generally entitled to student loans for maintenance. Undergraduates admitted from the academic year 2012-2013 have paid tuition fees set at a maximum of up to £9,000 per annum, with most universities charging over £6,000 per annum, and other higher education providers charging less.
Postgraduate fees vary but are generally more than undergraduate fees, depending on the degree and university. There are numerous bursaries (awarded to low income applicants) to offset undergraduate fees and, for postgraduates, full scholarships are available for most subjects, and are usually awarded competitively.
Different arrangements apply to English students studying in Scotland, and to Scottish and Welsh students studying in England. Students from outside the UK and the EU attending English universities are charged differing amounts, often in the region of £5,000 - £20,000 per annum for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The actual amount differs by institution and subject, with the lab based subjects charging a greater amount.
- One or two year access courses, to allow adults without suitable qualifications access to university.
- The Open University runs undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes.
- The Workers' Educational Association offers large number of semi-recreational courses, with or without qualifications, made available by Local Education Authorities under the guise of Adult Education. Courses are available in a wide variety of areas, such as holiday languages, crafts and yacht navigation.
The two qualifications frameworks in England are the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), for qualifications regulated by Ofqual, and the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) for qualifications granted by bodies with degree awarding powers, overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency. These share a common numbering scheme for their levels, which was also used for the earlier Qualifications and Credit Framework. The RQF is linked to the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) and the FHEQ to the Qualifications Framework of the European Higher Education Area (QF-EHEA).
|RQF/FHEQ level||Common qualifications||EQF/QF-EHEA equivalent|
|Level 1||Foundation diploma|
GCSE (grades D - G)
NVQ level 1
|EQF level 2|
|Level 2||Higher diploma|
GCSE (grades A* - C)
NVQ level 2
|EQF level 3|
|Level 3||Advanced diploma|
NVQ level 3
|EQF level 4|
|Level 4||Certificate of Higher Education|
HNC (awarded by a degree-awarding institution)
|QF-EHEA Intermediate qualifications within the Short Cycle|
|BTEC Professional award, certificate and diploma level 4|
Higher National Certificate (HNC)
NVQ level 4
|EQF level 5|
|Level 5||BTEC Professional award, certificate and diploma level 5|
Higher National Diploma (HND)
NVQ level 4
|Diploma of Higher Education|
HND (awarded by a degree-awarding institution)
|QF-EHEA Short Cycle (within or linked to first cycle)|
|Level 6||BTEC Advanced Professional award, certificate and diploma level 6|
NVQ level 4
|EQF level 6|
Professional Graduate Certificate of Education
|QF-EHEA Intermediate qualifications within the First Cycle|
|Ordinary bachelor's degree|
Bachelor's degree with honours
|QF-EHEA First Cycle (end of cycle)|
|Level 7||BTEC Advanced Professional award, certificate and diploma level 7|
NVQ level 5
|EQF level 7|
Postgraduate Certificate of Education
|QF-EHEA Intermediate qualifications within the Second Cycle|
|Integrated master's degree|
|QF-EHEA Second Cycle (end of cycle)|
|Level 8||NVQ level 5||EQF level 8|
|Doctorates||QF-EHEA Third Cycle (end of cycle)|
According to the Schools Minister, “strong evidence has been emerging of grade inflation across subjects” in recent years. The Confederation of British Industry, the EEF and the British Chambers of Commerce are also complaining of falling academic standards. Employers often experience difficulty in finding young people who have such basic employability skills as literacy, numeracy, problem solving, teamworking and time management. As a result, employers either have to pay for employees' remedial education, or they must hire foreign candidates.
Katharine Birbalsingh has written of the problems she perceives in many community schools. She cites the impossibility of effective classroom management, bad teachers who cannot be dismissed, and government policies encouraging "soft" subjects. Birbalsingh has visited schools in Jamaica and India where pupils are desperate to gain the kind of education to which pupils in her own school (and their parents) were indifferent. She was a deputy head teacher in south London until she spoke at a Conservative Party conference in 2010 and was quickly sacked. Frank Chalk, who taught at an inner-city school for ten years before resigning in frustration, makes similar claims.
|Church of England||13.1%||12.0%|
|Church of England||63.5%||39.6%|
An analysis of 2010 school data by The Guardian found that state faith schools were not taking a fair share of the poorest pupils in their local areas, as indicated by free school meal claims. Not only was this so at an overall national level, but also in the postcode areas nearby the schools. This suggested selection by religion was leading to selection of children from more well-off families.
A survey of 2000 teachers by The Guardian in 2011 identified a widespread reason for not enjoying the job: lack of trust and respect by senior staff, parents and governments. Writing about her own reasons for leaving teaching, a contributing editor to the newspaper's Guardian Teacher Network described the realisation of needing to leave the profession as having slowly crept up on her. Being a mature entrant, she questioned things in her aspiration to improve education and was reluctant to "be moulded into a standard shape".
Throughout the time they are in full-time education children in the north of England do less well than children in the south east. There are also variations in attainment between towns in the north. Calls have been made to remedy this.
Many teachers claim they are working 55 or 60 hours a week and many are leaving the profession due to work pressure and fear for their mental health. A poll by the National Education Union suggested four out of five teachers had considered leaving during the year to 2018.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies claims plans for school spending would cause a "real-terms cut of 2.8% in per-pupil funding between 2016 and 2022". Just under a quarter of teachers who qualified since 2011 have left the profession. Amyas Morse of the National Audit Office said, "Schools are facing real challenges in retaining and developing their teachers, with growing pupil numbers and tighter budgets. Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to retain experienced teachers. Schools are asking parents for money because funding is falling short of what they need. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is writing to all MPs drawing attention to problems faced by English state schools due to funding shortages and warning that standards are at risk after £2.8bn in cuts and additional costs the government imposed.
There is a gap in performance between pupils from better off families and poorer pupils. To counter this a cross party committee of MP's suggested giving subsidised housing to teachers willing to work in deprived schools. Also it was suggested would-be head teachers should spend time in senior positions in struggling schools before they qualify to be heads.
There is a common mis-assumption that a school that fails to do well in the school maming-and-shaming league tables, which are based on the government specified curriculum, could be improved by changing its governing structure. This was tested in 2018 by Profesor Robert Plomin of Kings College London. His study, based on 4,000 pupils who identified as white British and attended schools across the UK, assessed the pupils’ genetic data, their families’ socioeconomic status, their ability (measured by an IQ-style test), prior achievement (11+ or Sats results) and GCSE results. There is a 7% difference in the results between private schools and the worst performing socondary school, but when all the selection factors are included, the difference is less than 1%. The results are dependant on the intake rather than the process; and potentially sucessful children cluster round 'good schools'.
Funding for English schools will change to a national formula in 2018, with some schools likely to gain from the new formula and others likely to lose. Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening claims funding will depend less on the postcode lottery. The National Audit Office (NAO) claims funding will be cut by 8%. According to councils funding cuts will potentially prevent many local authorities meeting legal obligations to schools in areas like checking staff for criminal records and ensuring buildings are asbestos free.
A cross-party parliamentary committee criticised the government's free school programme as poor value for money. The Public Accounts Committee criticised the government for spending excessively on unsuitable sites and building schools where none are needed. Meanwhile, other schools are not getting repairs done and need £7bn to be brought back to a satisfactory condition. “While the department is spending significant funds in creating 500 more free schools, even in areas with no shortage of places, existing schools struggle to live within their budgets and carry out routine maintenance,” according to the Public Accounts Committee report.
The government is planning to provide extra funding for grammar schools and there is concern that this will do nothing for the vast majority of secondary school pupils in non-selective schools where extra resources aare desperately needed. Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders said, “We are disappointed that the government has decided to spend scarce funding on expanding grammar schools. While there are many good selective schools, just as there are many good non-selective schools, the evidence is clear that expanding the number of selective places is likely to be damaging to social mobility.”
- Education in the United Kingdom
- City Learning Centre
- British Schools Foundation
- Education by country
- List of schools in England
- National Union of Students (United Kingdom)
- School uniforms in England
- Science Learning Centres
- Science education in England
- Special education in England
- List of universities in England
- List of universities in the United Kingdom