In the UK, there are three main categories of school: independent, grammar and state. However, you’ll see lots of other names being used besides these three, and it can be difficult to figure out what they all mean. This article demystifies the differences between UK schools, giving you key information and an inside look at each. i-Learner Overseas Education Services places Hong Kong students in a wide range of UK schools, and we’re always here to discuss your options. To jump to each type of school, click:

Independent Schools

Confusingly, these schools are often called public schools in the UK, which is the term used for state schools in the USA. Public schools in the UK are called this because they’re open to the general public, not just people who live nearby. They can also be called private schools, which is a more internationally recognised term.

Independent schools are often divided into day schools and boarding schools. Most larger independent schools offer at least some boarding facilities, which may be flexi, weekly or full. Some schools are also single gender, meaning they are boys’ schools or girls’ schools, though the majority are now coeducational, at least for the final two years (sixth form).

Younger students may either attend an independent primary school or a prep school (short for preparatory school). Prep schools get younger students ready for entrance to independent schools at age 13. Prep schools can be day schools, boarding schools, or a mix of both. Students can enter these schools from age 4, though boys’ prep-schools tend to be termed pre-prep for under 7s. There are over 500 prep schools in the UK. It is not necessary to attend these schools in order to gain a place at an independent school, but some parents choose this route to feel more secure about applying at secondary level.


Average independent school fees for day pupils are currently nearly £4,800 per term, or just over £14,000 a year. The day fee at boarding schools is almost £6,500 per term, or over £19,000 a year. The average boarding fee is just over £11,500 per term, which comes to a little under £35,000 per year. School fees in the south-west and London tend to be higher, and many schools have significant additional costs for uniforms, trips and extra-curricular activities.

Application Methods

A key feature that separates independent schools from others in the UK is that you do not need to live in the school’s catchment area to send your child there. Each school is free to select students from anywhere around the world, following their own application processes, which can be quite lengthy and are worth preparing for 2-3 years in advance if possible.

All independent schools are somewhat selective, but the entrance tests vary considerably. The full details will be on the school’s website, and it is vital to take note of the exact papers your child needs to prepare for.

Some schools use external tests. Students based in the UK will often take Common Entrance Exams (CE), while those overseas take UKISET. Schools opting for their own entrance papers tend to have comprehension and writing tests at lower levels. Older students will also need to take maths tests, and those entering the last two years will need to take papers in the subjects they want to take at A level or IB. These schools may also have English as an Additional Language (EAL) papers for those coming from overseas.

It is worth noting that great weight is often given to extra-curricular achievements at these schools. Musical abilities, in particular, are often an asset that independent schools welcome from Hong Kong students. These should be highlighted clearly as part of your application.

Entry Points

Secondary school applicants most commonly enter at year 7 (11+), year 9 (13+) or year 12 (16+). If there are places, independent schools are often the most accommodating option for entry in other years or even mid-year. They are highly experienced at dealing with international applicants and are used to the changeable schedules of these students and their families.

EAL Support

This varies significantly from school to school. Some schools have separate streams for students with significant language-support needs, others provide intensive summer programmes or ongoing term-time lessons. There are also dedicated language schools offering short term help, though these need researching carefully as they are often new and untested. It is possible to find the school to meet any child’s English-learning needs.

An Inside Look

Nick Collin, who went to Tonbridge school, said that ‘the teachers are fantastic and the class sizes are small, so if you really enjoy the academic intensity, it’s brilliant for that. Otherwise, a strong emphasis on sports and music means that students with a flair for those generally have more opportunities to explore their interests.’

Willow Hewitt studied from age 7 at Withington Girls’ School, one of the top independent schools in the country. ‘The work must have been demanding, but it never felt it. There’s a strong ethos of enjoying learning at the school, and I recall learning about the Bayeux Tapestry by making paper and drawing our own sections of it, using cookies and Smarties to understand maths, and being challenged by philosophical questions in morning assembly.’

Grammar Schools

These are state-funded, selective schools. They used to be quite common, but there are now only 163 in England and 69 in Northern Ireland (there are none in Scotland, Wales or the north east of England). They may be run by the state, a foundation or a trust, but they are all quite similar in their academic focus and high standards. A large number of grammar schools have academy status; see the state schools section on academies for more information on these.

The majority of these schools are single-sex, though many turn co-ed for the final two years (sixth form).

There are no primary-level grammar schools. Students starting grammar schools in year 7 attend a state or independent primary school before then.

Note: some former grammar schools have changed their status but kept the word ‘grammar’ in their name, for example the independent Bristol Grammar School. Make sure to check their website or their listing on the UK Government’s schools website.


These schools do not charge fees. They may have slightly higher additional expenses than state schools due to their specialised uniforms and wide range of extracurricular activities. However, assistance is usually available for those who struggle with these costs.

Application Methods

These schools all use an exam called the 11+ (or eleven plus) for assessment, but it is not the same exam in all areas. Each local education authority creates its own paper, and you are advised to check carefully before your child sits the test. The skills covered usually include English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning.

It is possible, but not common, to take this test from overseas. The process of applying and taking the test can be quite rigid as it is run by local education authorities rather than individual schools. The application process typically starts around 16 months prior to the child’s entry date, and parents need to be resident in the catchment area (or imminently moving there) at the time of application.

Entry Points

Entry in year 7 via the 11+ exam is most common, though some schools offer additional 12+ and 13+ tests if they have spaces available. Many grammar schools expand their year groups for the final two school grades (sixth form), so 16+ is a good entry point.

EAL Support

Over 15% of learners in UK schools speak English as an additional language. The support given in schools can be very strong in areas with high concentrations of these students; however, it is not the case in all schools. The support in grammar schools will not be as strong as that given at well-endowed independent schools but will still be sufficient for many Hong Kong students with good English.

An Inside Look

Iain MacDonald attended Dover Grammar School for Boys, where he remembers, ‘We were given plenty of homework, which was a change from primary school… The subjects offered by our school were pretty standard, but the school did offer Latin and Ancient History as well, which aren’t too common. Later, Ancient Greek was added as an option for A Level.’

Ceri Moss went to Sale Grammar School, which is ‘well known for its support of visual arts and put together a whole school musical every year, which I loved to be a part of… In my final year at school, I was able to teach drama and direct younger students in the musical. Taking part in drama really improved my confidence and communication skills, which I still use today.’

State Schools

State school is a broad category for many types of school that are free to attend and are not academically selective. They are often also called comprehensives, and at the high-school level are occasionally referred to by their old name of secondary modern. State schools are the most common type of school in the UK, and they are attended by about 90% of secondary students.

Academies are a type of state school that is funded directly by the Department for Education rather than the local education authority (LEA). The previously common LEA-funded schools are now often known as community or maintained schools (a subset of this is a foundation school, which has a little more freedom over how it is run compared to other maintained schools).

Academies are a relatively new way of running state schools, but they are now the most common type at the secondary level. About a quarter of primary schools are also academies. The main difference between academies and maintained schools is that academies do not need to follow the national curriculum. Instead, they need to attain national standards and pass government inspections.

The somewhat confusing term free school is applied to a type of academy that is set up by a specific group such as a community organisation, parents, teachers, or a business. Subtypes of free schools are university technical colleges (specialising in practical subjects) and studio schools (small schools focused on project-based learning).

In most parts of the UK (but not Scotland), students can choose to attend a separate institution for the last two years of secondary education. This is called a sixth form college (Note: there are also a few independent sixth form colleges, but these are far less common.) Sixth form colleges tend to offer a wider range of subjects and have more resources for supporting university admissions than schools with the full range of 11-18 year olds. As with all other state schools, students are required to live in the catchment area, and strong sixth forms can be hard to gain places at.

In the UK, about a third of all state schools are faith schools, and this will often be reflected in their name, e.g. St Luke’s Church of England Primary. Faith schools have a religious focus that may be strong or weak, depending on the school.They set their own curriculum for religion lessons, and, if they are faith academies (rather than faith schools) they set their own curriculum for other subjects too. Anyone can apply to these schools and academies, but there may be admissions criteria that give priority to people of a certain religion. The terms voluntary controlled and voluntary aided are often used for these schools, which means that a religious organisation has some influence over running the school.


These schools do not charge fees.

Application Methods

The main criterion for entry to state schools is location. Students need to live within the school’s catchment area, and priority is often given on a proximity basis. The application process is different throughout the UK, and it is worth becoming very familiar with the process in the area in which you plan to live. When applying to the local education authority, you will list your schools in preference order, and you must create this list carefully to ensure you earn a place at one of the schools on it. If no school on your list gives your child a place, they will be allocated to a school automatically.

It is important to note that many parents go to great lengths to avoid what are referred to as ‘sink schools’ (those with poor results that show no sign of improvement). There is no equivalent to ‘door knocking’ in Hong Kong, and schools do not look at a student’s portfolio. All the work to get into your school of choice must be done at the application stage, and you must ensure you meet the application criteria (e.g. having a sibling at the school or living very close by) in order to gain a place at your preferred school.

Entry Points

Your child can arrive in any year, and even mid-year, and the local education authority will find them a place in a school, though it may not be the one of your choice. The best entry points are year 7 (11+), year 9 (13+) or year 12 (16+). Starting in other years may make it difficult to catch up with exam curricula, and the school will be able to offer limited support to help.

EAL Support

Over 15% of learners in UK schools speak English as an additional language. The support given in schools can be very strong in areas with high concentrations of these students; however, it is not the case in all schools. The support in state schools will not be as strong as that given at well-endowed independent schools but will still be sufficient for many Hong Kong students with good English.

An Inside Look

Joyce Wong, whose family is from Hong Kong, went to both a standard state secondary school and a sixth form college. She enjoyed her experience at these schools and said, ‘I felt that going to a state school allowed me to study with people from all walks of life… In some ways, it may have been more ‘British’ than attending an independent school as everyone was local to the area… Although the school may not have had as much success as independent schools in getting into the school league tables, the teachers were supportive and would help you to succeed if you were willing to put in the effort. I believe this helped me become more independent and well rounded.’

One last thing to note: just as in Hong Kong, where St Paul’s Convent, St Paul’s Co-ed and St Paul’s College are three different schools, you need to be careful when searching for schools in the UK. Tonbridge School, for example, is an independent boy’s school, whereas Tonbridge Grammar School is a girl’s grammar school that accepts boys in the sixth form. To help you through the process of selecting and applying to UK schools, get in touch with i-Learner Overseas Education Services.