A Guide to the UK Education System
(and Comparison with Hong Kong)
# UK (England) Hong Kong
Early Years

Children often enter Early Years institutions from the age of 3 to prepare for primary education. This stage of education is not compulsory.

Types of School:
  • pre-schools
  • nurseries

Children often attend Kindergarten between the ages of 3-6.

Types of School:
  • Nurseries
  • Kindergartens
Primary Education

(Reception & Years 1 to 6)
School is compulsory from the age of 5, but many children start in Reception aged 4.

In primary education, students undergo two primary assessments, SATs in Year 2 and Year 6 (government-funded schools only). Some Year 6 students also sit optional secondary entrance school exams for selective schools.

Types of School:
  • State Schools (government funded)
  • Independent Schools (Day)
  • Independent Schools (Boarding)

(P1 to P6)
Children typically attend schools from the age of 6.

In primary education, students undergo two major assessments, namely TSA (Territorial System Assessment) at P3 and P6 and SSPA (Internal Examinations for the purpose of Secondary School Places Allocation).

Types of School:
  • Government Schools
  • Aided Schools
  • Direct Subsidised Schools
  • Private Schools
  • International Schools (EFF included)
Secondary Education

(Year 7 to 11)
This stage of education lasts for five years, from the age of 11 to 16. Towards the end of year 11, students are obliged to take GCSEs. GCSE results determine the academic and vocational options each student is qualified to pursue.

Types of Schools:
  • State Schools (government funded)
  • Grammar Schools
  • Independent Schools (Day)
  • Independent Schools (Boarding)

(S1 to S6)
This stage of education lasts for six years, with most students working towards DSE. DSE results determine university admission and options for post-secondary education.

A much smaller percentage of students take IGCSEs followed by A-Level or IB.

Types of Schools:
  • Government Schools
  • Aided Schools
  • Direct Subsidised Schools
  • Private Schools
  • International Schools (EFF included)
Further Education (Year 12 to 13)

There are several options for this phase of study. Academic courses include A-levels and IB diploma-level examinations. Students may also take more practical or vocational courses such as Apprenticeships or BTEC diplomas.

Whilst A-levels and IB are the most common route to university, the results from any of these qualifications can secure a higher education place.

Types of Schools:
  • State Sixth Forms or Colleges (government funded)
  • Grammar School Sixth Forms
  • Independent School Sixth Forms (Day)
  • Independent School Sixth Forms (Boarding)
Higher Education

3 Years (for most university undergraduate programmes)

Note that university study is not free, even for UK permanent citizens.

4 Years (for most university undergraduate programmes)
Top UK Schools (Insiders’ View)
i-Learner OES Team has interviewed the i-Learner UK colleagues who attended top schools at various stages to share their memories about the schools they attended at primary or secondary education.

Name: Claire Males
School: Dwight School London (Formerly North London International School)
Years attended: Year 10 and 11
School type: Independent international day school

This school taught me the value of diversity and of making connections between different ideas. Meeting people from around the world in senior school was also great preparation for university, making me aware of how differently some people may think and what a positive quality that can be. The school’s holistic curriculum enabled me to make good theoretical connections in my degree work. The school strongly encouraged us to research our projects independently, which was a great skill to have at university and one that many others struggled to pick up during their degree.

Name: Hannah Patient
School: Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS)
Years attended: Year 12 to Year 13 (sixth form)
School type: Grammar school

The application process was fairly straightforward. I had to complete an application form and my teachers sent my predicted GCSE grades to the school. Strong applicants were invited to interviews with two different teachers. However, I think most people who were interviewed were offered a place – it seemed to be more about the teachers checking whether we would fit in well at the school rather than catching us out with difficult questions. Although I found the idea of an interview a bit daunting, the experience boosted my confidence when it came to applying to Oxford later on.

Name: Ryan Wightman
School: Sale Grammar School (Sixth form)
Years attended: Year 12-Year 13
School type: Grammar School

Being able to have lovely discussions with my teachers is a fond memory, specifically with my Head of Year (who was also my Form Tutor and one of my two teachers). She was always approachable and willing to help me with any aspect of studies, or even to just have a chat. This really was a great way to encourage me to work harder, too, because the teachers really cared about you in the bigger picture.

Name: Willow Hewitt
School: Withington Girls’ School (Both junior and senior schools)
Years attended: Transition (Year 3) to Form III (Year 7)
School type: Independent day school

I lived very near the school and applied to this and another independent girls’ school in Manchester. I did some practice papers with my parents, and I did the application to the other school first, so I had some awareness of what to expect, which helped.

I remember the entrance papers feeling quite easy. I’d been worried they’d cover things I wouldn’t understand, but they were really just trying to find out about my strengths. I remember very clearly that we had to do a piece of writing, and I described the journey to my grandparents’ house. After that, the headmistress came into the classroom and chatted in a very casual way about my writing. She seemed genuinely interested, which made me feel very relaxed. It was a nice experience, and I’m glad I went into it feeling calm as I think it helped show me in the best light.