Do You Know Your GCSE’s from your Primary School? An Anglophile’s Guide to the British Education System


As a native Brit (albeit one who travels to the US regularly) I often get frustrated when I read American articles which describe children according to which grade they are in. It seems standard to say, “a promising ninth-grader” or “a third grade class”. For us Brits, that’s as confusing as if I told you that my children are in the second-year juniors, keystage 3, and the Upper Sixth. (And what on earth is a Sophomore, or a Freshman?) Lest US readers are just as clueless when it comes to the UK education system, this article outlines how the British system operates.

British children can start pre-school from the age of 2½ (it’s free once they turn 3), and then start in the reception (kindergarten) class at Infant School in the September following their fourth birthday.  The following year they enter “year 1”, and their education counts up in years much as with the US grade system. This system is relatively new here, however. Previously the numbering began again each time the children moved up to the next school.

The school year is divided into three terms, each punctuated by a week’s holiday (known as half-term) somewhere around the middle. After the Autumn term there is a two week break which coincides with Christmas and New Year, and after the Spring term the two week break usually falls over Easter. The Summer term runs through to the end of July. No “104 days of summer vacation” for British children – they usually get six weeks.

Almost all schools have a uniform. At Primary level (years R-6) it’s usually relatively simple. Black, grey or blue trousers, shorts or skirts, and a polo shirt and cardigan or jumper (sweater) with the school logo. In the summer, girls can often wear pretty gingham dresses in the school colours. Supermarkets sell school uniform relatively cheaply, and stock the appropriate colours for the schools in their community.

Unlike the US, religion is standard in (some) schools, especially Primary schools. There is a regular assembly during which hymns are sung and which may sometimes be led by leaders of local churches. In many schools children say or sing a rote prayer (often a short poem) to open and close each school day. (Editor’s note: it has been pointed out to us that this is not always the case and many schools are in fact secular.)

There are no yellow school buses in the UK. Parents are responsible for getting their children to and from school, although since the UK public transport system is good it’s not unusual for older children to take the bus.

In year 7 children move up to secondary, or senior, school. Here, the uniform is more formal and usually means a shirt, tie and blazer, even for the girls. In year 9 children take their “options”. Each child chooses which subjects to specialise in, and which to drop. All students have to do Maths, English and a science subject, and to that they add three or four subjects they enjoy and excel at.

Years 10 and11 are the serious study years, as the students work towards their GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams. The importance of these cannot be overstated. Employers judge candidates on how many GCSEs they have, and at what grades. Anyone with fewer than four GCSEs probably faces life in a menial service industry job.

Students don’t “graduate” from school; there is no ceremony or event to mark the end of their time there. Prom is a relatively new import (there are no other school dances) but most schools now have them for their leaving year 11 students once exams are over, albeit with no corsages, no theme, no official photograph or Prom Queen. Yearbooks are also a new idea imported from the US, but as yet very few schools are doing them.

The next stage—years 12 and 13—is still generally known as Sixth Form (from the old numbering system), and is only now being made compulsory. Some senior schools have their own sixth-forms, but there are also sixth-form colleges. Here students study either A (advanced) levels or vocational courses for two years. Again, the grades they achieve help employers to judge them when it comes to applying for jobs. For those going to University, places are offered based on A level grades.

University is always called University, never “school” and rarely “college”, so it sounds strange to British ears when Americans talk about Harvard being “a good school” because school is for children. Most University courses are three years, and maximum tuition fees are set by the Government, currently £9,000 ($14,000) a year in England. The system of student loans is very good, with loans effectively interest-free, and they don’t have to be paid back until the student is earning a good salary in their chosen profession.  There is no “choosing a major”. Students study a single course during those three years.

They finally get to graduate when they get their degrees at the end of University.

Proud Brit Anna Jones Buttimore is a blonde Essex girl who longs to move to America where people might actually appreciate her accent. She is the author of six novels, the mother of three daughters, and she speaks fluent Welsh.

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  1. avatarLinda says

    Thank you, Anita! I’m forever reading books set in England and always wondered about 6th Form and A Levels. When you say they study a “single course” in University, what exactly do you mean? What age are the students at the end of their A Levels? Thanks so much!

    • avatarMartine says

      Single course simply means we don’t have a ‘major’ and a ‘minor’ system like you do in the US. We study one subject (for 3 years if on a Bachelors course or 4 years if that includes a Masters year).
      For example I’ve just finished my 4 year MSci degree in Geology. There is no second subject, it was just Geology.

      At the end of your A-levels students are around 17-18 years old.

  2. avatardbt027 says

    Wow! Thanks for submitting this. As an American family living in Colchester, Essex since 2012 with one son in Primary (year 4) and one son in secondary (year 8), we were indeed confused by the system. As we are here for another 6 years, we will really have to get a deeper understanding. Please don’t take these as criticisms of your lovely outline above. Rather, just our experience living here for the past 18 months placed against your experience of living here above.

    A few observations, I am unaware of where you live in Essex, however, although our schools sponsor a religious education class, we do not do the hymns the way you described. In fact, there are no hymns sung in our schools, no assembly, no short poem, and certainly no visiting clergy from the neighbourhood. My son’s secondary school does, in fact, hold 2 school dances a year, as well as prom (which is tonight).

    Sadly, the UK public transport in Colchester is rubbish and extremely expensive and so most children walk (some for miles) or if their families are of means, they take a taxi. In special instances, there actually are yellow First Student buses – ironically (this is an American company that once upon a time my daughter (who is currently in Uni in America-had to leave her behind, as she was halfway through) used to take to school. Otherwise, my children walked to school in the town we came from (very, very rare in most urban communities).

    So thank you for your description, because it certainly cleared a great deal up for me. But please know that there are differences based on your locality.

    Oh, and by the way, we are enjoying life here very much. Being the only American family in the area, (our sons are the only Americans in their schools one of 1,800 and on of 400), we are flabbergasted by how many people actually appreciate and “like” our accent. Which we always thought was going to be considered appalling.

    Debra B. Thompson

    • avatarMartyn says

      with regard to school buses , that will depends where you live , in rural areas where it;s more than 2 miles to the nearest primary and 3 to the nearest Secondary school there is free or subsidised transport provided.

  3. avatar says

    Linda, students leave sixth-form at the age of 18 or 19. By a “single course” I mean that they choose which subject they want their degree in, and that’s the only one they study. So I did English and my husband did Maths. I didn’t “major” in English in that there were no minors, every lecture I went to was related to English Literature.

    Sarah, good point, my daughter has just completed her B-tech in fact, but I did say A-levels “or vocation courses” and I think the B-tech counts as a vocational course.

    According to the 1944 education act, which is still in force, all schools in the UK (faith and secular) are required to provide an act of religious worship for all pupils each day. Certainly my children’s primary schools had daily prayers and assemblies, but I understand most many schools, especially senior schools, flout this rule.

    • avatarBella Palmiter says

      It can sometimes work out that a few students are younger than 18/19 on finishing their A Levels. My birthday is in August so I was still 17 when I took my A Level exams, received my A Level results and had left school. I was 20 when I graduated Uni with my degree. I was 10 when I took and passed my 11 plus and so on!!

      Both my Primary School and Secondary grammar School had assemblies. My Primary school was CofE so the assemblies were mainly religious-ish with hymns. Secondary School only a few asslembies were religious. But there was always assembly with lots of different themes. Most to scare us into being good and polite members of society. Where on earth is the bunking off them fun if they aren’t held in the first place 😀 ?!?!

      For anyone curious – my Primary and Secondary education was in Kent

  4. avatarMartin Evans says

    Wrong!! There are yellow school buses in the UK (we have them here in Hampshire) but this is a relatively recent thing. In the past, school bus services were provided by local bus companies.

  5. avatarAsh says

    Some UK universities work on the same system as US ones. I went to Glasgow University and I didn’t choose my major until my second year. Also, the bit about student loans being almost interest free is completely untrue. As is the bit about not paying it back until you’re earning a decent salary in your ‘chosen profession’.

  6. avatar says

    Calling Ann-Adele from Asheville, North Carolina (or anyone who knows her)! You emailed me about this blog, but your email security settings are rejecting my reply. I’m hoping you’ll see this here and understand that I’m not ignoring you.

  7. avatar says

    Thought you might like to know that in Scotland it is different again and even across Scotland there can be regional variations.

    My daughter goes to school in Fife. In Primary School the classes are Primary 1 thru Primary 7, whereupon they leave and go to High School (some similarities with the US, here!). Then the classes are S1, S2 and so on.

    In most of Scotland they have the 3 term system but in Fife school holidays have been traditionally based around agriculture so it is a little different. Schools start back in August after the summer holiday and Autumn term runs up until October, when there is a two week October holiday (traditionally so children could help to get the potato harvest in!). Then there is a Winter term that runs up until Christmas. In the New Year there is the Spring term which runs until late March, when there is a two week Spring holiday (sometimes coincides with Easter, but it depends very much when Easter falls). After the Spring holiday comes the Summer term which runs until late June. Summer holidays are normally last week of June, all of July and first week of August, so only about 6/7 weeks, whereas some schools in England have 8.

  8. avatarRosie says

    Please note this is the English (maybe Welsh and Northern Irish too, I don’t know) system not the British system! In Scotland it is different. I’m English but my Scottish friends would not be happy at the confusion! :)

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