Primary education in the UK

Primary school learning

Primary education in the UK

Pupils coming to the UK from ethnic minority origins is on the rise with 33,5% of primary school students belonging to these ethnicities. Only 4,5% of primary school pupils experience classes of over 30. Typically classes in state-funded schools range from 25-30 pupils.

Parents looking for local schools for their children can find them at the following governmental websites, England , Scotland , Wales  and Northern Ireland 

Children entering the UK’s education system for the first time are welcomed at any stage although they will usually be expected to start school at the beginning of a school year or term for a smoother transition stage. Parents should be aware that in areas with fewer schools, waiting lists may be more extensive. It is possible to inquire at the local council for recommendations on what to do. 

Primary school is the first stage of education where children in the UK are required to attend. During primary school, children will begin to learn basic skills such as learning to read and write and simple numeracy. In the first few years, children are still allowed a fair part of the day to play, draw and do arts and crafts. Classes can typically be between 25 to 30 students per class and each class will be assigned one teacher who they will spend all their schooling time with. Some classes, namely the larger sized ones, may have teaching assistants who assist children with learning difficulties or who may learn at a slower pace.

Primary school

A school year group is calculated on the age of the child depending on what part of the year their birthday falls on. 

England: It is compulsory to begin school at the age of 4 in England. Those who have turned 4 before the 1st September of any given year will be eligible to start school during the first September after their 4th birthday. 

Scotland: Children in Scotland begin schooling in mid-August. Children born between March of one year and by the end of February the following year will comprise of one school year. This means children who begin school will be between the ages of 4.5 and 5.5 years old.

Wales: The Welsh system in place for starting school is identical to that actioned in England.

Northern Ireland: Children are also to start education from the age of 4 in Northern Ireland however the age cohort is based around the dates of the 2nd July round to the 1st July of the next year for one year group.

Typically, parents of children who were born close to or on the deadline of the academic year can choose whether their child joins the elder or younger school year. For example, if born on 31st August, you may be offered to defer your child’s entry to school so that they will be the eldest in the year group as opposed to the youngest.

Primary and secondary schools categorise age groups by key stages. The purpose of key stages is to separate educational stages of the curriculum and also to adapt learning materials such as books or activities to the appropriate age. These are as follows;

  • Key stage 1 - children aged 4 to 7
  • Key stage 2 - children aged 7 to 11
  • Key stage 3 - children aged 11 to 14
  • Key stage 4 - children aged 14 to 16

In some cases, primary schools may be divided by key stage where key stage 1 and 2 will be taught in separate buildings or even separate schools (named infant and junior). This is so that there is not such a drastic age difference between the older and younger children. School years across all four countries can be located here .

Once children have become accustomed to being in an educational environment and have acquired the skills to read and write, they will be following a more advanced curriculum. Although this differs between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the curriculum will all be of a similar variation. The subjects introduced will include; language, literacy, numeracy, physical education, religious education, arts such as music, painting and drawing and history. Please note that although religious education forms part of the national curriculum, parents can withdraw their child’s participation from such classes if deemed appropriate to do so.

In key stage 2, children will be subjected to learning a greater range of subjects in addition to the above including; foreign language (typically French), IT (Information Technology) and sciences.

Tests and exams

England: Tests are not commonplace in primary schools due to the young age of children. SATs however (Standard Assessment Tests) are carried out at the end of each key stage to gage the progress of a child’s learning. SATs at the end of key stage 2 (sometimes referred to as the 11+) have in the past been known to determine a child’s placement at secondary school. Children with good 11+ results have also been accepted into ‘grammar schools’. Such schools do still exist, although they are becoming less and less common and are mostly only found in English home counties and in Northern Ireland. Such schools are believed to teach the more academic part of a years cohort whilst the rest go to the nearest state-funded secondary school. This system is not very popular  amongst many parents and is consequently a system that is slowly disappearing from British culture. 

Scotland: Though not named SATs, children in Scottish primary schools also take tests gaging their ability. These are carried out in primary 1, 4 and 7 as well as in secondary 3. Such tests are still standardised nationally. In the earlier years, tests are more oriented towards literacy and numeracy yet older children in primary schools will be tested on problem solving. Such tests will typically be multiple choice and carried out on computer software downloaded. The tests can be marked immediately depending on the answer chosen by the student. These are also known as InCAS tests (Interactive Computerised Assessment System). This system is also in place in Northern Ireland. 

Wales: Welsh schools have similar tests set up to Scotland where they are also based on numeracy and literacy, though they too are only to track pupils learning outcomes. Tests have, as of the year 2019, been sat online. For primary school children, these tests are usually taken in Year 2 where children will be around 7 years old. 

Northern Ireland: InCAS tests are also the standard procedure for children studying in Northern Ireland, see Scotland above. 

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: