Secondary education in the United Kingdom

Secondary school and post-16 options

Secondary education in the United Kingdom

Secondary education in the UK caters for students between the ages of 11-18 though types of school, curriculum and qualifications can vary from place to place. The system found in Wales and Northern Ireland are very similar to that of England whereas education in Scotland follows a rather different system.

Secondary state-funded schools accept applications via catchment areas. Parents have been known to forge their addresses claiming to live in family members homes in order to get their children into the best schools in the area. 

Secondary school

Once children have completed their primary education, they will go to secondary school. The ages in which primary school finishes and secondary school begins differ - England, aged 11; Scotland, aged 12; Wales, aged 11; Northern Ireland, aged 11/12. Secondary school will typically teach children between the age of 11/12 up to 16 though some schools have educational facilities in the one building up to the age of 18. 

Secondary schools, also known as senior schools, teach children the full spectrum of subjects. A normal school timetable will comprise of English language and literature, maths, biology, chemistry, physics, religious education, history, geography, foreign languages and design technology (sewing, woodwork, cooking). Gaelic, Irish and Welsh may also be taught in their respective countries. Students will have time for registration with their class group, usually in the morning and will then proceed through the day following their individual schedules. 

Classes in the UK are normally streamed meaning that class groups are organised based on students ability where they will learn with those at a similar level. This is not thought to be a discriminatory issue amongst students, teachers or parents but better caters to the students learning techniques. This streaming process is often only used for ‘core’ subjects of English, maths and sciences. Each subject will most likely have a different teacher, specialised to their class content.

Tests and exams

England, Wales and Northern Ireland: GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are the first set of exams which count towards students futures. At the age of 14, or in some cases earlier, children are allowed to select subjects that form the curriculum. Although English language and literature, maths, science and physical education are still compulsory, children may choose the remainder of their subjects. Such subjects will be taught for two years (until the age of 16) when they take exams to pass each subject. Subjects which are offered vary from school to school but can include; foreign languages, history, geography, art, food technology, sewing, woodwork and IT. Some schools may encourage children to take subjects comprising of the English Baccalaureate , though it makes little difference in the long run. 

The GCSE grading system has changed only in the past few years. Where the previous system graded children from A* to G, now the system is made up of numerical grades 9 to 1 . Children are often required to hold at least 5 GCSE pass grades to progress onto the next level of education. Additionally, most jobs will only take those with a pass grade or above in English and maths. These can both be retaken if necessary. 

Scotland: The Scottish nationals have now been replaced with the National 5s, these are known to be the equivalent of English GCSEs. Children will take around 8 National 5 subjects however the maximum is 12. Much like in England, there are core subjects and optional subjects which pupils can select. Scottish National 5 passes are awarded to those securing A, B, C and D grades. National 5 grades A to C are equal to GCSE grades 4 to 9. 

Post-16 options

Post 16 education is referred to as 'further education' and students in the UK are obliged to take either of the following options until they turn 18 to complete their compulsory education. These include; studying further at sixth forms or colleges selecting either academic, vocational or practical courses as well as securing an apprenticeship. ‘Sixth forms’ are schools that only offer education for children aged 16-19, they are often under the same roof as secondary schools who offer education for 11-18 years of age. Students can choose to study in sixth form for an extra year if they do not receive the grades they need for their future (until they are 19). 

Young people are not able to finish education until they reach the age of 18, however, they can choose where they receive the final two years of their education. The type of institution that they go to depends on what it is they wish to learn. Sixth forms will be a more in depth study of similar subjects to those in secondary school. Colleges offer courses which are more vocational and will lead directly to jobs, more specifically those in trades. Courses which are popular are engineering, sports science, child and social care and health and beauty. Students can leave education however, by directly entering the world of work with a 2 year apprenticeship. Such apprenticeships may be in travel and tourism, reception and admin, mechanics or management. Alternatively, pupils can join the Armed Forces from 16 years of age. 

Further education qualifications

England, Wales and Northern Ireland: In all UK countries other than Scotland, those continuing their education in an academic rather than work based environment, will be gaining qualifications from their further education providers. Those attending sixth form colleges will typically be studying for their ‘A’ levels. In past years, this consisted of two individual qualifications, AS levels and A2 levels which were divided into the first and second year of the course. Now, A levels are studied over two years and all exams are sat at the end of the course. These are still graded A*- E grades and determine students' acceptance into universities. Students choose 3 to 4 ‘A’ levels to make up for full-time education.

Scotland: Scottish students do not have the option to take ‘A’ levels unless they move to England/ Wales/ Northern Ireland but rather study for qualifications known as 'Scottish highers'. Although these are known to be the ‘A’ level equivalent, Scottish highers have a more advanced curriculum and can sometimes be seen as more valuable. For example, with a Scottish higher you can skip the first year of Scottish university. The Scottish highers only last for one year as there are two separate qualifications. The first is taken aged 16-17 and called the Scottish higher and the second year ages 17-18 is the 'Scottish Advanced Higher'. These qualifications are graded as ‘A’ levels are, for how Scottish highers and ‘A’ levels compare in terms of university applications, see here .

Those attending colleges will most likely come out with a diploma or BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council. BTECs usually take up the whole full-time education timetable so those choosing them will only select one. BTECs are graded on a distinction* - pass basis 

Further reading

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Other comments

  • Paula, 01 March 2009 Reply


    As I read the comments from this editor I am appalled at the references made. It feels as if someone is on their soapbox to have a pop at the education system rather than inform and inspire. What absolute nonsense this article is. I have taught in 4 countries and the UK is by far the best. Why? Becauseteachers are well paid, CPD is tailored to need and not forced upon them in order to be promoted, children have free access to quality provision and very few parents are expected to pay for their child's extra curriculuar activities. In addition we have the highest expectation of all children in any country I have taught. Education is heavily moderated and monitored with on the whole fair outcomes and finally many teachers who stay the distance have lots of opportunity to extend and develop their career in a variety of ways.Yes there is stress, and there are poor teachers. Yes there are por buildings but they are few and far between

    • Sarah 04 Nov 2010, 01:04

      Appalling indeed

      I have the opposite view - the State secondary schools in this country are a disgrace, with low expectations, large classes, disruptive pupils and teachers reduced to a role of 'crowd controller'. The culture among the kids is for academic achievement to be mocked and sneered at, and for teachers to bring the levels of the average/poorer children up at the expense of the more intelligent ones, who are left to their own devices. The whole situation is a complete disgrace.