State schools in the UK

Education reforms, standards and types of schools

The term ‘state’ is used here in preference to ‘public’ and refers to non fee-paying schools controlled by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) and funded from state taxes and local council tax revenue (officially called maintained schools).

This is to prevent confusion with the term ‘public school’, used in the US (and Scotland) to refer to a state school, but which in England and Wales usually means a private fee-paying school. Private schools are officially referred to as independent schools in England and Wales.

If you live in a rural area, your LEA is one of the 39 English or eight Welsh county councils. In large cities, your LEA is the local borough council.

All state schools have a governing body usually made up of a number of parent representatives and governors (appointed by the LEA), the headteacher and other serving teachers. In Scotland, education authorities must establish school boards (consisting of elected parents and staff members) to participate in the management and administration of schools. Most state schools have a Parents and Teachers Association (PTA).

Some state schools, particularly primaries, rely on parents and charity fund raising to provide essential equipment (e.g. computers), books and stationery, carry out building repairs and in some cases even pay teachers’ salaries.
One of the most heated debates in the last few years has been over large class sizes, although this problem is being addressed by the government: class sizes are falling (and classes tend to become smaller as pupils get older). The UK’s state schools have nearly twice as many pupils per teacher than many other European countries.

Private schools are quick to point out that their small classes lead to more individual instruction and better results, which is supported by studies in other countries. There’s often a huge variation between educational achievement in the same class and the UK doesn’t have a system of holding back slow learners (e.g. for a year), as is widely employed in other European countries.

However, many schools have reintroduced streaming, where pupils are taught in groups, according to their ability. There’s no stigma attached to streaming, which simply recog­nises that children learn at different rates and some are brighter than others.

Education standards in the UK

The standard of reading and writing is often weak at primary level, especially in deprived urban areas where social problems are rife. In recent years, the gulf between the good and bad schools has widened in both the state and private sectors.

In the worst schools, pupils have low expectations, lack ambition and aren’t pushed to do their best. There is also often a culture amongst children to sneer at high achievers, and teachers sometimes focus on less gifted pupils at the expense of the intelligent ones. However, these cases exist in other countries too and cannot be generalised for education levels in the UK as a whole.

There can be a considerable difference in examination results between schools, even those in the same area. Good schools are said to be getting better, while bad schools are getting worse.

Types of school in the UK

There are two kinds of state school in the UK: county schools, and voluntary-aided and voluntary controlled schools, which are described below.

Foundation schools

At foundation schools, the governing body employ the school’s staff and have primary responsibility for admission arrangements. The school’s land and buildings are owned by the governing body or a charitable foundation. Many of these schools were formerly grant-maintained schools which were phased out in 1999.

Voluntary-aided & Voluntary controlled schools

Voluntary-aided and voluntary controlled schools provide primary and secondary education, and are financially maintained by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The difference is that voluntary-aided school buildings are, in many cases, the responsibility of voluntary bodies (e.g. a church or a foundation).

Schools with C of E (Church of England) or Catholic in their name may be aided schools.

Once you’ve made the decision to send your child to a state school, most experts advise that you stick to it for at least a year to give it a fair trial. It may take your child this long to adapt to the change of environ­ment and the different curriculum, particularly if English isn’t their mother tongue.


The Education Reform Act of 1988 established the progressive introduction of a national curriculum in primary and secondary schools, for the years of compulsory schooling from 5 to 16.

This means that children in all parts of the England and Wales now receive the same basic education, which makes comparisons between how children are performing at different schools easier and facilitates transfers between schools. Before the national curriculum, headteachers (also called headmasters or headmistresses) in England and Wales were responsible for determining the curriculum in their schools in conjunction with LEAs and school governors.

The national curriculum consists of eleven subjects which all children must study at school: English, mathematics, science, history, geography, information and communication technology (ICT), music, art and design, physical education (PE), design and technology (D&T) and a modern foreign language (in secondary schools from 11 years). English, mathematics and science are termed ‘core’ subjects, because they help children to study other subjects, and are compulsory up to GCSE level.

Other subjects are termed ‘foundation’ subjects. The core subjects plus technology and a modern language are often referred to as the ‘extended core’. In Wales, Welsh-speaking schools teach Welsh as a core subject and other schools in Wales teach Welsh as a foundation subject (although this has caused some dissension among English-speaking parents, when pupils are forced to learn Welsh against their parent’s wishes). Religious education must be part of the curriculum and is decided locally. Parents can, however, decide whether their child takes part.

Schooling is divided into four ‘key stages’, which help parents know what their children are learning at various ages. Parents receive a report containing the results of Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at the end of each key stage (at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16), based on national attainment targets.

In key stages 1 and 2, English, maths, science, information and communication technology (ICT), history, geography, art and design, music, design and technology (D&T) and PE are taught. In key stage 3, a modern foreign language and citizenship are added. In key stage 4, compulsory subjects are English, maths, science, ICT, D&T, PE, citizenship and a modern foreign language. Pupils must also study sex and religious education at all stages, although parents have the right to withdraw children from these lessons. In stage 3, children aged 11 to 14 should have 20 per cent of their timetable free for subjects other than the statutory requirements, increasing to 40 per cent in stage 4.

Other subjects may be taught in addition to the national curriculum and religious education, and are decided by individual schools. All schools are required to publish information in their prospectus and the governing body’s annual report about what’s taught at the school. Children with special education needs also follow the national curriculum, where possible.

In Scotland, there’s no set national curriculum and education authorities and individual headteachers decide what is taught. There are, however, national guidelines suggesting that the following subjects be taught between the ages of 5 and 14: English, mathematics, environmental studies (including science, social subjects, technology and health), expressive arts (including art, design, music, drama and physical education), and religious and moral education.

These form the core area and are supplemented by other activities, which make up the elective area. Provision is made for teaching Gaelic in Gaelic-speaking areas. Standard tests are held in English and mathematics for 9 and 12-year-olds.

In Northern Ireland, there’s a common curriculum for all schools with several areas of study, including: English; maths; science and technology; history and geography; creative and expressive area of study (art and design, music and physical education); religious education; and four educational cross-curricular themes (education for mutual understanding, cultural heritage, health education and information technology), which aren’t separate subjects, but included within the other subjects.

All secondary school pupils study a European language and the Irish language is available in Irish-speaking schools only. Secondary schools are known as Post-primary schools in Northern Ireland. There are also grammar schools and admission to these depends on the results of two Transfer tests examining pupils’ knowledge in English, maths, science and technology.

The national curriculum has already been revised and is expected to be modified over the coming years to counter problem areas and to take into account the changing face of education and training. For further information about the National Curriculum, consult the relevant section on the official Department for Education website  or call on 0370 0000 2288.


Before the introduction of comprehensive schools, the 11-plus examination was sat by all pupils in England and Wales at the age of around 11, and was the major turning point in a child’s schooling. The major objection to the 11-plus was that it decided a child’s future education at too young an age and left little room for late developers (very few children who failed the 11-plus made it into higher education).

However, the 11-plus hasn’t quite passed into history and it’s still taken by primary school pupils in a few areas.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the main examination usually taken at age 16 after five years of secondary education is the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). The General Certificate of Education Advanced (A) level may be taken after a further two years of study. In Scotland, the main examination is the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE). SCE standard (ordinary) grade is taken after four years of secondary education and the SCE Higher grade (highers) after a further two years.

Passes in the GCE A-level and SCE Higher grade exams are the basis for entry to further education, and are recognised by all British and European universities and most American colleges. In recent years, there has been a debate over whether GCSE and A-level standards are falling, although GCSE and A-level results remain the best guide to a school’s teaching standards. The examinations held in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are described below.

General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)

In 1988, the GCSE examination replaced the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary (O-level) and the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) examinations. The GCSE differs from its predecessors in that the syllabi are based on national criteria covering course objectives; content and assessment methods; differentiated assessment (i.e. different papers or questions for different ranges of ability) and grade-related criteria (i.e. grades awarded on absolute rather than relative performance).

Coursework forms part of the assessment of GCSE results, depending on the subject and the examination board, and can vary from 30 per cent to as much as 70 per cent. However, coursework is debated by some as making the GCSE too easy, so the Education Secretary intends to introduce tougher exams and no coursework, which will come into effect in September 2015.

When children reach the end of the third year of secondary education, they choose GCSE subjects with the help of teachers and parents (there’s no restriction on entry to any examination).

Pupils sit their GCSEs at the age of 16 or earlier – e.g. if they’re exceptionally gifted. Generally, five or six GCSE at grades A to C are required by children who intend to take A-levels and go on to higher education.

Advanced & Advanced Supplementary Levels (A levels & AS levels)

General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced level (A-level) examinations are usually taken during the two years after GCSE, at sixth form college (age 17 or 18) by those who wish to go on to higher education. In 2002, A-levels were changed somewhat in response to criticisms that standards had fallen (in recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of A-level passes, particularly in top grades A and B, and many educationalists believe that exams and marking are deliberately being watered down in order to increase pass rates) and to encourage students to have greater flexibility in subjects.

Students in their first year of A-levels can decide how many A-levels they wish to study. Each A-level has six units, which may be taken over two years (modular) or at the end of the two years (linear). Coursework may form part of the A-level units and there’s a ceiling of 30 per cent coursework in most subjects, but this varies largely. The first year of A-level study is known as ‘AS’ (see below) and the second year as ‘A2’.

Advanced Supplementary level (AS-level) examinations may be taken during the first and second years of A-levels and consist of three units. An AS-level is graded as half an A-level and therefore two AS-level passes are usually accepted as the equivalent of one A-level pass. AS-level courses are intended to supplement and broaden A-level studies and examinations are graded A to E (as for A-level grades).

Advanced Education Awards (AEAs) were introduced by the government in 2002, to replace the old Scholarship levels (S-levels), although it’s expected that AEAs will be taken by more students than the S-levels, which were somewhat elitist. AEAs aim to stretch the most able A-level students and to help differentiate between them, particularly in subjects where there’s a high proportion of ‘A’ grades at A-level. At present AEAs are available in 20 A-level subjects (biology, chemistry, economics, English, French, geography, German, history, Irish, Latin, maths, physics, religious education, Spanish, Welsh, Welsh as a second language, business studies, computing, design and technology, and psychology).

Scotland has its own examination system, the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE) standard (ordinary) and higher grade examinations. The standard grade (roughly equivalent to the GCSE) is taken at age 15 and the higher grade is usually taken at the age of 17 or 18. The Scottish Certificate of Sixth Year Studies (SCSYS) is a further qualification for pupils who stay on at school after passing the SCE higher grade. Some Scottish private schools set GCE A-levels as well as SCE higher grade.

The Certificate of Pre-vocational Education (CPVE) is a nationally-recognised award for 17-year-olds doing an extra year at school or college.

To gain acceptance to a university in the UK, a student usually requires at least two A-level passes (grades A to E). This is the minimum; to study some courses more passes and high grades are necessary, e.g. to study law and medicine, you usually require three A grade passes, while the requirement for some other courses may be two B grade passes and one C. If you receive an unexpectedly low grade in an exam, you can appeal to your school. There’s a fee for most appeals, but if you’re successful, the fee is returned. If you’re going to appeal, do so as soon as possible, as an A-level course, a college or university place, or a job may rest on the outcome.

Special concessions are made for dyslexic children taking GCSE and A-level exams, which allow them to use an amanuensis or word processor to write answers and to have exam questions read out to them or recorded on tape.

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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.