All children living in the UK must take part in full time education between the ages of 5 and 16. The majority of children receive their education at state primary and secondary schools administered by the local authority, whilst some children attend private, fee-paying schools. However, there is much more than this to the education system in the UK which provides teaching services to everyone from toddlers taking their first steps to adults developing their skills.
Foreign nationals who wish to come to the UK to study will almost certainly need a visa before doing so. In addition much stricter entry clearance requirements are now in force for anyone wishing to study in the UK.
Children in the UK are currently entitled to 12 ½ hours per week of free pre-school education, for 38 weeks of the year, when they are aged three and four. This could take place in a number of different settings including nursery schools or with a child minder. Single parents or working parents on low incomes may be entitled to benefits to help them pay for additional hours of pre-school education.
The National Curriculum
All state schools providing education for 5 to 16 year olds are obliged by law to follow the National Curriculum. This sets out the subjects and topics that children must be taught whilst they are at school. The National Curriculum stipulates what children are expected to have learned at each stage of their education, and provides for ongoing assessment and examinations throughout their school career.
The school years covering the ages of 5 to 16 are divided into four “key stages”. Each key stage has “attainment targets” which most children are expected to reach by the end of the stage. Generally these attainment targets are measured by assessment but at the end of key stage 2, when children will be 10 or 11, national tests are taken. This corresponds to the end of primary school. From September 2008 a new National Curriculum will be taught to children from the ages of 11 to 16. This corresponds to secondary school and key stages 3 and 4.
The National Curriculum has been criticised in some quarters for putting too much pressure on children and schools to attain targets that may not be suited to all individuals. There is even a National Curriculum for children aged 3 and 4 in pre-school. This is known as the Early Years Foundation Stage. However, there is no assessment for children at that age.
As well as assessment and national tests under the National Curriculum most children will take public examinations at some point between the ages of 14 and 16. Usually this will mean taking GCSE examinations in a number of schools subjects. The number and type of examinations taken will depend on the child’s abilities and their future educational aspirations.
From 2008 a range of new Diplomas are being introduced for children aged 14 to 19. These will be in non-traditional school subjects and have a more vocational or work-based emphasis. Subjects already introduced include construction, engineering and information technology. Other vocational qualifications such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, and National Vocational Qualifications are also available.
After the age of 16 some children will choose to stay in education either at a college or sixth form. Children who wish to go on to higher education at a university are likely to study for ‘A’ Levels in a core range of subjects related to the university degree course they hope to take. A growing number of private schools and some state schools are now offering the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to ‘A’ Levels. It is believed to provide a broader educational base and the examinations may be taken in English, French or Spanish.
Universities and Further Education
Applications to most UK universities are made through a centralised system called the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Applicants may list a number of universities or colleges which they would like to attend and UCAS distributes the form to those institutions. Some universities may interview prospective students and others may make their decision solely based on the application form. If an offer is made it will usually be conditional upon the applicant attaining certain grades in their exams.
UCAS applications are generally made at least a year before the applicant wishes to go to university or college.
Courses for Adults
A wide range of adult education courses is available in the UK. Some of these may be state subsidised and a reduction in the fees may be available to people on low incomes. Courses are available in a wide range on subjects and some may lead to a qualification which could improve the student’s career or life prospects.