How Does School in England Work?

We don’t need no education. We don't need no thought control. However, if you are interested and want to know a bit about schools and education in England then listen up. And please raise your hand if you have any questions.

The education system in England can be broken down into 4 different stages, below is an introduction to each of these. 

Primary education

A child starts compulsory education at the age of 5. From the age of 5 until the age of 11 they will attend Primary School. The school year begins in September. Children will learn English, maths, science, history, geography, RE (religious education), music, art and crafts, PE (physical education), IT (information technology) and a foreign language. The school year ends in July.

The school day begins at about 9 and ends at 3ish. Children can either bring a packed lunch from home, or have school dinners. Class sizes and year groups vary greatly from school to school but there are usually between 25 and 30 pupils in a class. Homework is focused on literacy and maths, and is set regularly and recorded in a homework diary. 

Before a child starts compulsory education, it is common to attend a preschool, nursery or playgroup. Each child aged 3 to 4 is entitled to 15 hours a week of free education. They will begin to learn how to interact with others, talk, listen, and of course play. 

The majority of primary and secondary schools require children to wear school uniforms. 

Secondary education

As of 2017 the grading system for GCSEs is changing

The next stage is Secondary school, starting with “Year 7” when a child is 11 years old and ending with “Year 11” at the age of 16, after they take their GCSE exams. Students have more course options to choose (from any of the subject categories arts, design and technology, humanities and modern foreign languages), on top of the core subjects English, maths and science. 

As of 2017 the grading system for GCSEs is changing, the old A*-G system is being replaced by a 9-1 equivalent, with 4 being a pass and 9 being better than an A*. Most pupils take about 10 GCSEs.

Compared to primary schools where the total number of pupils is usually hundreds, secondary schools are normally a lot bigger, with thousands of students from the area attending. Secondary schools are usually mixed, but some are boys only or girls only, at grammar schools in particular. To get into a grammar school, a child will need to pass an entry exam, called the “eleven plus”. 

A day in the life

If you want an insight into a typical school day in England check out the video below and see what Jamie gets up to. 


Further education

Once GCSEs have been taken, a student can choose to continue studying at a sixth form college for two years to get A-levels, BTECs or NVQs. Or enter an apprenticeship until they are at least 18 years old. Once a student is 18, they are no longer obliged to remain in education.

A-levels are graded A*-E, an A* the best and an E a pass. Students usually take 3 or 4 A-levels. The majority of exams are written, as opposed to the oral exams common in other European countries. This is the same throughout the 4 stages of education. 

Higher education

To go to a university or a college students will need to apply with certain qualifications (usually A-levels), depending on the entry requirements of the particular course and institution.  University fees can be £9,000 a year, for tuition fees alone. At the end of a higher education course at university, students will get a degree, the most common being a bachelor degree, for which the course typically lasts 3 years. For more information and other options see UCAS. Grading is as follows:

1st - First-class 

2:1 - Second-class, upper division 

2:2 - Second-class, lower division 

3rd - Third-class 

Pass - Ordinary degree pass

See how university in Britain compares to university in Denmark, France, Spain and Germany.


Today’s homework is to learn these useful expressions, idioms and phrases related to school in England:

Bookworm – somebody who reads a lot

Copycat – someone who copies work from others 

Teacher’s pet – the teacher’s favourite student

To pass with flying colours – to pass something with an excellent mark

To learn something off by heart – to memorise something 

To skip class/to skive – to not go to a lesson 

To put your thinking cap on – to think hard about something

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About the author


Leaving rainy Plymouth to move to cold and rainy Hamburg, Joseph has been trying to pronounce ridiculously long German words ever since. If he’s not drinking a cool Weizenbier he spends his time on his bike or reading books by the river. Now working as an intern at