Educational System of the United Kingdom

By: Stephanie Blochinger



The UK education systems are managed at a regional level by the individual countries that make up the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). This article focuses on the secondary and postsecondary education systems in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Secondary Education System

There are two types of schools in the United Kingdom: state schools and independent schools. State schools are maintained and funded by the government. Independent schools are privately funded. They are also known as “public schools” in England and Wales, and as “private schools” in Northern Ireland.

Compulsory education varies between each country. In England, students must be enrolled in some form of education or training until their 18th birthday. In Wales and Northern Ireland, compulsory education ends at age 16 and students must then decide whether to seek employment, go on to a “further education” college, or work toward a “higher education” university.

Secondary education is broken up into two stages. At age 16, students receive their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) qualification, which is comparable in standard to the U.S. high school diploma. University-bound students will then typically take three subject-specific Advanced-Level (A-Level) qualifications. A-levels consist of several courses within specific subject areas taken over a two-year period.

In 2015, the UK government announced changes to the GCSEs, A-Levels, and the grading system. England, Wales, and Northern Ireland are implementing the reforms in different ways and at different times. More information regarding these changes can be found on the UK government website. An important change to note is that the grading system will be moving to a numerical 1–9 scale. More information on this new grading system can be found on the AQA website.

Postsecondary Education

In the United Kingdom, a college is different from a university. A college is often more vocational in nature and is referred to as “further education.” This is similar to, but not the same as, community college in the United States. “Higher education” refers to university-level education. Undergraduate, master’s, and research-level degrees are offered at higher education institutions. More than 160 higher education institutions in the United Kingdom have degree-awarding qualifications.

Degrees are made up of modules, and each module is reflected through the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS). One credit in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is equal to 10 hours of study. A student needs to earn 360 points to qualify for a bachelor’s degree. The UK CATS can be equated to the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS); two CATS points are equivalent to one ECTS point.

Undergraduate Degrees

To apply to a university at the undergraduate level, a student submits one application detailing his or her interest in studying a specific major, similar to the Common Application. Students declare their majors at admission because there are no general education classes. Students may apply for up to five courses through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) system. Universities typically specify on their program websites the type of A-level grades and, sometimes, subjects that they are looking for on students’ applications.

A bachelor’s degree in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland is earned in three years. Many courses offer an optional year in between the second and third year for study abroad or work placement opportunities. There are a few types of degrees that are offered at this level, including single honours (one subject major), interdisciplinary degrees, and combined or joint honours (which are similar to a double major or a major-minor). In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, an honours degree is awarded to students who complete independent research projects as part of their degree. The honours degree classification is based on academic performance as well as completion of the independent research project. Students may graduate with an ordinary degree if their performance is below that required for third class honours but not poor enough to fail.

Postgraduate Degrees

Graduate education can be divided into taught or research-based programs, and consist of postgraduate certificates, diplomas, and master’s and doctoral degrees. Students who are interested in obtaining a postgraduate degree must apply directly to the course of study at their university of interest. In many instances, a master’s degree can be earned in a 12-month period and culminates in the submission of a research-intensive dissertation or project. At the doctoral level, admission is normally based on the submission of a research proposal. Coursework is typically not taken; rather, the student is directly engaged in undertaking research with the supervision of an academic adviser. Doctoral degrees take three or more years to earn.

This publication has been developed by NAFSA members for use by their colleagues. No part of this newsletter may be reproduced without written permission from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The opinions expressed in IEM Spotlight solely reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. IEM Spotlight and NAFSA neither endorse nor are responsible for the accuracy of content and/or opinions expressed.