Education in United Kingdom
Department for Education
National education budget (2015)
Budget6.6% of GDP[1]
General details
Primary languagesEnglish, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh
Literacy (2020)
Secondary diploma88%[5]
Post-secondary diploma45.7%[3][4]

Education in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter with each of the countries of the United Kingdom having separate systems under separate governments. The UK Government is responsible for England, whilst the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for Scotland,[6] Wales[7] and Northern Ireland, respectively.

For details of education in each country, see:

In 2018, the Programme for International Student Assessment, coordinated by the OECD, ranked the overall knowledge and skills of British 15-year-olds as 13th in the world in reading, literacy, mathematics, and science. The average British student scored 503.7, compared with the OECD average of 493.[8]

In 2014, the country spent 6.6 percent of its GDP on all levels of education – 1.4 percentage points above the OECD average of 5.2 percent.[1] In 2017, 45.7 percent of British people aged 25 to 64 attained some form of post-secondary education.[3][4] Of British people aged 25 to 64, 22.6% attained a bachelor's degree or higher,[3] whilst 52% of British people aged 25 to 34 attained some form of tertiary education, about 4% above the OECD average of 44%.[9][10]


In each country there are five stages of education: early years, primary, secondary, further education (FE) and higher education (HE).[11] The law states that full-time education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 (4 in Northern Ireland) and 16.[11] In England, compulsory education or training was extended to 18 in 2015.[12] This full-time education does not need to be at a school and some parents choose to home educate.[13] Before they reach compulsory school age, children can be educated at nursery if parents wish; the four governments all provide some form of universally available education for children from the age of three years old.[11] Further education is non-compulsory, and covers non-advanced education which can be taken at further (including tertiary) education colleges and higher education institutions (HEIs). The fifth stage, higher education, is study beyond A levels or BTECs (and their equivalent) which, for most full-time students, takes place in HEIs such as universities and colleges.

The National Curriculum, established in 1988, initially provided a framework for education in England and Wales between the ages of 5 and 18. Although the curriculum is compulsory, some private schools, home educators and (in England) academies and free schools design their own curricula.[14]

Following devolution in 1999, the Welsh Government took responsibility for education in Wales and the curriculum began to differ from that of England. The National Curriculum for Wales was established and is now being succeeded by the Curriculum for Wales.

In Scotland, the equivalent is the Curriculum for Excellence. Scotland's qualifications system of National 4/5s, Highers and Advanced Highers are very similar to Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced Level (A2) courses in England.[15]

The Northern Ireland Curriculum is a separate system.[16]

Further education

Main article: Further education

Further education (FE) refers to post-secondary education in England and Wales. FE covers a wide curriculum of study and apprenticeships, including A-levels, BTEC, NVQ, and others, ranging from entry level to top level (3, equivalent to A level) that leads to higher education. The sixth form is post-16 study taken after completing GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at school; academic further education are generally offered by sixth form colleges or by 11–18 schools with an attached sixth form. Further education colleges generally provide a wider curriculum and more vocational education, although not limited to it. Tertiary colleges provide both academic and vocational courses.[17]

Higher education

See also: Universities in the United Kingdom and Tuition fees in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, higher education is offered by universities and other institutions (colleges, institutes, schools, and academies) and includes both research-oriented and higher professional education. Universities provide programmes that lead to a degree (bachelor's, master's, or doctorate) and non-degree programmes that lead to a vocational qualification such as a certificate or diploma. British higher education is valued around the globe for its quality and rigorous academic standards.[18] Several British universities are ranked among the top universities in the world,[19] including the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and UCL.[20]

Entry qualifications

Students who sit for GCSEs usually take 9 or more subjects, requiring 20 to 25 examinations. Most students take Maths, English literature, English language and double science, totalling 5 GCSEs, plus a variety of other subjects. Sitting at the exam culminates the end of 11 years of mandatory education. A General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is awarded for each subject passed and World Education Services issues a high school diploma after the evaluation of a minimum of three GCSEs. Pre-university education in the United Kingdom is a two-year senior secondary programme that leads to a new round of examinations, the General Certificate of Education, Advanced Level (also known as GCE A-levels). As with the GCSE, students who sit for the exam choose the subjects and the number of examinations (the average number taken is three). WES awards undergraduate credit based on the nature and number of subjects passed. Each university has their own set of admission policies and the minimum entry requirements for each particular higher education programme that they offer.[21] The General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE "A Levels") is an entry qualification for universities in the United Kingdom and many other universities across the world. Students that are interested in pursuing higher education will usually enrol in pre-university and further education programmes. Similarly, with the GCSE, students who take the exam choose their subjects of interest and the number of examinations. Most students take three subjects on average and the WES grants undergraduate credit based on the nature and number of subjects passed. Bachelor's degrees at the bare minimum typically require two to three GCE A Level passes, and a minimum number of GCSE passes with a grade C or above.[22]


Technical and vocational education in the United Kingdom is introduced during the secondary school years and goes on until further and higher education. Secondary vocational education is also known as further education. It is separate from secondary education and doesn't belong to the category of higher education. Further education incorporates vocational oriented education as well as a combination of general secondary education. Students can also go on to a further education college to prepare themselves for the Vocational Certificate of Education (VCE), which is similar to the A-levels. Major provider of vocational qualifications in the United Kingdom include the City and Guilds of London Institute and Edexcel. Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas typically require 1 and 2 years of full-time study and credit from either HNE or Diplomas can be transferred toward an undergraduate degree. Along with the HNC and HND, students who are interested in other vocational qualifications may pursue a Foundation degree, which is a qualification that trains people to be highly skilled technicians.[23] The National Apprenticeship Service also offers vocational education where people at ages of 16 and older enter apprenticeships in order to learn a skilled trade. There are over 60 different certifications can be obtained through an apprenticeship, which typically lasts from 1 to 3 years. Trades apprentices receive paid wages during training and spend one day at school and the rest in the workplace to hone their skills.[24]

T Levels are a technical qualification being introduced between Autumn 2020 and 2023. They are intended to provide the knowledge and experience needed for learners to progress to skilled employment, further study or a higher apprenticeship.[25]


Research by Education Support Partnership suggests that 75% of school teachers and college lecturers suffer from work-related stress. Increased work pressure from marking and exam targets lead some teachers to work 12 hours a day. Many are leaving the profession due to stress.[26] The government has missed its targets for recruiting secondary school teachers seven years in a row. Notably too few maths, science, physics, chemistry, computing and foreign language teachers were recruited. Department of Education figures show in 2019 there were 85% of the secondary school teachers required. Schools recruited 43% of the physics teachers needed in 2019 after 47% in 2018, 64% of maths teachers needed were recruited in 2019 after 71% in 2018. 29,580 postgraduate trainees were recruited in England in 2019, a rise of only 365 further teachers, although secondary-school pupils will increase rapidly over the coming few years. The DfE expects a rise of almost 15% in secondary school pupils by 2027, adding roughly 400,000 pupils in English state secondary schools. Kevin Courtney of the National Education Union said, “Pupil numbers in state-funded secondary schools have already risen by almost 150,000 since 2014 and will rise by a further third of a million pupils over the next five years. Even where trainee targets have been met, recruitment to initial teacher training courses is just the very start. New teachers need dedicated support to help them develop into competent professionals. Once we have invested in their skills, we must not lose their passion and experience.” Courtney maintains not enough is done to retain newly recruited teachers and a third leave the profession within five years.[27][28]


In 2018 The Guardian commented that successful schools tend to choose pupils from high–achieving backgrounds. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and challenging pupils, tend to be concentrated in schools that do less well in inspections.[29] Also that children from prosperous backgrounds are more likely to be in good or outstanding schools while disadvantaged children are more likely to be in inadequate schools.[30][31] The inequality gap as of 2015 is closing with more students in good or outstanding schools from all social backgrounds.[32] On the other hand, reports have also shown that during the 2010–2020 decade, the spending gap between state and private schools doubled.[33]

A 2016 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that racial inequality exists in the Great Britain education system. It was found that 6% of Black school leavers went on to attend a Russell Group university, compared with 12% of mixed race and Asian school leavers, and 11% of white school leavers.[34] In 2009, it was found that white students' predicted A-Level grades were 53% accurate, whilst Black students' received predicated grades that were 39.1% accurate. Black students are also the most likely to receive under-predicted grades by their teachers. It was found that 7.1% of Black students received higher actual grades compared to 6.6% of White students, 6.5% of Asian students and 6.1% of Mixed students.[35] In 2018, of all teachers in state-funded schools in England, 14.1% were from BAME groups.[36] 33.5% of primary school and 31.3% of secondary school pupils in England were from BAME groups.[37] In 2021 it was claimed that white school pupils who are eligible for free school meals do less well than the overall figure for pupils so eligible.[where?][38]

Mental health and its effects in schools

Mental health problems among young people in UK schools are increasing; social media, pressure from schools, austerity and gender expectations are blamed. Teachers' leaders say they feel overwhelmed and cannot cope. Sarah Hannafin of the headteachers' union NAHT, said, "There is a crisis and children are under increasing amount of pressure … Schools have a key role to play and we are doing what we can, but we need more funding." Louise Regan of the National Education Union stated, "Teachers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students showing signs of mental health problems." She added counsellor and pastoral support had been seriously reduced, though money for children's wellbeing was desperately needed, she said, "There is more focus on attainment measures rather than overall concern about the wellbeing of a child." Norman Lamb said the UK was in an "intolerable crisis", children had just one childhood and one education. "When it's gone, it's gone, and that will leave a lifetime of damage … We are failing an entire generation of young people." There were calls for a change in school culture with a switch of focus from exams to wellbeing.[39] All pupils will be taught about mental and physical wellbeing from 2020.[40]


In 2015/16, the UK spent £3.2 billion on under-5s education, £27.7 billion on primary education, £38.2 billion on secondary education and £5.9 billion on tertiary education. In total, the UK spent £83.4 billion on education (includes £8.4 billion on other categories).[41]

International students

Schools and universities in Britain are popular destinations for students of other nations.[42] The country’s universities and colleges have educated many heads of state and government around the world, rivalled only by the United States.[43][44]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Education Expenditures by Country" (PDF). National Center for Education Statistics. 11 May 2018. p. 7.
  2. ^ "U.K. Literacy Rate 1990–2022". MacroTrends. Retrieved 25 May 2022.
  3. ^ a b c "United Kingdom". OECD. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  4. ^ a b "Educational attainment and labour-force status". OECD.
  5. ^ "International Educational Attainment" (PDF). p. 4. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  6. ^ The Scottish Government Archived 27 November 2008 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 6 June 2009
  7. ^ About Archived 18 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 6 June 2009
  8. ^[bare URL PDF]
  9. ^ "United Kingdom" (PDF). OECD. p. 2. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  10. ^ "International Educational Attainment" (PDF). p. 6. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  11. ^ a b c "EDUCATION SYSTEM IN THE UK" (PDF). British Government. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 December 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  12. ^ "Schools prepare for leaving-age change". BBC News. Retrieved 2 June 2022.
  13. ^ "Home education – GOV.UK". Archived from the original on 25 July 2014.
  14. ^ "Education Otherwise". Archived from the original on 30 April 2015.
  15. ^ "The British Education System". HMC Projects. Archived from the original on 6 December 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  16. ^ "THE EDUCATION SYSTEMS OF ENGLAND & WALES, SCOTLAND AND NORTHERN IRELAND" (PDF). British Council. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 December 2011. Retrieved 3 December 2013.
  17. ^ Watson, Judith; Church, Andrew (2009). "The Social Effects of Travel to Learn Patterns - A Case Study of 16-19 Year Olds in London". Local Economy: The Journal of the Local Economy Policy Unit. 24 (5): 389–414. doi:10.1080/02690940903166971. S2CID 145187656.
  18. ^ "Tertiary Education: The United Kingdom" (PDF). p. 76. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  19. ^ "The UK higher education system explained". edvoy. Retrieved 3 January 2023.
  20. ^ "QS World University Rankings – 2020". QS Quacquarelli Symonds Limited. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  21. ^ "Vocational education and training in the United Kingdom" (PDF). p. 34. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  22. ^ "International Qualifications for entry into college or university in 2013" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 December 2016. Retrieved 29 August 2019.
  23. ^ "Vocational education and training in the United Kingdom" (PDF). p. 35. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  24. ^ "Traineeships". Skills Funding Agency. 21 February 2014. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
  25. ^ "T Levels – Technical education". City and Guilds. What are T Levels. Retrieved 16 February 2020.
  26. ^ Job stress is 'overwhelming' teachers across the UK Archived 18 September 2017 at the Wayback Machine BBC
  27. ^ Adams, Richard (28 November 2019). "Secondary teacher recruitment in England falls short of targets". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2019.
  28. ^ Busby, Eleanor (28 November 2019). "'Alarming': Government misses teacher-training targets for seventh year in a row despite major staff shortages in schools". The Independent. Retrieved 29 November 2019.
  29. ^ Coalition education reforms ‘fuelled inequality in schools’ The Guardian
  30. ^ Poorer pupils far more likely to be in failing schools, finds research The Guardian
  31. ^ Thousands of children with special needs excluded from schools The Guardian
  32. ^ "Record number of pupils in 'good' or 'outstanding' schools". GOV.UK. 1 December 2015. Retrieved 25 May 2022.
  33. ^ Sylvester, Rachel; Woolcock, Nicola (26 January 2022). "Reinventing schools would boost Britain by £125bn a year, Times Education Commission finds". The Times.
  34. ^ "Healing a divided Britain: the need for a comprehensive race equality strategy" (PDF). Equality and human rights commission.
  35. ^ Papageorgiou, Joanna. "Investigating the Accuracy of Predicted A Level Grades as part of 2009 UCAS Admission Process" (PDF). Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
  36. ^ "School teacher workforce". UK Gov. Department for Education.
  37. ^ "Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019" (PDF). Department for Education.
  38. ^ Tory MPs accused of adding fuel to ‘culture war’ in education report The Guardian
  39. ^ Calls for action over UK's 'intolerable' child mental health crisis The Guardian
  40. ^ "All pupils will be taught about mental and physical wellbeing".
  41. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 25 April 2017. Retrieved 2 July 2017.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  42. ^ "Study In the UK". International Student. Retrieved 16 December 2013; "International Student Statistics". UK Council for International Student Affairs. Retrieved 16 December 2013; "Why the rarefied world of UK boarding schools appeals to parents around the world". Financial Times. 2015. Retrieved 13 November 2016; "QS World University Rankings 2023: Top global universities". QS Top Universities. Retrieved 13 November 2016; "Inside the secret and lucrative world of 'the super tutor'". BBC. 5 July 2017. Retrieved 5 July 2017.
  43. ^ "US edge over UK on educating world leaders 'now unbeatable'". Times Higher Education (THE). 22 August 2022. Retrieved 25 August 2022; "UK top of the table for educating world leaders". Times Higher Education (THE). 5 August 2017. Retrieved 25 August 2022.
  44. ^ "Where do world leaders study? Oxford and Manchester are top UK destinations". Times Higher Education (THE). 1 October 2015. Retrieved 25 August 2022.

Further reading