Education in the UK

If you come to the UK with your family, where to send your children to school would be a big decision. The education system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is similar to the one in Hong Kong before 1997. It includes 6 years of primary school (Year 1-6), 5 years of secondary school (Year 7-11), and 2 years of college (Year 12-13). University education in England is generally 3 years.
Year Age Schools Public Exam
Year 1 5 to 6 Primary
Year 2 6 to 7 SATs
Year 3 7 to 8
Year 4 8 to 9
Year 5 9 to 10
Year 6 10 to 11 SATs
Year 7 11 to 12 Secondary
Year 8 12 to 13
Year 9 13 to 14
Year 10 14 to 15
Year 11 15 to 16 GCSE
Year 12 16 to 17 College
Year 13 17 to 18 A-Levels

Scotland, however, the education system is more similar to the current system in Hong Kong, with 6 years of primary schools, 6 years of secondary schools, and 4 years of university.

Types of school

There are various types of schools including the state-funded schools, the grammar schools, and the private independent schools. Private schools are usually better than state-funded schools, but that does not mean that state-funded schools are generally bad.

  • State-funded schools:

    More than 90% of the children in the UK study at the state-funded schools without charge. They can be put into two major categories:

    Maintained schools:

    fully funded by the local authority and follow the National Curriculum

    Academy and free schools:

    funded by private businesses or non-governmental organisation (NGO) and subsidised by the government, and free from the government control

  • Grammar schools:

    funded by the local authority and follow the National Curriculum, but have the right to select their own students and therefore can be very good and prestigious.

A Year 6 student will have to take a 11+ exam in order to get into a grammar school.

  • Independent schools:

    fee-charging, privately-run and independent from government control. For historical reasons they are also called “public schools” so it can be confusing to some readers. They are often for well-off students and some of them are also boarding schools.


The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) helps parents to rank all the schools in the UK to help them select a better school for their children. All schools can be ranked in 4 categories:

  • Grade 1: Outstanding

  • Grade 2: Good

  • Grade 3: Satisfactory

  • Grade 4: Inadequate

Grade 1 and Grade 2 schools take about 25% and 60% shares of all schools in the UK. Although Grade 1 is in the highest ranks, the quality of the schools still varies. You can check the school ranking at the Department for Education or some media outlets such as the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, which rank the schools by its A-Level results.

Examination system

The examination system in the UK is similar to the one in Hong Kong before 1997. There are two Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) in Year 2 and Year 6 to evaluate the student’s learning progress when he or she is in the primary school. After Year 11, the student will need to take the General Certificate off Secondary School (GCSE) in order to get to Year 12, similar to the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). Before going to the universities, the student needs to take the A-Level, same as the A-Level in Hong Kong, and apply for the universities based on the exam result.