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The Education System in the United Kingdom: The Education System in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales

Figure A-18-1. Levels of education in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, by age and year of schooling: 2013

Levels of education in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, by age and year of schooling: 2013

1 In Northern Ireland, compulsory enrollment begins at age 4 and this year is considered as ISCED 1.
2 In Northern Ireland, there are 14 years of schooling, with year 1 beginning at the preprimary level (age 4).
NOTE: Education levels are defined according to the 1997 International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED97). Ages represent the typical age at the beginning of the school year. Numbers in bold print indicate ages of universal enrollment (i.e. an enrollment rate of over 90 percent). Numbers highlighted represent the age at which compulsory enrollment begins through the age at which compulsory enrollment ends. No meaning should be inferred from width of subdivisions. Duration of first university degree program is generally 3 years in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
SOURCE: Miller, D.C. and Warren L.K. (2011). Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2011 (NCES 2012-007). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

NOTE: There are differences among the education systems of the United Kingdom. Oversight of education in England is the responsibility of the U.K. government and of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. However, the purpose of this document is to present a brief, general summary of education in the United Kingdom. The sources cited at the end of this section provide more specific details about education in the different parts of the United Kingdom.


  • Common name: Foundation stage/phase, nursery school/class, reception class (England and Wales), day nursery
  • Ages of attendance: as early as age 2 through age 4 (England and Wales), as early as age 2 through age 3 (Northern Ireland)
  • Number of years: 1 to 3
  • Start of universal enrollment: Age 4
  • Compulsory: No

NOTE: Within the foundation stage/phase, many students in England and Wales attend a "reception class" in primary school. This is comparable to kindergarten in the United States (with academic activities).


  • Common name: Key stages 1 and 2, primary school, infant school, junior school
  • Ages of attendance: 5 through 10 (England and Wales), 4 through 10 (Northern Ireland)
  • Number of years: 6 (England and Wales), 7 (Northern Ireland)
  • Universal enrollment: Yes
  • Compulsory: Yes, begins at age 5

NOTE: The primary school years are divided into stages. In England, these are key stage 1 and key stage 2. In Wales, these are the continuation of the foundation phase and key stage 2. In Northern Ireland, these are the foundation stage, key stage 1, and key stage 2.

Lower secondary:

  • Common name: Key stage 3, secondary school (England and Wales), post-primary school (Northern Ireland), grammar school (England and Northern Ireland)
  • Ages of attendance: 11 through 13
  • Number of years: 3
  • Universal enrollment: Yes
  • Compulsory: Yes
  • Entrance/exit criteria: No (for England and Wales, except for a small number of grammar schools in England). Yes (for grammar schools in Northern Ireland).

NOTE: Most secondary schools combine lower and upper secon-dary education, catering to pupils ages 11 to either 15 (graduation at 16) or 17 (graduation at 18).

Upper secondary:

  • Common name: Key stage 4 (first 2 years), sixth form (fina 2 years), secondary school, post-primary school (Northern Ireland), grammar school (England and Northern Ireland), sixth form college (England, final 2 years only), further educ-ation college (final 2 years only)
  • Ages of attendance: 14 through 17 (graduation at age 18)
  • Number of years: 4
  • Universal enrollment: Through age 16
  • Compulsory: Through age 15
  • Entrance/exit criteria: At the end of the first 2 years of upper secondary education (key stage 4), students take General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs), a series of single-subject externally certificated qualifications. GCSEs are at level 2 of the national qualifications framework and provide access to level 3 programs, such as the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced levels (A levels) in the final 2 years of upper secondary education (sixth form).

NOTE: For the post-compulsory upper secondary phase, students apply for a specific program at a secondary school, sixth form college, or further education college. Programs that provide access to higher education are at level 3 of the national qualifications framework and include both academic and vocationally oriented programs. There are also training and apprenticeship programs, which incorporate part-time study at a college or with a training provider. GCE A levels form the biggest group of academic programs. They are single-subject qualifications that may be studied in any combination within the limitations of a school's or college's resources. Students typically take three or four subjects in the first year of study to gain the intermediary AS qualification (separately certified) and then continue with three of these subjects to gain full A levels in them after the second year of study. Admission to higher education programs is made on the basis of subjects/grades in A levels (or equivalent qualifications) and subjects/grades at GCSE, together with a personal statement and a confidential reference. Additional admissions tests and interviews are used for a few highly competitive, creative, or care-related course programs, such as teaching and medicine.

Postsecondary and tertiary:

  • Common name: Higher education institution, college, university
  • Ages of attendance: Varies
  • Number of years: Varies according to degree
  • Universal enrollment: No
  • Entrance criteria: GCE Advanced levels (A levels) or its equivalent

Common degree programs:

  • Certificates of higher education, Higher National Certificate: 1-year program, often with a vocational orientation.
  • Foundation degree, Diploma of Higher Education, Higher National Diploma: 2-year program, often with a vocational orientation.
  • Bachelor's degree: 3- or 4-year academic programs at colleges or universities: 3-year programs are more common; 4-year programs typically incorporate a placement year. Most programs lead to the award of a degree with honors, graded on a 4-point scale, although "ordinary" degrees (i.e., without honors) also exist. An honors degree is an entrance requirement for most graduate programs.
  • Advanced short programs: Short programs up to a year in length, for students who have already acquired a bachelor's degree. Some are at the same academic level as a bachelor's degree (e.g., graduate certificates), and some are at the same level as a master's degree (e.g., postgraduate certificates) Programs lead to a professional qualification (for example, the Postgraduate Certificate of Education/Qualified Teacher Status [PGCE/QTS] is for teachers).
  • Master's degree: 1 year or more beyond an honors bachelor's degree or a teaching or research postgraduate degree. There are also some 4-year integrated master's degrees in scientific, engineering, and mathematical subjects that span the bachelor's and master's levels.
  • Doctorate: Research-oriented postgraduate degree. Minimum of 3 years in duration.

NOTE: Training for some professions consists of an undergraduate program leading to a specialist degree recognized by the relevant professional or statutory body. In the case of medicine, this is a 5-year program that spans bachelor's and master's level study, but for historical reasons is titled bachelor's. This is followed by further professional training, but not necessarily by a further academic degree.


Eurydice. (2013). Eurydice Highlights: The Structure of the European Education Systems 2012/13. Brussels: Eurydice. Retrieved March 22, 2013, from

Marlow-Ferguson, R. (Ed.) (2002). World Education Encyclopedia: A Survey of Educational Systems Worldwide, Vol. 1 (2nd ed.). Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (1996). Education at a Glance 1996: OECD Indicators. Paris: Author.

Robitaille, D.F. (1997). National Contexts for Mathematics and Science Education: An Encyclopedia of the Education Systems Participating in TIMSS. Vancouver, Canada: Pacific Educational Press.