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Studying in a British school

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Primary and Secondary education in the UK

British public schools, sometimes referred to as private or independent schools, are considered some of the best in the world. Alongside excellent academic teaching, they offer a well-rounded approach to education and encourage students to flourish inside and outside the classroom. Public schools boast outstanding music, arts and sports facilities and offer wonderful environments for children to develop their academic and extracurricular interests.

A child can start school at any age, but the most common ages to join are 7 years-old, for prep school, 11 or 13 for ‘secondary school’ or 16 years old for Sixth Form. To be accepted into the most prestigious public schools, children must normally apply at least a year in advance.

To see our interactive graph explaining how Primary and Secondary education fit into the entire UK education system click here.

Selecting a school

Choosing the right school for a child can be a difficult and overwhelming process, especially when the school is in a foreign country. Parents can either do the research, selection and applying independently, or get in touch with an educational consultant who helps save time and hassle by equipping with all the information you need to make the right decision for your child.

Alongside the academic reputation of a school, which is reflected in the league tables, there are many factors to consider when choosing which schools to apply to. Parents must firstly choose between day schools, which tend to be in cities where children live with their families, or boarding schools, where students live on the school grounds for most of the year.

Secondly, parents need to decide whether their chosen school will be boys-only, girls-only or co-educational. Some argue single-sex schools allow children to focus more on their academic, sporting and artistic achievements, and they form the majority of schools at the top of the league tables. On the other hand, there is a strong argument that children should learn from an early age to interact with the opposite sex in the educational environment, and there are many fantastic mixed schools in the UK.

Other factors to consider are the sports and art facilities, living arrangements, location, proportion of international students and class size. If the child is planning to go on to study at university after completing their secondary education, it could also be useful to look at a school’s university admission statistics. If the goal is to give your child an all-round, comprehensive education then take into account what the school has to offer in terms of extracurricular activities and sports. If you want your child to specialise and develop a certain skill, be it sports, music or art, then consideration should be given to one of the many specialist schools that the UK has to offer.

Teaching in British public schools

The school year is split into three terms, each 11 to 13 weeks long, and lasts from September to July. There is a three-week holiday at Christmas and Easter, and also a 7 to 10 day long ‘half-term’ break during each term. British public schools have various special features which enable their high standard of teaching:

  • Small class sizes ensure a personal approach to teaching and one-to-one interaction with every student. Public school teachers are often among the best in the country, and are skilled at creating rewarding and engaging learning environments.
  • Excellent classroom facilities also promote ideal educational settings, whether in advanced science laboratories and IT suites or with iPads and whiteboards for more traditional subjects.
  • Sport and Art play an important role in children’s education. Most schools have facilities that accommodate a range of sports, from swimming and gymnastics to cricket and football. There are also well-equipped arts, drama and music rooms, with extra private teaching offered in a variety of instruments and lots of extracurricular clubs from acting and drawing to languages and computer coding.
  • School trips also offer the chance for students to develop their passions and increase their knowledge beyond the classroom. Many offer language exchanges to foreign countries, history and geography trips to destinations covered in the curriculum and even sports and music tours or hiking trips around the world.

Achieving a place

In order to be admitted into a public school children must pass entrance exams, which generally comprise of an English Language and Mathematics test. However, when applying for Sixth Form the school may ask the child to take a test in each of the four subjects they intend to study. If the test result is satisfactory, the child is invited for an interview, either face-to-face or by telephone. The final decision is made based on the results of the test and interview.

All schools dictate their own entrance exams. The tests for the most prestigious schools are geared towards selecting the most gifted and capable students and there is often fierce competition among prospective students to secure a place. Some schools run their own assessment tests, while others accept the results of independently administered exams like the UKIset, CAT or IELTS. In either case, it is generally necessary for students to work hard to study and prepare for the exams, with a particular focus on English and Maths.

Children whose English may need improvement before their application can take a preparatory language course at the International Study Centre, which sometimes forms a part of the school. A child can spend between several months and up to two years at the International Study Centre depending on how much improvement is required, after which the student is able to join the main school.


According to The Children Act of 1989 every child who comes to the UK to study for a period longer than 12 weeks must have a guardian. The guardian is legally responsible for the child and must be formally appointed by the parents of the student. A guardian can be a family friend, relative or someone who parents trust to take responsibility for their child. As an AEGIS-accredited organisation, if required UK Study Centre can offer guardianship services to parents. See our guide to guardianship responsibilities for more information.

How can we help

We understand that the process of selecting and applying to a UK secondary school can be confusing at the best of times. Our consultants have a wealth of experience with which to help you ease the process and their expert understanding of the UK education system enables them to ensure you make the right decision for your child.

Once you have narrowed down your choices, we can also support your admission further by arranging tuition in preparation for entrance exams and extra help with English language skills.

Call us on 0203 397 7744 or send us an enquiry to discuss your options further.

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