The UK Education System: A Guide for Immigrants in the UK

Last updated on March 7th, 2024 at 04:00 pm

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Few milestones in life are as exciting as relocating to a new country, but such a bold decision is bound to bring its share of challenges, especially when you’re moving with younger children by your side.

If you’re all set to forge a new life for yourself and your family in the United Kingdom, one of your key questions may concern the UK education system. What kinds of schools are available, and how do you go about ensuring your kids secure their places? Here at Remitly, we know it can be a lot to get to grips with, so we’ve put together this quick guide to schools in the UK.

The UK Education System: A Guide for Immigrants in the UK

State vs independent schools

Looking at the UK education system in the broadest terms, there are two main categories of school:

  • State schools
  • Independent schools

State schools make up the vast majority of schools and are funded by the government, meaning children can attend for free. By contrast, independent schools do not receive money from the state, and instead, charge fees to the parents or guardians of their pupils. It’s a slightly confusing quirk of British culture that independent schools can be referred to as ‘private schools’ and ‘public schools’. That said, the term ‘public school’ is often reserved for very old, highly prestigious, and exclusive independent schools like Eton and Harrow.

Both the state and independent school systems are divided into a primary stage, for younger children, and a secondary stage. Independent primary schools are known as preparatory (‘prep’) schools.

Specific types of schools

Looking a bit closer at the UK education system, you’ll see that schools can be broken down into more specific categories. Here’s an overview of the main types.

Community schools

These are state-funded schools which are overseen by local government authorities, aren’t affiliated with businesses or religious groups, and don’t require pupils to pass entrance exams in order to attend. Such schools must follow the national curriculum of wherever they’re based in the UK, whether that’s England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

Faith schools

As the name suggests, these are schools with a religious character and are free to tailor their religious studies lessons accordingly. Faith schools can be state-run or independent, and when it comes to admissions they tend to give priority to children whose families practice the relevant religion. Aside from the greater leeway given with respect to religious studies, state-run faith schools must abide by the national curriculum.


Academies are similar to community schools, in that they’re funded by the government and are usually non-selective, meaning pupils of all academic abilities and achievements can attend. The key difference is that academies are free to do things their own way, both in terms of what and how they teach. They don’t have to follow the national curriculum, and they’re able to set their own term times. Academies can be sponsored by businesses and faith groups.

Grammar schools

These are state-run secondary schools that select their pupils through the ‘11-plus’, which is an examination usually taken in the final year of primary school. The 11-plus tests maths and English language skills, as well as a child’s ability to think constructively and solve problems. Since competition for grammar school places is fierce, parents and guardians often arrange private tutoring to prepare their kids for the 11-plus.

Applying for school places

In the UK education system, children typically start full-time primary education aged between four and five, and secondary education aged between 11 and 12. The dates and procedures for enrolling children at school will vary, depending on where you’re living and what kind of school it is.

Independent schools have their own application procedures, so you should contact them directly to see what’s involved. When it comes to state schools, parents and guardians in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will need to apply online through their local authority website (or the Education Authority website in Northern Ireland).

As part of the application process, you’ll be able to enter a list of preferred primary or secondary schools. It’s important to check exactly when online applications open and close in your specific area for children who are set to enter either primary or secondary school the following year, so you don’t miss the deadline for applications.

Things work a little differently in Scotland, where you don’t submit a list of preferences. Instead, your local authority will determine which school your children will go to, based on where you’re located (the ‘catchment area’). It is possible to request an alternative, but there’s no guarantee your request will be granted. Depending on how your local Scottish authority works, the enrolment procedure may be entirely automatic, and you’ll simply get a letter telling you which school has been selected. Check your local authority’s website to be clear on the procedure where you are.

How to choose schools in the UK - The UK Education System Guide

How to choose schools

It’s important to do some homework before submitting school preferences, looking at the following in particular.

Inspection reports

For an overview of how well schools in your area have been performing, you can check the latest official inspection reports. These are carried out by Ofsted in England, Estyn in Wales, Education Scotland in Scotland, and the Education and Training Inspectorate in Northern Ireland. The reports will touch on everything from the quality of teaching to the attitudes of the pupils to the overall ethos and morale of the staff. You can also visit schools on designated open days to see what they’re like, and get to know the teachers.

Admissions criteria

Even though most schools aren’t officially ‘selective’ when it comes to applications, there will of course be limited places available in any given year. Popular schools will get oversubscribed, so you should be clear on how they choose which children to accept. You’ll be able to read the selection criteria on local authority websites or the schools’ own websites, and you’ll note that many will give priority to kids who live close to the school or already have a sibling at that school. If you live quite far away from a very popular school, it may not be worth putting it on your list of preferences, and opt instead for schools you’re likely to have more success with – even if they aren’t your ‘ideal’ options.

Required documentation

It’s important to be clear on what documentation is required with your application. These will include proof of your address, such as recent utility bills, and proof of your child’s date of birth, such as a birth certificate or letter from a doctor. Certain schools might also require you to fill in a Supplementary Information Form (SIF) to provide extra information. For example, a Catholic school’s SIF may invite you to talk about your religious practices, where you go to church, and when your child was baptised.

Arriving in the UK with school-age children

What if you arrive in the UK with children who are already of primary or secondary school age? In this case, you’ll need to go through what’s called the “in-year” admission route for your children to get into the UK education system. This typically involves an application through your local authority’s website, although some schools need to be contacted directly. The same general advice applies in terms of looking at schools’ inspection reports and researching their admission criteria before making your in-year application.