Understanding Education in the UK and the British School System

Understanding Education in the UK and the British School System

Many TEFOL/ESOL course books refer to the school and education system in Britain in various contexts for different ages and levels of ability. A lot of TEFL/ESOL teachers around the world originate from Britain and can talk from first hand experience of the British system. But not everyone can do that. In any case, the education system of Britain and the schools where lessons are taught are often changing and evolving. First hand knowledge and experience can soon become dated.

In this article we will begin with an overview of the British Education system as it stands in 2022, which could be used as a reading comprehension exercise in its own right. (A paired gap text version of the text is available to download at the end of this post). We will then suggest some interesting ways in which references to the English Education system could be integrated into your TEFL/ESOL syllabus.

An Overview of the British Education System

The first thing to note is that there is no such thing as a British Education system. The four individual countries of the United Kingdom each have their own system and educational policies. Wales tends to follow the English system quite closely, but Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own unique structures and procedures. In this article we will concentrate on the English system simply because England has by far the largest student population of the four countries.

 In England education is compulsory and free of charge from the age of five until the age of eighteen. Some parents choose to send younger children to Nursery School or Kindergarten from the age of three or four. After 18, some students continue with further education. Academic degree courses mostly take place in universities while colleges cater for more vocational courses.

The school day varies in different parts of England but is usually roughly between 9am and 3 or 4pm. Many schools incorporate a lunch hour during which pupils can obtain hot or cold food to eat in school. Most schools have a compulsory school uniform or dress code.

Types of School in the UK

Primary education is usually divided into Infant School for 5 and 6-year-olds, and Junior School for 7 to 11 year olds.

At age 11 pupils start Secondary school. There are two main types of Secondary School. Most students go to a Comprehensive School which caters for students of all abilities. In theory parents can choose which school to send their children to, but in practice it often depends on places available in a given geographical area. Some students attend a Grammar school for which they often have to pass an entrance exam. Grammar schools generally cater for more academically inclined students. In both these types of school students have to study the National Curriculum.

 In England education is compulsory and free of charge from the age of five until the age of eighteen. Some parents choose to send younger children to Nursery School or Kindergarten from the age of three or four. After 18, some students continue with further education. Academic degree courses mostly take place in universities while colleges cater for more vocational courses.

The school day varies in different parts of England but is usually roughly between 9am and 3 or 4pm. Many schools incorporate a lunch hour during which pupils can obtain hot or cold food to eat in school. Most schools have a compulsory school uniform or dress code.

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The National Curriculum

The National Curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so that children learn the same things in all parts of the country. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject. There are three core subjects, English, Mathematics and Science plus Physical Education (sport) which students have to study all through their school career. There are other foundation subjects such as Computing, History and Geography which students must study until the age of 14. From the age of 11 to 16 students also have to study Citizenship.

In most subjects the National Curriculum is divided into four Key Stages and students are tested at each of the four levels to check they have achieved the required standards. These National Curriculum Tests are still usually known as SATs (Standard Assessment Tests).

There are also some Private Schools (where parents have to pay) and schools, such as Academies and Free Schools, which are able to opt out of the national curriculum and specialise in particular subjects, although academies must also teach English, Maths and Science.

The main school leaving exams that English students take are GCSE ‘O’ Levels at age 16, and GCSE ‘A’Levels or the IB (International Baccalaureate) at age 18. You need ‘A’ levels or an IB to enter university. Universities set their own entry requirements each year depending on what courses they are able to offer and how many spaces they have. The number of ‘A’ levels each applicant has and the grades they achieve in each subject are taken into account.

For more in depth information about the English national curriculum and details about what is taught in every subject visit the government site.

Practical Ideas

So now we have an overview of education in Britain what can we pick out that might be interesting, relevant, and useful in an English Language lesson?

Penfriends and Partner Schools

One of the best contexts within which to talk about the British School System is via personal experience. Does your school have a partner school in Britain? If not, could you and your class try to organise something as a class project? You can then exchange questions and answers with real people through letters, emails, social media or apps like Zoom or Teams. This is an excellent way to find out about the daily life of students in Britain. For example, your students could discover what time and how their British contemporaries get to school, the relationship between students and teachers, how they feel about wearing a uniform, how much homework they have to do or what their long-term educational aspirations are. As an alternative you might already find schools, teachers or pupils in the UK who provide YouTube videos or podcasts about their school life.

Compare & Contrast

Across the age and ability range, school and education in the U.K. can be compared and contrasted with the educational framework in their own country. At a simple level they can, for example, use basic adjectives to say where the school day is longer or shorter, whether British students have to study more or fewer subjects, and whether it is easier or harder to be a student at home or in England. Intermediate and advanced students can use more complicated forms to compare and contrast school buildings at home and in the U.K. and classroom designs and layout. In many of the following suggestions the ability to compare and to describe similarities and differences using English, are key.

Cultural References

  • Food. It is very common for English children to have their midday meal at school. Is that the same in your student’s home country? Why/Why not? In Britain the reasons students have lunch at school are historic and political. Perhaps you could find out what English schoolchildren are most likely to eat at school. Could you organise a School-Dinners project within your class in which you invite your students to research and recreate typical English school meals? If you are teaching in Britain maybe you could organise a visit to a local school.
  • Citizenship. For several years Citizenship has been a compulsory subject for English students over 14 years of age. In Citizenship Lessons students learn about law and politics and about the rights and responsibilities they have as citizens of The United Kingdom. Do you think this is a good idea? Do you have similar lessons in your own school? If not, what would your students suggest including in such lessons? This could be a rich topic for oral debate or written assignments for older students.
  • Diversity. Within ‘Citizenship’ lessons there are frequent references to diversity in the country and in the school. There is an emphasis on equality and respect in matters of race, religion, sexuality and gender identification. A visit to most English schools will quickly confirm that the English classroom is a very culturally diverse environment. Is this the same where you live? Again, references to British schools and education can be a jumping-off point for wider discussion of diversity and multiculturalism.
  • Uniform. Most English schoolchildren have to wear a uniform. The pros and cons of uniforms can form the basis some interesting class debates. Moreover, describing uniforms can provide a useful revision of vocabulary for clothing and descriptive adjectives and phrases. You could instigate some project work in which students have to design (and perhaps even make) an imaginary uniform, perhaps taking environmental issues into account. Most school uniforms include a badge with a crest or design on it. Students often enjoy designing their own badges, the English element of such an activity can be explaining what the various elements of the badge mean or represent. For older students it might be interesting to look more deeply into the historical and political aspects of British school uniforms
  • Exams. It should be possible to get hold of old ‘O’ Level and ‘A’ Level exam papers from England. These can be used to supplement materials you are already using to revise for your own exams but can also be used to give an insight into what British students are required to know and do. Your students might be surprised at some of the differences.
  • Subjects. While your students might be familiar with the English names of subjects studied at school it can be useful to get them to define and explain them in English. Subjects of the curriculum are also good candidates for anagrams and vocabulary guessing games.
  • Universities and further education. Your students might be interested to know about routes and pathways to Higher Education in The United Kingdom. Some of them might even want to study in Britain. Euroeducation.net provides a useful guide including information about types of higher education institutions, degree courses and other branches of study, admission requirements, the curriculum and teaching methods used at British Higher Education establishments. You can find the guide here.

We hope this article has given you some ideas which could be integrated into the TEFL/ESOL course you are teaching your students. We are always happy to receive feedback and further suggestions in the comments.

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Many TEFOL/ESOL course books refer to the school and education system in Britain in various contexts for different ages and levels of ability. A lot of TEFL/ESOL teachers around the world originate from Britain and can talk from first hand experience of the British system. But not everyone can do that. In any case, the education system of Britain and the schools where lessons are taught are often changing and evolving. First hand knowledge and experience can soon become dated.

This worksheet is a paired gap text version of one of our blog posts, Understanding Education in the UK - which can be used as a reading comprehension exercise in its own right.


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