Moving to the UK? Here’s the British school system explained

If you’re moving to the UK with children, the state school system is likely to be a very attractive option; it’s free, and your children will have the benefit of making local friends and immersing themselves in British culture. The British school system is quite different from the one they (and you) are accustomed to. It can be a challenge to understand a new way of learning in a different country.  That’s why we break down what you can expect, from the larger, more noticeable distinctions to the smaller variances that might nonetheless come as a surprise when your children first make the big switch.

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Age and year groups

One issue that will come up in your transition to the UK education system is what year group your child goes into. In England, children go into reception (kindergarten) at age four and begin their first official year of school at age five.

In South Africa, your young ones will have probably begun school at age six, having done Grade 0 the year before.

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The UK school system

The UK education system can seem impossibly confusing at first glance. Schools in the UK are divided into state-funded and fee-paying. State-funded schools are free of charge and are usually called primary and secondary schools. Grammar schools are state-funded secondary schools with specific admission criteria – they usually require all applicants to take a common entrance examination. Fee-paying private schools are generally called preparatory or senior schools.

Currently, the state-funded system is divided into three phases:

  • Primary: Children aged five to 11
  • Secondary: Children aged 11 to 16
  • Further: Children aged 16+ taking A-Levels, GNVQs, BTECs and other qualifications 

It is compulsory for all children in the UK to attend school in the primary and secondary phases, while further education is optional. Students who wish to attend a college or university to continue their studies after school will need to complete their further education.

We recommend you take your time when attempting to navigate the plethora of bureaucracy and differing local practices that can exist between state schools if you want to find a suitable place for your children. All will make sense in due time. 

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Exams and qualifications

In the UK, there are two important rounds of school qualifications that pupils receive during senior school, GCSEs (or International GCSEs) and A-Levels. These can be used to apply for college or university, and many employers may look for these qualifications (or their equivalents) as well. 

In years 10 and 11, students take their GCSE or International GCSE courses, with exams occurring at the end of Year 11. If they choose to progress on to further education, they will begin their AS or A-Level Courses in Year 12. The AS Courses, which are studied in Year 12, can be taken as standalone qualifications, or as part of the two-year A-level course. However, to receive full A-Level qualifications, your child will need to complete both Year 12 (AS) and Year 13 (second year of overall A-Levels). A-Levels are equivalent to the National Senior Certificate in South Africa and are required for entry into university.

The academic year

Being on the other side of the equator means the school year looks a bit different between the UK and South Africa. While South African schools usually follow the calendar year (i.e. begin in January and end in December), in the UK they typically start in September and end in July. Schools in the UK are also split into three terms, compared to the four terms standard for South African schools.

Your stress-free way into the UK

As an international team, we know what it’s like to move to a new country – we’ve done it

ourselves, several times over. Our first-hand experience has helped us create relocation packages catered towards families looking to relocate to the UK. We’re here to make every aspect of your move more convenient.

We pride ourselves on providing the highest quality, individualised solutions. No matter the reason for your move to the UK, we’re here to help. Email us at or call +44 (0) 20 7759 7536.