Education in the UK

This civilisation landmark provides a general overview of the education system in the United Kingdom.

By the end of this activity you will know the path students will follow from the moment they go to school when they are three years old until they leave university.


Front court of King's College, University of Cambridge. Image from

NOTE: hover over words in blue for additional information


The Scottish Parliament and the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland have power over their own education system.

The compulsory school age is between the ages of 5 (4 in Northern Ireland) and 16. In England, compulsory education or training has been extended to 18 for those born on or after 1 September 1997.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) currently ranks the overall knowledge and skills of British 15-year-olds as 13th in the world (France is ranked as 26th).

The National Curriculum

Education in the UK follows the National Curriculum, which was introduced by the British government under the Education Reform Act (1988).

The education system in the United Kingdom varies in important respects between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Parliament and the assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland have power over their own education system.

At the age of 16, students write an examination called the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education, or O-level). All students are tested in mathematics, English, chemistry, biology, physics, history, one modern language, and one other subject, such as art or computer studies. A distinct but similar system exists in Scotland.

The A-level, short for Advanced Level, is a General Certificate of Education qualification in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, usually taken by students during the optional final two years of secondary school [Years 12 & 13 (usually ages 16-18)], commonly called the Sixth Form, after they have completed GCSE exams. The qualification is recognized around the world and is used as a sort of entrance exam for some universities.

A-level math test pack

Many companies sell programmes to prepare for the A-level test. Image from

Undergraduate studies (before the Bachelor’s Degree)

  • Bachelor’s degree
    A bachelor's degree is an undergraduate academic degree awarded for a course or major that generally lasts for three years. The degrees awarded carry a designation related to the broad subject area such as BA (Bachelor of Arts), BSc (Bachelor of Science), BEng (Bachelor of Engineering), etc.

  • Honours
    A degree may be awarded with or without honours, with the class of an honours degree based on the average mark of the assessed work a candidate has completed. Below is a list of the possible classifications with common abbreviations.
    • First-Class Honours (First or 1st)
    • Upper Second-Class Honours (2:1)
    • Lower Second-Class Honours (2:2)
    • Third-Class Honours (Third or 3rd)
    • Ordinary degree (Pass)
    • Fail (no degree is awarded)

Undergraduates UK

British undergraduate students. Image from


Three-year-olds start their education at kindergartens.

"Marks" are the points obtained by students. They usually range from 0 to 100.

The GCSE (a.k.a. "A-Level") is equivalent to the French Baccalaureat.

Some universities require the A-level test to study with them.

Scotland does not adhere to GCSE, but it has a similar system.

The Bachelor's degree is equivalent to the French Licence.

Research Masters are usually longer than taught Masters.

PhD students are usually required to finish their theses in four years.



1. What type of school do British children go to when they are three years old?

2. How old do you have to be to leave school in England?

3. When was the current national curriculum approved?

4. What is the O-Level?

5. What is the A-Level?

6. Is there an official test to enter university in the UK?

7. What is a bachelor's degree?

8. What is a 2:1?

9. What is the difference between a BA and a BSc?

10. Why is an MRes longer than an MSc?

11. What is a PhD?

12. What may happen if doctorate students do not submit their theses in 4 years?

Secondary school students wearing uniform

Secondary school students wearing uniform. Image from

Oxford v Cambridge boat race

The famous Oxford vs Cambridge boat race. Image from

Postgraduate studies (after the Bachelor's Degree)

  • Master’s degree
    It is becoming increasingly common to skip the Bachelor's stage entirely and go straight to Masters level on a four year course (five years if with industrial experience), which often shares the first two years with the equivalent Bachelor's course.
    In the UK, Master's degrees may be taught or by research: taught Master's include the MSc (Science) and MA (Arts) degrees whereas the Master's by research degrees include the MRes (Master of Research) the difference compared to the MA/MSc being that the research is much more extensive.

  • Doctorate
    Doctor of Philosophy, abbreviated Ph.D. or PhD for the Latin Philosophiæ Doctor, meaning "teacher of philosophy", is an advanced academic degree awarded by universities. It applies to graduates in a wide array of disciplines in the sciences and humanities.
    Funding typically lasts for three or four years full-time at the end of which the thesis is submitted. Since the early 1990s, the UK funding councils have adopted a policy of penalising the departments of students who fail to submit their theses in four years (or equivalent) by reducing the number of funded places in subsequent years.

Graphic explanation of the education system in the UK.

UK education chart

Image from


1. Kindergarten.
2. Eighteen years old if you were born after 1997.
3. In 1988.
4. It is another name for the GCSE, or General Certificate of Secondary Education.
5. It means "Advanced Level" and it is a General Certificate of Education qualification in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. It is the equivalent to Baccalauréat in France.

6. No, but some universities require the A-Level.
7. It is an undergraduate academic degree equivalent to "licence" in France.
8. Upper Second-Class Honours, usually between 70% and 79% of the total points.
9. BA is a Bachelor of Arts and BSc is a Bachelor of Science.

10. Because it includes teaching and research.
11. A doctorate. If you complete this, you become a Doctor of Philosophy.
12. Departments may be penalised by sponsors, which means less money for research.


2 Rue de la Houssinière
Building 2 - Office 109
Nantes 44322 cedex 3