The British Education System
What is an independent school?
In the UK education system, schools are either state schools funded by government and are free for all pupils, or they are independent schools and charge fees to the parents of the pupils. Almost all the schools taking part in the HMC Projects Scholarship Scheme are independent schools. In the United Kingdom, independent schools have an excellent reputation for high standards of teaching and learning and almost all pupils go on to prestigious universities when they leave. There are also many excellent state schools, three of which award scholarships through HMC Projects. Scholarships to state schools can only be offered to students from countries in the EU.
Is the UK education system the same in every school?
There are fundamental similarities in the UK education system. For instance, all boys and girls must attend full-time education until the age of 16. Many pupils stay on at school after that age to prepare themselves for university or other careers. In the independent schools, most pupils stay at school until the age of 18 and nearly all pupils go on to university after they leave school.
There are also significant divergences between practice in England and Wales, on the one hand, and in Scotland.
In England and Wales, the government introduced a National Curriculum in 1988. This provides a framework for education between the ages of 5 - 18. All UK state schools are required to follow it. Independent schools are not required to follow the National Curriculum in every detail, but they must show that they provide a good all-round education and they are inspected regularly every few years.
How does National Curriculum work?
The National Curriculum in England and Wales is constructed in five Key Stages:
- Key Stage 1 - Foundation year and Years 1 to 2 - for pupils aged between 5 and 7 years old
- Key Stage 2 - Years 3 to 6 - for pupils aged between 8 and 11 years old
- Key Stage 3 - Years 7 to 9 - for pupils aged between 12 and 14 years old,
- Key Stage 4 - Years 10 to 11 - for pupils aged between 15 and 16 years old, and
- Key Stage 5 - Years 12 to 13 - for pupils aged between 17 and 18 years old.
In state schools each year that a pupil studies is given a number. Primary education starts in Year 1. Most pupils begin their secondary education at the age of 11 (Year 7), but in some HMC schools pupils join the school at 13+ (Year 9). At the age of 16 (the end of Key Stage 4 and Year 11), all pupils take a series of exams called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), usually in about eight to ten subjects, which must include English and Mathematics. Key Stage 5 is for pupils aged 16-18 (sometimes 19) and most schools take Advanced Level exams after a two-year course.
Almost all HMC Projects Scholars enter the first year of Key Stage 5. All pupils entering Year 12 (of the thirteen years of the National Curriculum) are beginning new courses at this point in their education.
In Scotland, where school years are named differently, pupils move to secondary education at the age of 12 (S1). At the age of 16 (S4) they take exams called Standard Grades and then move on to Highers and Advanced Highers in years S5 and S6. These are very similar to the English Advanced Subsidiary and Advanced Level courses.
How many subjects do HMC Projects scholars study?
The majority of HMC Projects scholars will study on the Advanced level programme but a small number will study on the International Baccalaureate or Scottish Higher programmes.
- i) Advanced levels: For the Advanced Level programme (Key Stage 5), nearly all pupils study three or, exceptionally, four subjects for two years and take examinations in these only at the end of the second year. They may also take one or even two additional subjects for one year only at Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level and take examinations in these at the end of the year. Some schools will offer examinations at AS level to pupils in those subjects they are studying for A level at the end of the first year of the two-year course. Universities use Advanced Levels as entry qualifications.
- ii) Scottish Highers: Students will take at least five subjects at Higher Level, reducing to three or four for their Advanced Higher courses.
- iii) International Baccalaureate (IB): Increasing numbers of HMC schools are taking pupils for the International Baccalaureate, which is a parallel course to Advanced Levels and equally well used by universities for entry qualifications. The IB requires students to take courses in six subjects, three at standard level and three at higher level. Students are also required to take a course in the theory of knowledge, to write a long essay and to undertake some community service. This course is very similar to the Baccalaureate courses which are commonly studied in Europe.
The pie chart above shows the relative number of scholarship places provided by schools through HMC Projects for A level (blue), IB (red) and Scottish Highers (green).
How is the daily timetable organised?
Each UK school organises its timetable differently. Lessons might last 35, 40, 45, 55 or 60 minutes! For each subject, a student will attend classes for about 5 hours a week, and is also expected to undertake at least 6 hours private study. Students will usually also attend classes in General Studies, or Philosophy, or other similar subjects. There will also be time given to Physical Education or Sport, whether or not these are taken as subjects for studying. In England and Wales and in some Scottish schools the two years of Advanced Level, or International Baccalaureate study are often called "Sixth Form", but - once again - each school is different!
What activities are organised outside lessons?
Along with sport, schools offer a substantial programme of "extra-curricular activities"; that is, activities which are able to offer students a wide range of experiences, intellectual, cultural and relaxing. Music, drama, science and literary societies are offered in all schools, and there will be opportunities for outdoor education and other leisure activities. Visits to theatres and concerts, to places relevant to the courses of study (such as art galleries and museums, religious centres or historical sites, scientific companies and projects) are all part of life in a school Sixth Form.
Will the qualifications obtained in the UK be recognised back in my own country?
You will need to check with your own country's education authorities, and your country's universities to find out if they recognise and give credit for UK qualifications. Many do, but you need to ask about this in your own country. A process of nostrification of UK qualifications may be required in your own country.
Can I study for my own National examinations during the period of my scholarship in the UK?
You must check with your own country's rules about taking your national exams including whether you can sit them in the UK under supervision or whether you should return to your country to take them. You can certainly study for your home country's exams while you are in the UK, but you need to think carefully about how much extra work that will involve.
Will my qualifications that I get in the UK help me to enter a British university?
Yes, but you will need to consider carefully the fees which British Universities will charge. These are more than double the cost to UK students. Students with an EU passport are no longer entitled to the same level of fees as UK students nor are they eligible for student loans. This change came into effect from 1st January 2021. It is not uncommon for a scholar to have to decline a very attractive offer from some of the finest universities in the UK, like Oxford or Cambridge, simply because the tuition fees are unaffordable. Visa requirements are also different for students at universities in the UK from those you may have dealt with as a school scholarship student. Some careful research is necessary!