There are many different ways of marking the stages of education children go through in the UK. The first way that may come to mind is primary and secondary schooling, which can then be split further into year groups. Although, as with much of education, the details vary between areas of the UK, primary school is typically from Reception up to Year 6. This is followed by secondary school, from Year 7 to Year 11, and many people go on to a sixth form or college education in Years 12 and 13.
However, there are many other ways of further classifying these phases, such as qualifications being studied, or key stages. It can often be difficult to tell where these fit in, and what year groups align with which key stages.
In England and Wales, KS4 (key stage 4) is made up of Year 10 and Year 11 – so Year 10 is indeed part of KS4. In Northern Ireland, the year system works differently so Year 10 in Northern Ireland is Year 9 in England and Wales. Due to this, Year 10 in Northern Ireland is not KS4. In Scotland, school groups are not called Year 1, Year 2 etc. but are given letters (e.g., P1 for the first year of primary school and S1 for the first year of secondary), and match slightly differently to key stages.
This article will explain in more detail what the different key stages are, and how they fit with year groups and ages of students in the UK.
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What is KS4?
In England and Wales key stage 4 is defined by the Education Act 2002, as the period from the start of the school year when most students turn fifteen, to the end of the school year when most students are no longer of compulsory school age, which at the time was 16. Simply put, this means that key stage 4 is two school years, during which students are between the ages of 14 and 16. In England and Wales, this is made up of Year 10 and 11. Therefore, Year 10 is part of KS4 with students generally aged 14 to 15.
For more information about this, check out this governmental page.
What is KS4 in Northern Ireland and Scotland?
Where some confusion arises is when talking about other parts of the UK. Key stage 4 in Northern Ireland is made up of Year 11 and Year 12, because, as mentioned, the first school year in Northern Ireland is Year 1, not Reception. Year 10 is not considered part of KS4 in Northern Ireland, but part of the previous key stage (KS3).
In Scotland, although the school years do not fully align to year groups in the rest of the country, key stage 4 is generally considered to be S3 and S4.
What are students studying in KS4?
‘Key stage’ can sound like an abstract term. It often makes more sense to consider how old students are (which is 14 to 16 for KS4 as mentioned), and what they are studying. Most students in the UK are preparing for their GCSE exams in two-year courses throughout key stage 4, taking their final exams during May and June of the second year of KS4 (Year 11 in England and Wales).
For more information about what students study in KS4, look at this governmental guide.
There are some exceptions to this – some schools start teaching GCSE content the year before KS4 starts, and a few students sit GCSE exams earlier than Year 11. Of course, some students sit equivalent exams, such as National 5s in Scotland, or BTECs across the country. But in general, it is still useful to remember KS4 as the stage where students study for and sit GCSEs.
For more information about equivalent qualifications, check out this guide by Indeed.
What are the other key stages?
Key stages 1 & 2 (KS1 & KS2)
The first two key stages make up a student’s primary education. Key stage 1 includes school years up to the year children turn 7, which is Year 2 in England and Wales. Key stage 2 is the longest key stage, consisting of the next four years – this is Year 3 to 6 in England and Wales, which takes students to the end of primary school.
During this time, students typically study the national curriculum. Although there are no major qualifications in primary school, there are still assessments to check students’ progress, for example, SATs are tests taken in Year 2 and Year 6 in England and Wales. Look at this page of the government website for a more detailed guide to the national curriculum, including what students are learning at various stages, and how they are assessed.
Key stage 3 (KS3)
As well as KS4, the other main key stage that makes up secondary education is key stage 3. As you may expect, this comes directly before KS4, however, it encompasses three school years, not two. In England and Wales, this is made up of Years 7, 8 and 9, while in Northern Ireland, it includes Years 8, 9 and 10. Students are aged between 11 and 14. Generally, the start of KS3 marks the start of secondary school, although in some areas which have a system including middle school, this is not the case.
In key stage 3, students are typically studying the national curriculum. Although some schools, including private schools, are not legally required to follow this programme of education, they tend to teach a similar range of subjects. For more about the curriculum of private schools, check out this article from Think Student.
This involves the core subjects you would expect, including maths, English and science. Schools are also required to teach subjects including modern foreign languages and computing during key stage 3. This is to ensure students get a detailed, varied education that prepares them for further study, which is often GCSEs or equivalent qualifications. For more information about what students study in KS3, look at this governmental guide.
Key stage 5 (KS5)
KS5 is the final key stage, after which students have finished school. Students are aged between 16 and 18, which is Year 12 and 13 in England and Wales, Year 13 and 14 in Northern Ireland, and S5 and S6 in Scotland. While these two years are considered part of secondary education, they are often slightly separate to the main school, and are known as sixth form or college. This is also the only optional key stage – some students leave school after key stage 4.
Although you legally have to remain in some form of education or training until the age of 18 in England, this does not have to be in a school setting – post-16 education may also be in the form of an apprenticeship. During this stage, most of the students who remain in school study and sit the exams for A-Level qualifications, or equivalent exams such as BTECs. Look at this Think Student article for other alternatives to A-Levels. For more information about school leaving age, look at this governmental guide.
How do school years and key stages match up?
As you may have noticed, there are lots of different aspects to stages of education in the UK! With 14 school years and 5 key stages, it can be hard to keep track of how everything fits together. This table summarises the years of secondary education in different areas of the UK.
|School year (England and Wales)||School year (Northern Ireland)||School year (Scotland)||Age||Key stage||Studying*|
|7||8||P7||11 to 12||3||National curriculum|
|8||9||S1||12 to 13||3||National curriculum|
|9||10||S2||13 to 14||3||National curriculum|
|10||11||S3||14 to 15||4||GCSEs|
|11||12||S4||15 to 16||4||GCSEs|
|12||13||S5||16 to 17||5||A-Levels|
|13||14||S6||17 to 18||5||A-Levels|
* While this is what most students in this stage will be studying, there is a proportion of students studying equivalent qualifications, such as BTECs and T-Levels. Additionally, not all schools are required to follow the national curriculum in key stage 3 – private schools and academies have more freedom over what they teach, as mentioned above.