If you’ve been to any form of school, college or university in the UK, then you’ve been a part of its education system. While that may sound like a really complicated word, it is actually really simple. It is just referring to the different stages of education that students can go through from when they start as children to much higher stages. However, the education system in the UK can feel quite complicated. This is especially as the UK is made up of 4 countries that each have slight differences in their specific education systems.
Continue reading to learn more about what makes up the UK education system. Whether you’re a student within the UK education system or someone who is simply interested, this article will break it down for you.
Table of Contents
What are the stages of education in the UK?
The UK education system can be quite hard to understand as there is so many different qualifications and levels. There are 5 main stages of education in the UK that these qualifications and levels can be sorted into. These 5 stages are also key to properly understanding how the UK education system works.
These education stages are Early Years education, primary education, secondary education, further education and higher education. For more information about the UK education system as a whole, check out this governmental guide.
The table below aims to provide an overview of the various stages of education in the UK.
|Stage of education||Key stage||School year||Age||Example qualifications|
|Nursery/ Preschool||3- 5|
Year 1 (NI)
|Key Stage 1||Year 1
Year 2 (NI)
|Key Stage 1||Year 2
Year 3 (NI)
|6- 7||SATs (England)|
|Key Stage 2||Year 3
Year 4 (NI)
|Key Stage 2||Year 4
Year 5 (NI)
|Key Stage 2||Year 5
Year 6 (NI)
|Key Stage 2||Year 6
Year 7 (NI)
|10- 11||SATs (England)|
|Secondary Education||Key Stage 3||Year 7
Year 8 (NI)
|Key Stage 3||Year 8
Year 9 (NI)
|Key Stage 3||Year 9
Year 10 (NI)
|Key Stage 4||Year 10
Year 11 (NI)
|Key Stage 4||Year 11
Year 12 (NI)
|Further Education||Key Stage 5*||Year 12*
Year 13 (NI)*
Year 14 (NI)*
Advanced Highers (Scotland)
What is Early Years education in the UK?
If you are familiar with schooling in the UK, you may be thinking of Early Years education as another name for the first year of primary school. This first year of primary school may sometimes be called Early Years but it is also known as Reception, which it will be referred to as in this article.
Reception and Early Years education are not the same thing. Early Years education begins before primary school. This is because it covers the education of children between the ages of 3 and 5. For more information, check out this guide by the Cambridgeshire County Council.
The Early Years education stage refers to the childcare and nursery education of all young children in the UK. The idea is that children will mostly learn through the use of games and play.
The specific idea of what children are supposed to learn in their Early Years education varies based on the different countries in the UK. However, all of these are done with the idea of preparing children for school and the rest of their lives.
What is primary education in the UK?
In the UK, primary level education covers students from the ages of 4 to 11. This is within primary schools, which is split up into the year groups from Year 1 to Year 6 as well as Reception in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, Reception is known as Year 1, so the year groups in primary school there are from Year 1 to Year 7.
In Scotland, these groups are named differently. Reception is instead known as P1, so primary schools in Scotland have the year groups P1 to P7, which is equivalent to Year 7 in England and Wales. For more information about primary schools in Northern Ireland and Scotland, click here and here respectively to find guides by The School Run.
In primary school, you won’t gain any official qualifications. Despite this, you may still need to do exams. At the end of primary level education in England students are expected to complete exams called SATs. While these are also done in Year 2, the ones done in Year 6 are more important as they are done before students go on to secondary school.
SATs or Standard Assessment Tests are a series of exams that students have to do. The ones done in Year 6 feature 2 maths papers, an English reading paper, a grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) paper and a spelling test. For more about SATs, check out this Think Student article.
What is secondary education in the UK?
In the UK, secondary education refers to the education of students between the ages of 11 and 16. This takes place within secondary schools, which are sometimes also known as high schools. Secondary schools are split up into year groups. These are from Year 7 to Year 11 in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the year groups are from Year 8 to Year 12.
In Scotland, there are only 4 year groups, these are S1 to S4. S1 in Scotland is equivalent to Year 8 in England and Wales, or Year 9 in Northern Ireland as primary school is longer. For more information, check out this guide by The School Run.
Unlike primary school, students can leave secondary school with qualifications. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, these qualifications are GCSEs. These are taken in the last year of secondary school, which is Year 11 or Year 12 in Northern Ireland.
While secondary school is essentially leading up to these exams, the whole way through, students will generally not start the GCSE content until they’re in Year 9 or Year 10. For more information about when you do your GCSEs, check out this Think Student article.
In Scotland, GCSEs aren’t taken at all. Instead, there are National qualifications. Normally in S4, which is the equivalent to Year 11 or Year 12 in Northern Ireland, students will get their National qualifications. These can be from National 1 to National 5, depending on what level the student is at in each subject.
At this stage, typically, students will do National 5. For this, students will have to complete formal exams that are roughly the equivalent of GCSEs. For more information about this, check out this article by Good Schools Guide. For an overview of National qualifications as a whole, check out this guide from SQA.
What education level is GCSE?
As mentioned above, GCSE level education is a part of the secondary education stage. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it marks the end of secondary education with students typically taking these exams at the end of Year 11, which is also known as Year 12 in Northern Ireland. This is also made clear as the term GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education.
What is further education in the UK?
In the UK, further education is simply when you continue to be in education after turning 16, without doing higher education, which will be explained in the section below.
In England, it is compulsory for you to be in further education until you are 18. This doesn’t apply to the rest of the UK. For more about this, check out this governmental guide on school leaving age.
There are several different types of further education qualifications that you can do, making further education a lot more flexible than the earlier stages of education. For example, you could stay in school or go to college and continue studying.
You may want to study traditional courses such as A-Levels, Highers or Advanced Highers. Alternatively, you may want to study other level 3 courses that may be more vocational, such as BTECs or T-Levels.
You could also leave school and still do other types of further education such as an apprenticeship or traineeship. These options are a lot more practical as you are learning by working.
To learn more about the level 3 courses mentioned here, click on their following links: A-Levels, Highers, BTECs, T-Levels, apprenticeships. To learn more about level 3 courses, check out its respective section below. For more information about further education, check out this article by Think Student.
What education level is sixth form or college?
Both sixth form and college are actually education providers, rather than levels of education themselves. Typically, these education providers will offer qualification that are within the further education stage. These may include A-Levels and BTECs.
For more information about what you do in sixth form college, check out this Think Student article.
While this is always the case for sixth forms, this isn’t particularly the case for colleges as some colleges offer higher education courses. Especially qualifications such as higher national certificates (HNCs) or higher national diplomas (HNDs). For more information about this, check out this governmental guide.
What is higher education in the UK?
In the UK, higher education is any type of education that is done after or beyond further education. Generally, students will be at least 18 when they reach this stage. There are many types of higher education and a range of levels.
As the name suggests, these levels of education are the highest that can be reached in terms of academia and so are much more specialised.
The lowest type of higher education is a level 4 qualification. At level 4, students may do a higher national certificate (HNC), a Higher Apprenticeship or another equivalent qualification.
While a level 8 qualification is the highest level. At this level, students may study a PhD or an alternative type of doctorate degree.
For more on PhDs and other doctorate degrees, please refer to this useful Think Student article. If you would simply like to learn more about higher education as a whole, check out this Think Student article.
What education level is university?
Similarly, to sixth forms and colleges, university is an education provider rather than an actual level of education itself. Qualifications offered by universities are typically higher education.
Although, some courses they offer may be another type of qualification altogether. These may not even be counted within the education stages or qualification levels. This is especially language courses or courses they offer online.
For example, language courses that are not part of a degree will normally be based on the CEFR levels. These levels don’t line up directly with any education stage or qualification level of the UK.
Instead, these are 6 levels that describe levels of language learning from beginner to proficient. For more information about this, check out this guide by the British Council.
While universities offer higher education qualifications, this isn’t particularly all of them. While a university may offer many qualifications from a foundation degree to a PhD, they are less likely to offer vocational courses.
For example, a national vocational qualification (NVQ) even at level 4 or above will typically be taught at a school, college or in the workplace. For more information about this, check out this article by Indeed.
What are the levels of education in the UK?
In the UK, the actual education system can be broken down into the 5 main stages that were explained above. However, there are also many other ways that education can be sorted and assigned different rankings and can be compared to one another.
One way to do this for the education of children in both primary school and secondary school is through the use of key stages. For more about key stages, check out this Think Student article.
Specific qualifications can also be further broken down into levels. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, these levels are from entry level to level 8. In Scotland with the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), these levels are from level 1 to level 12.
For more information about the qualification levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, check out this governmental guide. For more information about the SCQF levels, check out this guide by Glasgow Kelvin College. You can also look at these qualifications in comparison by looking at this guide by the SQA.
The table below attempts to simplify the education system and provide a rough overview. It’s important to note that many qualifications are missing from this table.
|Qualification level||Example qualifications||Scottish qualification level|
|Entry level (sub level 1)||National 1 qualifications||1|
|Entry level (sub level 2)||National 2 qualifications||2|
|Entry level (sub level 3)||National 3 qualifications||3|
|1||GCSE grade D-G (3-1)
BTEC Level 1
NVQ Level 1
National 4 qualifications
|2||GCSE grades A*-C (9-4)
BTEC Level 2
NVQ Level 2
National 5 qualifications
NVQ Level 3
AS & A-Levels
|4||NVQ Level 4
BTEC level 4
BTEC level 5
|6||Honours Degree (BA, BSc)
NVQ Level 7
What is an entry level qualification in the UK?
In the UK, an entry level qualification is the first level of qualification that you can get. It is split into 3 sub levels: entry level 1, entry level 2 and entry level 3. Entry level 3 is the highest of the entry level qualifications. In the Scottish SCQF levels, entry level in England, Wales and Northern Ireland covers levels 1 to 3 as it lines up with the entry level sub levels.
The idea of entry level qualifications is so that you can have a qualification that is recognised in the UK even if you’re not ready or prepared to study a higher-level qualification. For more information about these, check out this governmental guide.
What is a level 1 qualification in the UK?
A level 1 qualification is the next level up in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The equivalent of this in the SCQF levels is a level 4 qualification.
As it is a higher level, there is a bit more of a range of qualifications at level 1. For example, GCSE grades 1, 2 and 3 or between D and G are level 1, although they’re not a pass at GCSE. In Scotland, National 4 qualifications are also level 4 in the SCQF levels.
Music gradings from 1 to 3 are also ranked at level 1. This is the same with a vast range of different essential skills, functional skills, national vocational qualifications (NVQs)/ Scottish vocational qualification (SVQs), BTEC and other vocational qualifications that are offered at level 1.
For more information about the levels of BTEC qualifications, check out this Think Student article. For more examples about what is included in this level, please refer to the links above.
What is a level 2 qualification in the UK?
The next level up is a level 2 qualification. This is equivalent to a level 5 qualification in Scotland. As level 2 or level 5 qualifications are slightly more credible. This is because in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, level 2 is the level of GCSEs. In Scotland, this is the same level as National 5 qualifications.
Other qualifications at level 2 are Intermediate Apprenticeships or Modern Apprenticeships in Scotland, a range of BTECs, CTECs, NVQs and other vocational qualifications. It also includes music gradings 4 and 5.
For more information about CTEC qualifications, check out this Think Student article. For more examples of level 2 qualifications, please refer to the links above.
What is a level 3 qualification in the UK?
A level 3 qualification is once again a higher level that can help to open more opportunities, particularly with your career but also if you want to further your education. In Scotland, this is roughly equivalent to levels 6 on the Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework (SCQF) levels.
Level 3 or level 6 includes a range of qualifications, including AS and A-Levels, Highers, Advanced Apprenticeships or Foundation Apprenticeships in Scotland and T-Levels.
As well as a wide range of vocational courses, including BTECs, NVQs and SVQs. Level 3 or level 6 also include the International Baccalaureate (IB) and music grading level 6, 7 and 8.
Once again, please refer to the links above to find more examples. Also, check out this Think Student article to learn more about Advanced Apprenticeships and the other levels of apprenticeship.
What is a level 4 qualification in the UK?
A level 4 qualification marks the beginning of the higher education stage. It is roughly the equivalent to a level 7 qualification in Scotland.
This level includes qualifications such as HNCs, Higher Apprenticeships, certificates of higher education (CertHE), Advanced Highers and the Scottish Baccalaureate. It is also the equivalent to the first year at university. Also, a level 4 or 7 qualification includes a wide range of vocational qualifications, including NVQs and SVQs.
What is a level 5 qualification in the UK?
A level 5 qualification is also a part of higher education, and it is equivalent to the second year of university. In Scotland, a level 5 qualification is instead roughly a level 8 qualification.
This level includes qualifications such as HNDs, foundation degrees, diplomas of higher education (DipHE), Higher Apprenticeships both referring to Scotland and the rest of the UK and Technical Apprenticeships. Once again, there are a wide range of vocational qualifications offered at level 5 or 8.
What is a level 6 qualification in the UK?
A level 6 qualification is also a part of higher education. In comparison to the Scottish SCQF levels, it is slightly different to the other levels. This is because it is equivalent to both level 9 qualifications and level 10 qualifications.
Level 6, 9 or 10 includes many qualifications, such as a Graduate Apprenticeship, a Degree Apprenticeship, a graduate certificate or a graduate diploma. It also includes many vocational qualifications, such as NVQs or SVQs.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, an undergraduate degree, whether this is with or without honours is at level 6. However, in Scotland, an ordinary degree (without honours) is a level 9 qualification and a degree with honours is a level 10 qualification.
What is a level 7 qualification in the UK?
A level 7 qualification is an even further form of higher education. It is the equivalent to the Scottish level 11.
This is the second highest level that you can get in the UK. This level includes qualifications such as master’s degrees, integrated master’s degrees, postgraduate certificates and postgraduate diplomas.
It also includes a variety of certificates, awards and diplomas that are ranked at level 7. As well as NVQs or SVQs.
If you would like to learn more about master’s degrees, check out this Think Student article.
What is a level 8 qualification in the UK?
A level 8 qualification is the highest level of qualification that you can achieve in the UK. It is equivalent to the Scottish Credit and Qualification (SCQF) level 12, which is also the highest of these levels.
A level 8 or level 12 qualification includes doctorate degrees, including PhDs as well as a Professional Apprenticeship. It also includes certificates, awards and diplomas that are ranked at level 8.
To learn more about PhDs, check out this Think Student article. Please remember to look at the links above to learn about more examples.