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The UK independent school system, explained

By Talk Education
05 January 2022

Whether you’re dipping your toe into the British independent school system for the first time, or you’ve recently relocated from abroad, getting to grips with a child’s educational journey can be a challenge. We’ve unpicked the jargon to bring you the key points you need to know… 

What is an independent school?

In the UK, an ‘independent school’ is a fee-paying school, independent of local or central-government control. Some are privately owned (hence the generic synonym ‘private schools’). Many independent schools are charitable trusts, overseen by a board of governors. 

Junior schools within the independent sector tend to be known as ‘prep schools’, while senior schools are often called ‘public schools’. Here at Talk Education, we don’t use this term (or ‘private school’) because we feel it’s confusing (in the US, for example, ‘public schools’ are funded by the public – what we would call ‘state schools’). 

The benefits of an independent school are plentiful; pupils benefit from specialist teaching, small class sizes, shiny facilities and brilliant co-curricular opportunities. 

The educational journey: key points

Independent schools in the UK can be co-educational or single-sex. That said, single-sex senior schools (particularly all-boys) are becoming more of a dying breed, with many turning co-educational or welcoming girls in the sixth form. 

Schools are usually specifically tailored to a certain stage of a child’s educational journey:

  • Nursery school. Pre-schools where children can start aged two or three (please note – these are different from day nurseries, where children can start as early as three months). Nursery schools tend to offer morning or afternoon sessions initially; children build up to full days in readiness to start school, usually in the September of the year they turn four.
  • Pre-prep school. Pre-prep schools are for children aged four to seven, from Reception up to Year 2 (or sometimes to Year 3 – age eight). Exit will be either 7+ or 8+, or children will move seamlessly into a linked prep school. 
  • Prep school. Prep schools may be for children aged four to eleven (Reception to Year 6); four to thirteen (Reception to Year 8); seven to thirteen (Year 3 to Year 8); or eight to thirteen (Year 4 to Year 8), with exit at either 11+ or 13+, or alternatively transferring seamlessly into a linked senior school. From Years 5 to 8, children are introduced to more specialist teaching in preparation for their exit to senior school.
  • Senior school. Pupils move to senior school at Year 7 after having sat an 11+ exam, or at Year 9 at 13+. Years  7 to 8 tend to be grouped in lower school, the GCSE years (Years 9 to 11) as middle school, and Years 12 to 13 as sixth form. Traditionally, boys move from their prep schools to senior schools at age thirteen, and many established schools have continued with this tradition. Some senior schools only go as far as GCSEs, so pupils will have to head elsewhere for A-levels or equivalent qualifications.
Some independent schools are all-through, where children can start aged three or four and continue there until they are eighteen, often with seamless transfer (no selective exams) between each stage. Most pupils will stay with the school from beginning to end. There are likely to be additional entry points to the school.

The UK school academic year is made up of three terms and runs from September to July, with a one to two week break every half term, and two to three weeks off for the Christmas and Easter holidays.

The admissions process

The admissions process can vary hugely from school to school: some require you to sign up at birth, some have very specific registration dates (which you must stick to), and others are first-come, first-served. Some schools are flexible and if they have space, they’ll welcome a child into any year group. That said, the earlier you approach a school, the more chance there is of them having a place available for your child. 

Some of the most selective prep schools may test children as young as 3. Pupils might also need to go through academic testing to win a place at a prep school at age 7 or 8. Senior schools tend to start at age 11 or 13, with many requiring pupils to take the ISEB Common Pre-test in Year 6 or 7, followed by Common Entrance in Year 8. 

If your child is joining a new school in the sixth form, places are usually offered on the basis of predicted grades at GCSE

A note on entry points:

A child usually starts school in Reception in the September of the year he or she turns 4.  If, for example, the child’s birthday is 1 October, they will be aged four years and ten months when they start school; if the child’s birthday is 1 August, they will be aged four years and one month. This is what we mean when we refer to 4+ entry. Similarly, a child may start senior school in the September of the year they turn 11.  This is what we mean by 11+ Entry (school Year 7). Other schools start in Year 9 with 13+ entry. Children start at these schools in September of the year they turn thirteen. 

The curriculum 

Independent schools are free to teach their own curriculum. However, most prep schools choose to follow the National Curriculum, which includes lessons in English, maths, science, history, geography, art, one foreign language, computing, D&T, music and PE. They may supplement this curriculum with extra classes in sport, music, drama, the creative arts and foreign languages. 

During a child’s final year of prep school, the focus is on preparing for senior school entrance exams and Common Entrance. 

The first few years of senior school are spent studying a broad range of different subjects, in preparation for the start of the two-year GCSE course in Years 10 and 11. 

GCSEs are the standard exam taken at the end of secondary school in the UK. While the subjects taken are flexible, it is usually expected that everyone will sit exams in mathematics, English literature and the sciences. The GCSE is assessed in two ways – coursework and examination. Coursework can take many forms, from an art portfolio compiled across two years to an experiment write-up in biology, while exams are sat at set times. Since 2017, the grading for GCSEs has moved to a numerical scale of 9-1. A 9 is very hard to achieve (only about 4.5 per cent of grades awarded) and represents a step above the old A*.

Compulsory schooling ends at 16, but almost all students at independent schools will continue their studies up until the age of 18. The most common academic pathway in the sixth form (Years 12 and 13) is the A-level

The A-level, or Advanced Level, is the de facto pre-university qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, although it also exists in various forms in many countries around the world. Students tend to sit three or four. Universities rely on the A-level (or equivalent qualification) to award students places, basing offers upon either a grade or UCAS-point requirement using information from teachers and internal testing data from schools.

More and more UK independent schools are now offering the IB as an alternative to A-levels (some solely offer A-levels or the IB, others offer a twin-track pathway, allowing students to pick between the two). The main draw of the IB is its breadth: similar to A-levels, the diploma is studied by sixth form students over the course of two years, but rather than specialising in three or four subjects, pupils pick from six different subject areas. On top of this, they take a course in the Theory of Knowledge, complete a 4,000-word Extended Essay and participate in a Creativity, Action & Service programme, which involves over 150 hours of co-curricular activities, from sport to community service. 

Some (but not all) independent schools offer BTECs, a more vocational and more specialist, work-related alternative to A-levels and the IB. These qualifications combine practical experience with in-lesson theory, and cover sectors and areas including hospitality, media, engineering, sport and performing arts. 

After leaving school at 18, many students progress on to higher education. For some, this might mean applying to university. We’ve gathered some tips and more information on our dedicated Beyond School page. 

A note on boarding schools…

Many independent schools offer boarding. Boarding comes in many shapes and forms, so it is wise to ensure that what is offered will suit your child and your needs. The main options are full, weekly and flexi or occasional boarding. The options often vary between year groups.

‘Full’ means that pupils are expected to stay during the majority of weekends, when the school will put on plenty of activities. There will be a number of exeats (weekends spent at home) and this usually means pupils can go home every third weekend.

‘Weekly’ means pupils go home for the weekend – possibly after sports fixtures on a Saturday and coming back on Sunday evening, or leaving after lessons on Friday afternoon and returning on Monday morning.  

‘Flexi’ tends to mean that pupils commit to a certain number of nights per week, which they stick to throughout the term. 'Occasional’ boarding is exactly that – when a pupil might need to stay over for school commitments or wants to keep the flexibility open.

As a general rule, in younger years, fewer children will board.  As children move up the school, there tends to be more boarding pupils.  At prep school, if more than 50 per cent of pupils board, this will often include full, weekly, flexi and occasional options. But unless it is a boarding-only school, there will be fewer Year 3 and 4 pupils compared with Year 7 and 8.  At senior-school level, the percentage of boarders will give a sense of the ratio of day to boarding pupils.

If more than 50 per cent of a school’s pupils board on a Saturday night and stay in school on a Sunday, this gives some idea of the community during the weekends, and the activities available. At both prep and senior school, the percentage of pupils in school at weekends is likely to increase the older the pupils get.

More than 90 per cent of pupils boarding on a Saturday/Sunday suggests a full boarding culture, a plethora of weekend activities and possibly some closed weekends, when all pupils have to stay in. You’re more likely to find this at senior schools, but it is still offered by some traditional prep boarding schools.

And finally…

Still have questions? Take a look at our glossary for some immediate answers – and if you need bespoke advice or support, don’t forget that our advisory team is here to help.