The English education system can seem complicated, especially if you are moving into the UK for the first time and we understand that the choices may be overwhelming.

We have tried to present the facts clearly and simply to help you navigate the system and help you make the best choice for your children.

Note that to register for a state school place you will require a UK residential address. Unfortunately, you cannot register for a school place using the University of Leeds address, as it isn’t residential. Applications for a state school place are determined on where you are living in relation to the distance from your school of choice.

The English school system

The English school system is divided into educational stages based upon age.  The school system is usually split into three levels:

  • Primary education: is for children aged 4 up to 11 or 13.  Terms you might hear are: primary school, infant school, junior school, pre-preparatory school and preparatory school.  The terms ‘pre-preparatory’ and ‘preparatory’ are most commonly used in the independent sector;
  • Secondary education: is for pupils aged 11 or 13 to 16.  Terms you might hear are: secondary school, high school, and senior school.  The term ‘senior school’ is more commonly used in the independent sector;
  • Sixth form level: is for students aged 16 to 18.

Pupils can leave school on the last Friday in June as long as they will be 16 by the end of that year’s summer holidays.  However, they must stay in some form of education or training up until the age of 18 if they were born on or after 1 September 1997.  This could include an apprenticeship or part time work or volunteering whilst also undergoing training.  You can find further information on the government web pages.

If you are to be employed in the UK for a period of 12 months or more, then your children are required by law to attend school.  The Local Education Authority will provide a place free of charge for them to go to a state school near your place of residence.  You will need to inform the local authorities in your own country of residence that your children will be schooled in the UK.


The national curriculum & assessments

The national curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things.  It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.

Other types of school like academies and independent schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum.  Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, Mathematics, Science and Religious Education.  Although not obliged to teach the national curriculum independent schools do follow it in whole or in part.

The national curriculum 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.

The school must report your child’s progress to you.  Your child will be formally assessed at the end or during each key stage:

  • Key Stage 1 and 2: Your child will be assessed through national tests called Standard Attainment Targets (SAT’s) in compulsory core subjects of English, Mathematics, and Science;
  • Key Stage 3: Your child will be assessed by their teachers in all subjects.  At this stage your child will also select around 10 subjects to study in more detail and drop other subjects; some subjects such as English, Mathematics, and Science will remain compulsory.  These chosen subjects will be studied by your child for the next two years;
  • Key Stage 4: Teachers will assess your child’s work to predict their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams results.  The final measure of their attainment in Key Stage 4 is their actual GCSE results;
  • Lower Sixth: Students study for AS level exams, usually in 3 or 4 subjects, leading on to A level exams usually in 3 subjects in the Upper Sixth.  The usual route to university and college is through the A level system, depending on the grades attained in these examinations.


Choosing a school

There are two types of schools in the UK, state-funded or privately-funded independent schools.  Each has their own merits and it is important that a child’s welfare and needs are considered carefully when selecting a school.

If you are thinking about educating your child in the UK, consider the following points:

  • Visit local schools, meet the Head Teachers and read their prospectuses. Will the school enthuse, inspire, encourage?
  • Check the school’s academic performance and results to ensure your child will receive an enriching experience;
  • Make the most of school open days; talk to the teachers, visit classrooms and let present pupils show you around and talk to you about the school.  Open days usually happen in September and October;
  • Talk to the school about how the British school system works, as it is may be very different to what you are used to, especially if you have teenage children;
  • Ask what languages they offer and see how they manage children whose first language is not English;
  • Ask about the frequency of written reports, parent teacher meetings, homework and what extra help they provide;
  • Get a copy of all the relevant information to help you make the right decision for you and your child.  Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, help, and advice from the school;
  • You may also want to ask about sports and arts, pastoral care and parental involvement.

You can find advice on choosing the right school on the Get The Right School and the Independent Schools Council websites.


State schools

The majority of UK families send their children to free­ state-funded schools.

State schools are required to teach the national curriculum, with the exception of academies and free schools.

State schools are mainly ‘all-ability’ schools and your child will be allocated a place in a school near where you live, so you should consider this when you look for housing.  However, parents do have the option to request places in schools out of their catchment area.

Not all state schools are of the same standard, with some achieving better results than others, all are inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Child Services and Skills (Ofsted) every three years and the result are published online.  Additionally, school league tables record test and exam results for all schools and can give an indication of how the school is rated nationally.

The Head Teacher will have responsibility for the school.  However, they will be assisted by a governing body, which is made up of parents, teachers, and representatives from the local community.


Grammar schools 

Grammar schools are state schools which select their pupils on the basis of academic ability.  If you wish your child to attend a grammar school they will need to sit an exam, known as the 11-plus, in their final year of primary school, this will determine if they get a place.


Academies and free schools

Academies and free schools are publicly funded independent schools, which receive their funding directly from central government, rather than through a local authority.  They have more freedom than other state schools over their curriculum, term times and finances, but still, have to follow the same rules on admissions.

Academies are run by an academy trust which employs the staff.  Some have sponsors such as businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups; sponsors are responsible for improving the performance of their schools.

Free schools are run on a not-for-profit basis and can be set up by groups, such as charities, parents, and businesses.


Independent schools

Independent schools also referred to as ‘public’ or ‘private’ schools are fee-charging schools at both the primary and secondary stage; some are day schools and some are boarding schools.

Independent schools are not required to follow the national curriculum and are free to devise their own teaching systems, they generally have a varied curriculum that follows the national curriculum to some extent, they also offer a similar examination programme, for example, GCSE’s and A-levels.

There are approximately 2,600 independent schools in the UK.  Their school reports are published online by the organisation responsible for inspecting them, you can find out from the school which organisation inspects them.  Additionally, school league tables record test and exam results for all schools and can give an indication of how the school is rated nationally.  They are thought to offer high academic standards, fewer pupils per class, extensive extra curricular activities, better surroundings and facilities and an increased social mix.

In order to be granted admission to an independent school, your child will need to be in good academic standing with a school in your own country and may be asked to sit admissions exams.

In terms of tuition fees, parents should expect to pay a minimum of £8,000 per year and as much as £25,000 (2016).


International schools

Fee-paying international schools can be a logical choice if you are relocating from overseas as they offer greater flexibility of study.  They offer a wide curriculum ranging from the American and English system to the full International Baccalaureate programme.

International schools are also used to settling children in quickly and painlessly and often offer support for families whose first language is not English.  However, if you are planning a long-term or permanent relocation to the UK a local school either state or fee-paying may allow your child to integrate into the local community more easily.


Highly rated schools

Based on recent Ofsted results the below state primary, secondary and independent schools in Leeds, Harrogate, Ilkley, Otley and the surrounding areas are highly rated (2017). For more information on individual school ratings and attainment levels, you can compare different schools on the website.


State primary schools:


State secondary schools:

Independent schools:


You can find a comprehensive list of state schools on the Leeds City Council website and of independent schools on the School Search website.

You can search and compare local schools, including catchment areas, admissions criteria, OFSTED rankings, exam results, on the 192 schools search engine.

You may also find the ‘Starting school in another EU country’ web page on the Your Europe website useful.


Obtaining a school place

It is important to know which type of school you are applying for as applications for state schools and independent schools are managed separately.


State school admissions

If you are moving to the UK your child will not be offered a state school place until you are living in the UK and have a UK address.  Applications will be determined on where you are living in relation to the distance from your school of choice.  If you want your child to go to a school in Leeds you will need to have a Leeds address.

State school applications open on different days in each local council.  Also note that each school will apply their own admissions policy so it is worth understanding the policy of your preferred schools, which can usually be found on their websites.

Normal admission round – The admission round for children starting state primary or secondary school in September starts in the previous year.  Usually, you must apply for a primary school place by mid-January and a secondary school place by the end of October.  You will need to complete an application form which will ask you to list up to five different schools you wish your child to attend in order of preference.  You can apply online or on a paper based form; for Leeds schools, you can apply via the Leeds City Council’s Admissions website or download the relevant form.  If you live in the UK, but outside Leeds and you want your child to go to a school in Leeds, you must apply to your own local authority, or use their online system to apply for a school place.

National Offer day is normally mid-April and you will be informed if your child has been offered a place by either post or email.  You will be asked to accept the offer by contacting the school, if you fail to do this then the place may be withdrawn.  If you are not happy with the place offered and are considering refusing a place you should contact the Admissions Team.

Outside normal admission round – If you are making an application outside the normal admission round or transferring between schools you need to approach the school you wish to obtain a place at directly.  You will need to complete an in-Year Common Preference Form and return it to the school.  If the school is able to offer you a place, you will receive a letter confirming this from the school.  If the school is unable to offer you a place the Admissions Team will contact you in writing to let you know about the other schools in your area and any vacancies at these schools.  You will have the right of appeal to an independent panel for the school you have been refused.

For further information on the admissions process in Leeds please visit the Leeds City Council’s admissions webpage.  If you would like to speak to someone directly then please contact the Admissions Team on +44 (0)113 222 4414 or email by at


Independent school admissions

Generally, independent schools will not care where you live, as long as you can pay the fees, although do note that your child may have to go through a selection session.

If you are making an application to an independent school then you should contact the school directly to find out their deadlines.  Some schools do close their waiting lists early, or have specific dates for registering; others operate on a first-come-first-served basis.  However, it is always worth a phone call.  Last-minute places come up at the most sought-after schools and many welcome applications at any stage.


The appeal system

If you receive a letter from your local authority stating that your child has not been allocated a place at your chosen school, you still have the option to appeal.  The letter will tell you how to make an appeal against this decision and the deadline for which you need to do this by.  You must inform the local authority of your decision to appeal in writing.

You will be given a date for an appeal hearing.  At the appeal hearing the panel, which will be independent of the school, will be told why your application was turned down.  They will check that the school’s admission arrangements comply with the Schools Admissions Code.  You will then be invited to say why you are appealing against the school’s decision; you will need to explain why you think this school is best for your child.

Once the appeal has been heard, the panel will decide whether your case or the school’s is stronger.  You will be informed of the result by post and this decision is final.


Term times

The school year runs from September to July and is divided into three terms.

  • The autumn term runs from September to late December (Christmas);
  • The spring term runs from January to March (Easter);
  • The summer term runs from April to July.

Each term lasts approximately 12 weeks and school holidays are held in the middle of each term.  One week half term holidays are usually held in October, February, and May.  The Christmas and Easter holidays are usually two weeks in duration and the summer holiday, between the summer and autumn terms from the end of July to early September, is around 6 weeks long.

The school week runs from Monday to Friday and can start around 9:00 a.m. and finish at around 3:30p.m.  Many schools also offer after-school clubs and classes, these often carry a fee.

The start and finish dates for the school terms in Leeds can be found in the Leeds’ school calendar.


Transport and uniforms

Transport to and from school is not provided automatically and it is your responsibility to get your child to and from school, although there is often a school bus service, especially for secondary school students.

School uniform is common and most primary schools and secondary schools require pupils to wear one.


Taking children out of school

In the UK parents do not have the automatic right to take their children out of school during the term time.  Once your child is registered with a school they will be expected to attend throughout term time. Parents can be prosecuted if their children fail to attend school.

If you do need to take your child out of school, for example, you may need to travel abroad, you should discuss this with the school.  If your child is unwell or is unable to attend school for another reason you should contact the school at the earliest opportunity.