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For expats moving to the United Kingdom with children, making the correct choice when it comes to picking a school is a top priority. Attending the right school will play a significant role in ensuring a successful transition into expat life in the UK for little ones.
Factors that will affect the choice of school for expat children include the child’s previous schooling experience, academic ability and English language capability.
Expat parents should note that most government-funded schools in the UK and some private schools base admission on catchment areas, so it's often best to choose a school before deciding where to live within a city. Private and international schools with boarding facilities for students offer greater flexibility.
Education system in the United Kingdom
Though the education systems and schooling options do vary slightly between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they share the same basic structure. Typically, the academic year in the United Kingdom starts in September and ends in July, with the main breaks in December, March/April and July/August.
The schooling system is divided into the following stages:
- Early years education is from ages 3 to 5.
- Primary education is from ages 5 to 11. It is subdivided into Key Stage 1 (ages 5 to 7) and Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11).
- Secondary education is from ages 11 to 16. It is subdivided into Key Stage 3 (ages 11 to 14) and Key Stage 4 (ages 14 to 16).
- Post-16 education is for ages 16 to 18 and consists of Key Stage 5.
Education is compulsory in the UK for children between the ages of five and 16. Children usually start primary school during the school year in which they turn five. Secondary school for most children starts at age 11. Students have the option of finishing school at the age of 16 after completing their GCSEs or continuing their secondary studies for a further two years with the option of studying for A-levels or BTEC awards.
More and more schools in the UK are now offering students the opportunity to study for the International Baccalaureate (IB), which is recognised globally.
There are a confusing number of different options when it comes to schooling in the UK. Each type of school is unique and offers different benefits. With such a wide variety of options, there is sure to be something to suit the needs and budget of every expat family.
State-funded schools in the United Kingdom
State schools are provided by the government at no cost to British citizens and foreigners legally living in the UK. These schools are effectively funded by taxpayers.
The standard of education at state schools varies considerably. Some offer excellent teaching and facilities, while other schools continue to perform badly in terms of academic results every year. Generally, the better state-funded schools will be found in more affluent areas.
Expats should read the school's Ofsted (Office of Standards in Education) report to find out about the quality of teaching and facilities at a particular school, as well as how the students at the school are doing academically.
Admission criteria varies from one school to the next. Most of the popular state schools will base admissions on a particular catchment area, and expats should be aware of this when deciding where to live in the UK.
There are various types of public schools that have slightly different approaches to teaching style or curriculum.
Community schools are funded and managed by the local council. The council owns the school grounds and building, is responsible for employing the staff, and manages its own admission policies. These schools follow the national curriculum and have no association with a business or religious group.
Foundation schools and voluntary schools
Like community schools, foundation schools and voluntary schools are funded by the local authority and follow the national curriculum. However, they have more flexibility in setting their own policies regarding admission and delivery of the curriculum. Some schools in this category are faith-based schools and are supported by a particular religious group.
Grammar schools are state secondary schools that are academically selective. Their pupils are selected by means of an examination taken by children at age 11, known as the 11-plus.
While part of the state system of education, academies aren't controlled by the local council, giving them more freedom in what curriculum they teach. They receive their funding from the government but are managed by not-for-profit companies known as academy trusts. Sometimes an additional organisation (for example, a business, a faith group or a voluntary group) will act as a sponsor with the aim of improving school performance.
Free schools are funded by the government but aren't run by local authorities. Rather, they are run by non-profit-making trusts, like parent groups, charities or religious associations. Free schools aren't bound to teach the national curriculum and may instead offer a more specialised curriculum focusing on a particular subject area, such as engineering.
Private schools in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has a tradition of private schools, also called independent schools. These schools generally follow the British curriculum, but aren't obligated to, and can offer a wider range of subjects if they wish. More and more private schools in the UK are starting to offer students the opportunity to study the International Baccalaureate.
Private schools tend to offer a higher standard of teaching and have smaller class sizes. Fees at private schools are high, though. On top of school fees, parents will also have to budget for other expenses such as uniforms and stationery. Most private schools do offer a limited number of scholarships for students who are particularly gifted.
The admission criteria for private schools vary from school to school. Students will be expected to attend an interview and pass an entrance exam for admission to most private schools in the United Kingdom.
International schools in the United Kingdom
International schools are a popular option for expat families living in the United Kingdom. These schools follow a variety of different curricula from across the globe.
International schools allow students to continue studying the same syllabus as they were studying at home, and are good for those who do not plan on living in the United Kingdom in the long term.
There is a range of international schools in the UK following the American, French and Japanese national curricula. London has the largest variety of international schools, as this is the city with the biggest expat population.
Fees charged at international schools in the United Kingdom are hefty. Expats considering this option should try to negotiate an allowance into their employment contracts to cover the cost of school fees.
Special-needs education in the United Kingdom
In the UK, the management of special needs is approached with the goal of integration. To that end, children with special needs are kept in a mainstream schooling setting as much as possible.
If parents think that their child may need extra assistance, they can put in a request for their child to be assessed by the local council. Children with special educational needs will have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan drawn up by the council, which specifies the school they are to attend. If a mainstream school is unable to provide the kind of support required, the child may be assigned to a special school.
Tutors in the United Kingdom
Tutors can be useful for expat families in a number of situations. Children from abroad may need a little help with catching up to the local curriculum, or could benefit from extra tutoring for the English language if it isn't their mother tongue. Those parents worried about children losing their mother-tongue language skills while in the UK should consider hiring a tutor who is a fellow native speaker to help maintain fluency.
There's a wide variety of tutoring companies to choose from, with some of the most popular being Tutor House, Superprof and Tavistock Tutors.
►Raising Children in the UK is an interesting read for expat parents
"Although many in our US expat circle opt to send their children to the American School, we purposely sought out an international school for our daughter wanting her to experience all that an international assignment could offer. My suggestions for finding the right school here or anywhere is find the fit that’s right for your particular kid’s academic and athletic requirements and then get involved with the school and its activities."
Get more insights from Kimberley, an American expat in London.
Are you an expat living in The United Kingdom?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to The United Kingdom. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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