Education in the UK – a comprehensive guide for overseas doctors 

  • April 06, 2023

One of the biggest considerations for IMGs relocating to the UK with families is finding the right school for their children. The education system in the UK can be confusing in places, so it’s important to fully understand all the options available within the UK to be able to make a well-informed decision. 

And with factors such as citizenship playing a part in areas such as cost, a good idea of the UK system is crucial for all families relocating with children. 

In this blog we’ll be covering the following topics: 

Skip ahead to the relevant section if you know what you’re looking for. 


The education system in the UK is divided into four main parts, primary education, secondary education, further education and higher education. Children in the UK legally must attend primary and secondary education which runs from about 5-years-old until around 16-years-old.  

Early years’ education applies to children aged around 3-years-old to 4- or 5-years old. This stage sets standards for the learning, development and care of a child until the age of 5. 

The basic school curriculum includes the ‘national curriculum’, as well as religious education and sex education. And sets out a blueprint of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools that allows children to learn the same things. It covers both the subjects that are taught, and the standards children are expected to reach in each subject. 

The UK system is also split into "key stages" where a child’s performance is formally assessed by their teacher at the end of each stage. These break down as follows:  

  • Key Stage 1: age 4 - 7  
  • Key Stage 2: age 7 - 11 
  • Key Stage 3: age 11 - 14 
  • Key Stage 4: age 14 - 16 

In England, the compulsory education age has been extended to 18. This means that students must stay in full-time education, begin an apprenticeship or traineeship, or start a part-time education/training course, with 20 hours a week working or volunteering at age 16. 

This article discusses the time spent at school, starting and leaving years etc. This will help to give you a general idea when comparing to other countries around the world.

Cost of Education in the UK 

Education in the UK is free for all children, and all children are entitled to and guaranteed a space at school. The UK is renowned for having a strong academic set-up and we find a lot of IMGs plan to move to the UK for the educational benefit of their children. 


The regulator that scores and assesses schools in the UK is Ofsted. Ofsted's role is to make sure that educational institutions, training and care services in England operate to a high standard for children and students. Every week, we carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England and publish the results online. 

Ofsted gradings for all schools in England are published on this webpage and can be filtered by region and found here.

School Terms and Holidays 

A typical school year starts begins in September and ends in June/July. It consists of three terms: Autumn Term (September to December), Spring Term (January to April) and Summer Term (April to July). 

As well as having a week-long break in the middle of each term (half-term), students also have longer holidays between terms: Christmas holidays (2-3 weeks), Easter holidays (2-3 weeks) and summer holidays (around 6 - 8 weeks). 


There are two main types of school in the UK - ones that are paid for by the government or local authorities and ones which aren't. 

The ones which aren't, need to get the money to pay for themselves from somewhere else, like school fees. The main differences between these two types are that state schools are free for students, whilst private schools often charge fees. 

Most state schools (aside from academies) will also follow the national curriculum, whilst private schools (while still rigorously assessed by OFSTED) are able to determine their own curriculum, admittance processes, term dates etc. 

There are several types of state schools in the UK which provide free education to pupils in the UK, funded whether by the government or by local authorities, these include: 

  • Maintained schools 
  • Academies 
  • Selective grammar schools 
  • Religion focused faith schools 
  • State boarding schools 

Private schools in the UK include: 

  • Independent schools 
  • Boarding schools 

As well as these, there are also tutorial colleges which start at age 15 and have a more flexible programme range, focusing on fast access to UK university. 

Further education colleges such as sixth forms and colleges provide education for those over the age of 16, and of course universities are higher education institutions where students over the age of 18 study towards undergraduate or postgraduate degrees. 


Primary school education begins in the UK at age around 4 or 5 and continues until age 11, comprising key stages one and two. 

The year groups at primary school level are as follows:  

Some primary schools are split up into Infant and Junior levels, which are usually separate schools on the same site. The infant age range (Key Stage 1) is from age 4 to 7, and the Junior age range (Key Stage 2) is from age 7 to 11. 


SATs are national statutory assessments that children in England take twice during their primary school years. The assessments are made up of a combination of testing and teacher assessment judgements and are used to assess the attainment of pupils against the national curriculum, firstly, at the end of Key Stage 1 (KS1) in Year 2, and then again at the end of Key Stage 2 (KS2) in Year 6.  

KS1 SATs currently assess children in maths (arithmetic) and English (reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar). KS2 SATs are more formal than in KS1 and children are assessed in English reading comprehension, grammar, punctuation, spelling, science, mathematical reasoning, and arithmetic. 


Secondary school education begins at age 11 and continues until around age 16, comprising key stages three and four. 

Key Stage 3 

Years 7 and 8 are the first two years of secondary school education in the UK. Under the UK system, all students study English, Maths, Sciences, a Humanity and a Modern Language. Besides these subjects, each school has a list with optional subjects (Art, Music, Drama, Latin, Sport Science, Design Technology, Computer Science). 

Year 9 is a very important year in the British school system, as most of the students make the transition from Junior School to Senior School. It is also a very good foundation for the GCSE programme, and it is an entry point to all schools.  

Students study English, Maths, Sciences, Humanity and Languages. In addition, students choose a few subjects that interest them from the optional subject list offered by each school.  

Key Stage 4 – GCSE programme 

In the last two years of secondary education, year 10 and year 11, students prepare for GCSE exams that are taken after two years (General Certificate of Secondary Education). 

In the UK school system, during the GCSE programme, students study between 9 and 12 subjects, in which they are examined at the end of the 2-3 year period. English, maths, 2/3 sciences, one humanity and a modern foreign language are compulsory, leaving 3 to 6 subjects free to be chosen by each student according to their abilities and preferences.  

The chosen subjects and the GCSE results are very important for their Further Studies (A-Level or IB) and for university admission. 

Some schools offer a 1-year GCSE programme in Year 11 for international students seeking a school education in the UK. These intensive courses are available for students aged 15 plus, with the appropriate academic level from their own country. Fewer subjects are studied (maximum 6). 


Years 12 and 13 

A-level Study 

In the UK school system, once a student reaches the age of 16, they can start a 2-year programme which leads to A- (Advanced) level examinations. Students choose 3 or 4 subjects which may continue on from GCSE study or may be new choices. 

A-levels are state examinations and are recognised by all UK universities and by institutions worldwide, therefore students usually choose A-level subjects are usually chosen that are relevant to the degree subject they wish to follow at university. 

International Baccalaureate (IB) 

Some independent schools may offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. 

During the IB, students study 6 subjects, 3 at higher level (HL) and 3 at standard level (SL). Each school offers different subjects at different study levels (HL/SL). The IB programme also includes a compulsory core programme consisting of Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Extended Essay (EE) and Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS). 

Vocational Courses 

Further Education colleges also offer foundation and diploma courses, and all colleges can prepare students for entry to a UK university or any university in the world.  

An alternative to A-levels or the IB are BTEC courses, which are designed for students who would like to develop practical knowledge and skills in a specific subject (Business, Psychology, Engineering, Sport, Art & Design) or perhaps find traditional exams challenging. 

BTEC students are assessed during the course (usually after each unit) through practical or skills-based assignments, tasks or tests, rather than at the end of the programme. 


Foundation Courses 

Foundation degrees are courses for international students preparing for undergraduate study, or for UK students who are unsure about taking a full degree or want to study while working.  

They usually take one to two years full-time to complete, or longer for part-time students, and students can normally continue for a further year to gain a full honours degree or have direct entry onto a full degree after completing a foundation course. 

Undergraduate Study 

In the UK, a bachelor's degree normally takes three years to complete, and most are awarded at honours level (360 credits or 180 ECTS). Examples of first degrees are: BA (Bachelor of Arts), BSc (Bachelor of Science), and BEng (Bachelor of Engineering). 

The academic year is typically 9 months long, with study beginning in September/ October and finishing around June/ July. 

Postgraduate Study 

Postgraduate courses in the UK education system are very intensive. This means that the courses are usually much shorter than in other countries. A master's degree typically takes 12 months to complete, for example an MA - Master of Arts and an MEng - Master of Engineering. 

An MBA (Master of Business Administration) is a high profile Masters course which can take 2 years. Applicants for MBA courses will usually be high achieving with at least 2 years managerial experience.  

A PhD research degree in the UK can take between 2 and 7 years. 


University Tuition Fees 

Tuition fees cover the entire cost of tuition plus any excess services you may get from the university, such as tutoring services, information technology, and library services that they may provide.  

The cost of undergraduate tuition in the UK is usually around £9,250 for home students (British citizens). For non-UK students, this can be anywhere from £11,000 to £20,000, depending on the university. 

Besides your nationality, the type and academic level of your course can also influence the cost of a course in the UK. As you would expect, tuition fees in the social sciences and humanities are lower compared to natural science courses where extracurricular lab sessions are involved.  

Financial Aid in the UK 

Financial aid is available for both UK and international students. 

All UK students are eligible for a tuition fee loan to cover the full cost of the tuition provided by their higher education institution. This is paid directly to the institution. 

Government financial aid for students’ living costs (maintenance), offered by Student Finance England (SFE) is means-tested and parental (or household) income is the key factor here. Another key factor is whether the student will be living at home, away from home outside of London, or away from home within London. You can find full details of the maintenance loans based on household income here. International students are not eligible for maintenance loans from SFE. 

Student Loans 

Student loans are the most common type of financial aid offered for students in UK. Under current law regulations in the UK, only UK, EU and EEA students are eligible to apply for these funds. International students, have to look for other types of student loans granted in their home country or at the UK university of their choice. 

Student loans interest rates are incredibly favourable, regulated so they cannot increase too much and are only repayable once the loanee has begun working and started taking an income above a certain threshold. There is a lot of flexibility in how and when they can be repaid as they are government loans, rather than by corporate or profit driven banks. You can find more information about student loans on the government website here

UK Higher Education for International Students 

Whilst international students are a big part of UK universities, there are many more places allocated to UK students. Being a UK citizen will help your children’s chances of a successful application considerably. 

Universities will charge British citizens lower tuition fees than they would for international students. This applies to both EU and non-EU international students. For families of international students, this can be a difference of tens of thousands of pounds spend on tuition and maintenance, when compared to a UK student. 

Depending on when you move to the UK, your child may be eligible for university places and financial aid as a British student. 

So, there you have it – this should give you a much clearer picture of how the education system works in the UK and where your child may fit into the system depending on their age. 

Making the decision to relocate to the UK to work in the NHS involves so many important considerations, including for many, education for their children. With factors such as the cost of university education to consider, the timing of such a move is even more important.  

Getting started

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our specialists if you would like some advice or support in considering your options more fully. 

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