The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an island located off the northwestern coast of France and is surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. It also includes the northern one-sixth of the island of Ireland as well
as several other smaller islands. It consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. With a population of 60,776,238, literacy is 99%.
The United Kingdom traces its history back to its first inhabitants who arrived in 4000BC. Celts from Central Europe arrived in 800BC followed by the Romans who invaded in 43AD and left in 410AD. Over the next centuries, present day England, Wales and
Scotland were invaded by the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings, Danes and Normans. The union of England and Wales began in 1284 and was formalized in a 1536 Act of Union. The 1707 Act of Union united England and Scotland, and Great Britain was formed.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 partitioned Ireland and the 6 northern counties remained in the United Kingdom. Great Britain had and continues to have colonies all over the world, many of which have educational systems based on the British model.
Currently, the United Kingdom's Department of Education and Department of Education, Training and Skills oversee the country's education system.
Universal state primary education was introduced in 1870 and universal state secondary education was introduced in 1900. The Education Reform Act of 1988 implemented the National Curriculum. The National Curriculum is currently divided into four stages:
- Key stage 1: Years 1-2
- Key stage 2: Years 3-6
- Key stage 3: Years 7-9
- Key stage 4: Years 10-11 (Forms IV and V)
The core subjects throughout all years in the National Curriculum are English, math and science, with Welsh language as a core subject in Wales. The foundation subjects are design and technology, information and communication technology, history, geography,
modern foreign language, music, art, and design. The basic subjects are physical education, citizenship, and religious education.
Education is free and compulsory until the age of 16 in Wales and Northern Ireland and 18 in England. Primary school is 6 years and is divided into infant school (2 years) and junior school (4 years). Combined infant and junior schools offer all 6 years
in one school. No national diploma is awarded following primary school.
Following primary school, students enroll in a 5-year secondary school program which is offered at comprehensive secondary schools, secondary modern schools, county grammar schools, city technology colleges, and independent schools. Comprehensive secondary
schools have open admission and are the largest in number of secondary schools. Secondary modern schools usually have more selective admission than comprehensive secondary schools. County grammar schools are highly selective and often require an entrance
examination. City technology colleges were established by the Education Reform Act of 1988 and have selective admission. Private, independent schools (often called “public schools”) enroll about 6% of the students in England and Wales.
They have selective admission and charge tuition. They are not required to follow the National Curriculum, but most do.
Upon completion of general secondary education, students sit for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). These examinations are national and externally administered. Students who do not wish to pursue higher education can choose to prepare
for employment by studying for the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). These awards are based on national occupational standards and can also be pursued by those already in the workforce.
Students who want to enter a university must continue into the 2-year Sixth Form. At the end of this period, students may sit for the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE “A” level) examination. However, students may also,
after one year, elect to take the General Certificate of Education Advanced Subsidiary examination (GCE “AS” level). Previously, AS levels led to A levels and represented the first half of a sequence. However, they are being decoupled.
The reformed examinations represent separate, independent qualifications. As such, AS levels are stand-alone awards.
In Wales, secondary students (ages 14-19) have the option of studying for the Welsh Baccalaureate which was introduced on a pilot basis in 2003. It is a qualification that adds value to and complements established qualifications, such as GCSEs, A levels,
or NVQs, but does not replace the qualification. The curriculum includes the Core Program of Key Skills (Communication, Information and Communication Technology, Application of Numbers, Working with Others, Problem Solving, Improving Own Learning
and Performance) plus options which are subjects from the student’s academic or vocational qualifications. The program of study includes individual investigation, work experience, and a community project. Students can choose to study in English
or Welsh, or a combination of both languages.
The Welsh Baccalaureate has 3 levels: foundation, intermediate, and advanced. The level of study depends on the student’s academic level. Students who are expected to earn grades of D-G on their GCSEs or who are studying at the NVQ Level 1 prepare
for the foundation diploma; students who are expected to earn grades of A-C on the GCSEs or who are studying at the NVQ Level 2 prepare for the intermediate level, and students preparing for A levels or a NVQ Level 3 prepare for the advanced diploma.
Previously, there were over thirty awarding bodies that offered the GCSEs and AS- and A-level examinations. As a result of a number of mergers, now five exist in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. OCR, which stands for Oxford, Cambridge, and RSA (Royal
Society of Arts), was formed in 1998, and AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) was created soon after in 2000. Pearson, which acquired full control of Edexcel in 2005, is also known for its technical, vocational and professional qualifications
known as BTEC, referring to the original Business and Technology Education Council awards from the 1980s. The Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) was established in Wales in 1948 and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA)
was founded in Northern Ireland in 1994. GCSEs and A level examinations are by subject. As such, students will often take exams from multiple examining bodies.
England has two of the world’s oldest universities: Oxford (founded in 1167) and Cambridge (1209). All undergraduate university admission in the United Kingdom is centralized at the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) which awards points
based on the student’s academic qualifications. Points assessed to the student’s academic credentials determine the student’s eligibility for admission to universities and programs. University programs generally require at least
2 passes on the GCE “A” level certificate examination for admission; some programs have specific GCE “A” level requirements (usually math and science), and some programs have other entrance requirements.
First, Second, and Third Cycles
Bachelor’s programs are 3-5 years long, depending on the field of study. Master’s programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission and are 1-3 years long. Doctoral programs require a master’s degree for admission, are 2-3 years
long, and require defense of a dissertation.
A joint forum of curriculum and qualifications authority organizations in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland created the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) in 1999. This six level NQF placed the academic qualifications on a grid stretching from
early age compulsory education entry all the way to terminal doctoral study. In 2004 this was revised to display a wider range with 9 levels and including vocational as well as academic qualifications. In 2010 the NQF was re-named the Qualifications
and Credit Framework (QCF). The QCF displays the vocational and academic qualifications awarded in the UK, mapping them to comparable comparison levels. The UK was one of the first of the Bologna signatory countries to complete this exercise that
became part of the required features for all Bologna Process participating countries as part of the Quality Assurance requirements for the European Higher Education Area. In October 2015, the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) was introduced,
with the aim of providing a single reference system for all qualifications that are regulated. There remains the same 8 general levels and 3 entry levels that are found on the QCF.
If you need to know the level of a qualification, you can use the Register of Regulated Qualifications (if you know the name of the qualification and the exam board that runs it) or you can review this list of qualification levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Note, qualifications at the same level sometimes cover different amounts of the same subject.