The Systems of Education in the UK – English and Welsh Year Groups

In the first part of a series of articles looking at the education systems across the UK, the overarching structure of the school year for state funded schools in England and Wales will be considered. The structures and terms for schools under the Scottish, Northern Irish and Independent School systems differ again and will be looked at in future articles.

The type and range of schools through which children pass during their education may vary depending on which part of the UK they grow up in, the nature of the schools in their locale and their parents ability to fund their education. However, for any schools receiving state funding in England and Wales, the defined schools years, and the requirements for education in each of those years, is set by the UK government and the Welsh Assembly respectively.

The Year Groups

The school year in the England and Wales begins on 1 September and runs up until 31 August and is split into three terms: Autumn (up to Christmas), Spring (Christmas to Easter) and Summer (Easter onwards).

Although children will usually progress through the school years depending on their age(s) in between those dates every year, it is possible to both skip years or repeat years if there is a need; if a child’s performance is above or below the level expected at their current age.

Whilst it is not compulsory attendance for a child, the (state funded) school year system begins with the Nursery year for children who are three years old. The system ends with Year 13 (the 15th year in total) for children who turn 18 in the relevant timeframe. School attendance is only mandatory from the ages of 5-16 and so children are required to enter school at some stage during Reception (the 2nd year), if they haven’t already, whilst, at the other end of the system, they can then choose whether or not to pursue their education in Years 12-13 (Further Education) once they’ve turned 16.

The third year of education is termed Year 1 as it is the first full school year in which children are required to attend school having been introduced to it in Reception (if not Nursery).

The Key Stages

To provide a framework for teaching and examinations the National Curriculum (for state funded schools) in particular uses the following key stages to group these years together:

  • Foundation Stages:
    • Foundation 1 – Nursery
    • Foundation 2 – Reception
  • Key Stage 1 – Years 1 & 2
  • Key Stage 2 – Years 3 – 6
  • Key Stage 3 – Years 7 – 9
  • Key Stage 4 – Years 10 & 11 (ending in GCSEs)
  • Sixth Form/College – Years 12 & 13 (ending in A Levels or International Baccalaureate)

The Standard School Structure

The first Nursery year nearly always involves the child attending a designated Nursery school but after that the structure can vary. The most common structure for the schools that a child will progress through in the subsequent years is that of:

  • Infant School – Reception to Year 2 [Foundation Stage 2 & Key Stage 1]
  • Junior School – Years 3 – 6 [Key Stage 2]
  • Senior School – Years 7 – 11 [Key Stages 3 & 4]
  • Sixth Form/College – Years 12 & 13

Many schools, however, combine the functions above so that the structure is simplified into two levels to fit neatly with the idea of primary and secondary education:

  • Primary School – Infant School & Junior School
  • Secondary School – Senior School & Sixth Form

Some more traditional schools in the secondary education system still refer to the Years 7 through to 11 in the older notation as Years 1 to 5 (or First Form to Fifth Form) with the following Sixth Form (Years 12 and 13) split into the Lower and Upper Sixth.

The Alternative School Structure

A less common alternative structure sees a three tier system straddling primary and secondary education and the curriculum’s Key Stages with:

  • First School – Reception to Year 4
  • Middle School – Years 5 – 8
  • Upper School – Years 9 – 13

Children can and do switch between schools following these structures according to the opportunities in their locality and it is particularly common, for example, for children to switch to a Secondary School for the rest of their secondary education once they have finished Middle School.

Ultimately, the year groups only provide a framework to determine how and when the National Curriculum and examinations should be implemented. There are therefore many varying types of schools even within the above definitions, from Faith Schools to Academies to Grammar Schools, depending on other factors such as selection criteria and funding.