Making sense of the education system in England

The English education system can seem complicated – here’s Pertemps Education’s guide to SATs, SPaG, GCESs and BTECs. Trust us, it’s simple…

State schools

As a starting point, most children in England attend state schools. Many of these are comprehensive, which means they take boys and girls who live in a particular catchment area. In contrast, some state schools can select on the basis of gender or faith. A small proportion of English schools ask applicants to take an entrance exam and use academic performance as their primary entry criteria.

Primary schools

There is an ongoing debate about how children should be assessed throughout their school careers. Currently, external assessment starts in Key Stage 1, when pupils sit Standard Attainment Tests (SATs). These are used to assess how Year 2 children perform in English, science and maths. In recent years, a spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) paper has been added. Primary school pupils take another round of SATs in Year 6 before leaving for secondary school.

Key Stage 3 onwards

When children start secondary school, they are offered a broad curriculum. In Year 8 or 9 they have the chance to narrow the number of subjects on their timetable in preparation for GCSE programmes, which start seriously in Year 10.

General Certificates of Education (GCSEs) are usually taken at the end of Key Stage 4. Most schools set aside two years to cover the subject knowledge and get ready for these public examinations. GCSEs are a crucial milestone in the English education system. Most employers and post-16 education providers will expect at least five GCSEs grade 4 or higher, including English language and maths, and may require certain results in subjects such as maths and English.

In addition to GCSEs, many schools offer National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in Key Stage 4. These provide alternative assessment routes, often involving a combination of practical learning and theoretical subject knowledge.


Traditionally, students in England would stay on at their secondary school and studied Advanced Level Qualifications (A levels) in the ‘sixth form’. These days, teenagers have a great deal more choice, both where and what they study, and may spend time researching the post-16 provision available in their area before deciding what’s right for them.

A levels are subject-based qualifications. Most students study three or sometimes four A levels over two years. They are usually assessed by a series of examinations.

Some schools and colleges offer an alternative (or supplementary) NVQ course such as BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council). There are over 2,000 BTEC qualifications designed for young people who are interested in a particular sector or industry – popular BTECs include applied science, engineering, media and sport.

  • supports teachers, school staff and schools to succeed in every aspect of their teaching live. It’s a great source of information including teaching resources, CPD and support for teachers.
  • The BBC has useful information – some, but not all aimed at students and their parents. This includes a lot of useful detail on subjects taught in English schools.

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