British children begin schooling at the age of five. While we call kindergarten through fifth grade (or sixth depending on your school) our elementary school years, in England they call the years between age five and eleven primary school. While in primary school, British students study under a single teacher, tackling various subjects such as English, history, math, science, music, physical education and art.
While we tend to mark our progress through school in grade levels (i.e. third grade, fourth grade, etc.), students in England follow a track of key stages. Through the course of their schooling (which is required up to age 16) students will pass through four key stages. At the end of the two key stages of primary school (when students hit age seven and again at age 11) British children take exams called the SATs. These tests aren’t what we call the SATs over here in the States, as the British test is meant to measure a young student’s (and school’s) progress. The neat thing about the British school system is that regardless of how well a student does (or doesn’t do!) on the exam, no child is ever held back a year. Each year every student moves upward and onward.
At age 11 (after their sixth year of schooling) British students move on to secondary school. This period will take them through key stages three and four, which last until age 16. Secondary school gives students the opportunity to continue to explore an array of general subjects, along with a foreign language. Students may also begin to explore vocational studies like business or construction.
At the end of secondary school, British students take exams called the General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations (aka—GCSE exams). These tests are single subject assessments of a student’s progress over the course of their schooling. Most students take between five and ten GSCE exams in a variety of subjects. And while a high school diploma doesn’t technically exist in England, passing five GCSE exams stacks up somewhere right around it. Once a student has finished secondary school, there are several avenues upon which to move forward. Some step right into the work force, though most pursue further education. Between ages 16 and 18, students may continue on at school in the Sixth Form in a separate Sixth Form College, or students may choose to go to a College of Further Education. Keep in mind that British college should not to be confused with here in the States—college is still pre-University in England. Students who wish to focus on vocational or technical training will find themselves at home in a College of Further Education. This course work will give students a hands-on, focused preparation for their chosen field, equipping them to step into the work force upon completion.
Those students wishing to prepare for University will choose a Sixth Form College. The Sixth Form (named after the fact it begins in the sixth year of a student’s secondary education) is essentially an additional two years after secondary school in which students prepare for University. In the Sixth Form, students get a taste of what University study will be like as they take on more responsibility for their education. The coursework shifts from the lectures found in secondary school to a more open forum of discussion and debate among students and professors.
Part of the preparation for the University is preparation for Advanced Level (A-Level) examinations, and Sixth Form focuses intensely on this preparation. The exam is in two parts, the first part being the Advanced Subsidiary or the AS exam. The first year of sixth form is all about preparing for the AS exams, and students usually study four subjects related to their specific course of study for the test. For example, a student hoping to enter medical school may study Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics and Psychology. In their second year of Sixth Form, students usually focus on their three best subjects for the second part of the A-Level exams, the A2. When both the AS and A2 are passed successfully, Advanced Level is achieved. These scores are then reviewed for University entrance as well as by future employers.
If a student scores particularly high A-Level
marks, then he or she may move on to an additional term of study to
prepare for entrance exams and interviews to the most prestigious
Universities. This additional term is often called the “Oxbridge” term,
named for the esteemed Oxford and Cambridge Universities.