UK Life

Understanding the UK Education System

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A guide to finding a school for your child


An overview of the UK education system and how you can apply to schools in your area for your child.


What year of school will my child be in?

The UK education system is divided into four main parts:

  • Primary education (5-11 years of age)
  • Secondary education (11-16 years of age)
  • Further education
  • Higher education

It can then be further split into Key Stage’s:

  • Key Stage 1: 5 to 7 years old
  • Key Stage 2: 7 to 11 years old
  • Key Stage 3: 11 to 14 years old
  • Key Stage 4: 14 to 16 years old

Children living in the UK have to legally attend both primary and secondary education. This runs from the ages of 5 until 16 and is free at state schools.

Most schools in the UK have three terms: Autumn, Spring and Summer. The school year starts in September and ends the following July, with breaks in-between each term. This may vary for academies or private schools.

Children must start their full-time education once they reach the compulsory school age. This is on 31st December, 31st March or 31st August following their fifth birthday, whichever comes first.

If you are an international doctor relocating with your child, the year/stage of school that your child will be in is dependent on which time of year they were born.


The application process for UK schools

The below process applies for anyone living in England:

  • Find out who your local council will be (based on your postcode). To do this, click here 
  • Contact your local council to discuss which schools are in your catchment area and what the admission criteria is. You’ll find your local council’s contact details on their website.
  • Research the schools in your catchment area: For detailed information about the schools in your area, including their Ofsted scores, click here.
  • Complete an application form: You will need to fill in an application form either online or by paper and list the schools of your choice in order of preference.

The criteria may differ slightly if you are living in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. If you’re relocating to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, follow the below links for more information:


Catchment areas: What are they and how do they work?

For most schools, where you live will be one of the main factors as to whether your child will be accepted. As such, it’s important to know about catchment areas.

In short, catchment areas are based on the distance from the school to your home. To determine this, councils and schools use the:

  • Straight line catchment method: This is a circular catchment area around a school that changes each year. The size of the circle is based on how far away the last child that was offered a place that year lived from the school.
  • Walking distance catchment method: A walking distance catchment is an irregular shape that changes each year. This is partly based on the network of roads and paths that surrounds a school, and partly by how far away the last child that was offered a place in a given year lived from the school.

For more information on catchment areas, click here.

To find out which school are in your catchment area, you will need to contact your local council.


If you’re interested in working in the UK and would like to discuss the positions available in your specialty, and how we can assist you, please contact our team.