UK school system

Understanding the UK school system.

To support our overseas applicants we have compiled some information on the overall structure of the UK school system. If you require further information, then please contact our International Admissions Officer by email or telephone: +44 (0)1223 224 157.

UK school system

The school system in England is divided into Early Years (three to four years), Primary education (four to 11 years), Secondary education (11 to 16 years) and Sixth Form, or Further Education (16 to 18 years). Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged between five and 16.

Types of schools

State-funded or independent

St Mary's School, Cambridge is an independent school.

  • 93% of children in England between the ages of three and 18 are in education in state-funded schools without charge.
  • About 7% of school children in England attend fee-paying Independent schools, which rises to 15.5 percent at Sixth Form stage.
  • There are approx. 780 independent day schools and 500 independent boarding schools in the UK.

Sometimes independent schools are called ‘public’ or ‘prep’ schools for children under 13 years old, or, more generally, they may simply be called ‘private’ schools.

These schools value their independence from central government control which gives them freedom to innovate in terms of their curriculum and to offer much smaller class sizes and a much broader curriculum amongst many other advantages.

More about our approach to education

Day or boarding

There is a long tradition of boarding schools in Britain. Boarding students live on the school premises during term time and return home in the holidays. At day schools, students return home to their families at the end of each school day.

Some schools have a mixture of day and boarding students, whereas other schools are exclusively day or boarding. St Mary’s School, Cambridge offers places for both day and boarding students.

Boarding at St Mary's

Co-education or single-sex
  • Single-sex schools educate boys or girls separately.
  • Co-educational schools, also known as ‘co-ed’ schools educate boys and girls together.

St Mary’s School, Cambridge is a single-sex school for girls. Single-sex schools allow students to develop academically, personally and socially without the added distractions from, and competitive pressures of, the other sex.

Why all girls'

  • Independent schools vary considerably in size, ranging from 50 students to more than 1,700 students.
  • The average size of an independent school is around 400 students.

St Mary’s School, Cambridge has around 650 students, with 170 girls in our Junior School. This enables us to provide a very broad academic curriculum and innovative extra-curricular programme, whilst also being small enough to provide outstanding pastoral care and many opportunities to value each individual girl.



All students in England follow the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) curriculum or its equivalent. GCSE courses are usually taught over two years. Students usually take between five and 12 GCSEs, although the government benchmarks its standards against pass rates in five GCSEs.

Compulsory (core) subjects are:

  • English Literature and English Language (or English as an Additional Language, EAL, for learners whose first language is not English)
  • Mathematics
  • Science

All other subjects are optional for UK students, although different schools may specify different requirements – for instance at St Mary’s School, Cambridge, students must also take Religious Studies (RS). The qualification is graded A* to G, with A* being the top grade.

At St Mary's School, our students generally take 10 (I)GCSE subjects although since our curriculum is tailored to individual needs, some take more and some take fewer. 

(I)GCSEs at St Mary's School

A Levels

A Levels are studied by most students in the UK who are in education after the age of 16 (some students follow vocational courses) and are highly regarded by both British and international universities. No subjects are compulsory.

The A Level programme is a two year course and students usually study three or four subjects. The qualification is awarded from A* to E grades with A* being the top grade.

A Levels at St Mary's Sixth Form

Academic year

The academic year in the UK runs from September to July and this is split into three terms of about 12 to 16 weeks.

At St Mary’s School, Cambridge we call these terms:

  • Autumn Term (September to December)
  • Spring Term (January to March/April)
  • Summer Term (March/April to July).

Each term has a week-long holiday in the middle called ‘half term’.

Our term dates