Education overview - England & Wales

All children in England and Wales between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a state school. Most state schools have to follow the national curriculum. The most common ones are:

  • community schools, controlled by the local council and not influenced by business or religious groups

  • foundation schools, with more freedom to change the way they do things than community schools

  • academies, run by a governing body, independent from the local council - they can follow a different curriculum

  • grammar schools, run by the council, a foundation body or a trust - they select all or most of their pupils based on academic ability and there is often an exam to get in

Special schools

Special schools with pupils aged 11 and older can specialise in 1 of the 4 areas of special educational needs:

  • communication and interaction

  • cognition and learning

  • social, emotional and mental health

  • sensory and physical needs

Schools can further specialise within these categories to reflect the special needs they help with, eg Autistic spectrum disorders, visual impairment or speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

Faith schools

Faith schools can be different kinds of schools, eg voluntary aided schools, free schools, academies etc, but are associated with a particular religion.

Faith schools are mostly run like other state schools. They have to follow the national curriculum except for religious studies, where they are free to only teach about their own religion. The admissions criteria and staffing policies may be different too, although anyone can apply for a place.

Free schools

Free schools are funded by the government but aren’t run by the local council. They have more control over how they do things. They’re ‘all-ability’ schools, so can’t use academic selection processes like a grammar school.

Free schools can:

  • set their own pay and conditions for staff

  • change the length of school terms and the school day

They don’t have to follow the national curriculum.

Free schools are run on a not-for-profit basis and can be set up by groups like:

  • charities

  • universities

  • independent schools

  • community and faith groups

  • teachers

  • parents

  • businesses

Types of free school

University technical colleges

University technical colleges specialise in subjects like engineering and construction - and teach these subjects along with business skills and using IT.

Pupils study academic subjects as well as practical subjects leading to technical qualifications. The curriculum is designed by the university and employers, who also provide work experience for students.

University technical colleges are sponsored by:

  • universities

  • employers

  • further education colleges

Studio schools

Studio schools are small schools - usually with around 300 pupils - delivering mainstream qualifications through project-based learning. This means working in realistic situations as well as learning academic subjects.

Students work with local employers and a personal coach, and follow a curriculum designed to give them the skills and qualifications they need in work, or to take up further education.


Academies are publicly funded independent schools. Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. They still have to follow the same rules on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools.

Academies get money directly from the government, not the local council. They’re run by an academy trust which employs the staff. Some academies have sponsors such as businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups. Sponsors are responsible for improving the performance of their schools.

City technology colleges

City technology colleges are independent schools in urban areas that are free to go to. They’re owned and funded by companies as well as central government (not the local council).

They have a particular emphasis on technological and practical skills.

State boarding schools

State boarding schools provide free education but charge fees for boarding. Some state boarding schools are run by local councils, and some are run as academies or free schools. State boarding schools give priority to children who have a particular need to board and will assess children’s suitability for boarding.

Charities such as Buttle UK or the Royal National Children’s Foundation can sometimes help with the cost of boarding. Contact the State Boarding Schools’ Association for more information about state boarding schools, eligibility and how to apply.

Private / independent schools

Private schools (also known as ‘independent schools’) charge fees to attend instead of being funded by the government. Pupils don’t have to follow the national curriculum.

All private schools must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly.

Reports on private schools

All school reports are published online by the organisation responsible for inspecting them. Find out from the school which organisation inspects them. Half of all independent schools are inspected by Ofsted.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate inspects schools that are members of the Independent Schools Council.

The Bridge Schools Inspectorate inspects schools that are members of the Christian Schools’ Trust or the Association of Muslim Schools.

Some other schools are inspected by the School Inspection Service.

Special educational needs

There are also private schools which specialise in teaching children with special educational needs.

School admissions

Contact your local council to find:

Find out about a school

You can find out more by:

  • visiting the school - most schools have open days

  • reading the school’s most recent Ofsted reports

  • checking school league tables, which include exam results

  • talking to other parents about what they think of the school

What schools must publish on their website

Schools’ websites must include:

  • the amount of money they get from taking underprivileged children (the ‘pupil premium’), what they do with it and the effect it’s had

  • details of the curriculum

  • admission criteria

  • behaviour policy

  • special educational needs policy

  • disability policy

  • links to Ofsted reports

  • links to performance data

  • the school’s latest key stage 2 and 4 attainment and progress measures

You can also get advice about choosing schools from your local council. All councils have teams to help parents get their children into schools.

Admission criteria

All schools have admission criteria to decide which children get places.

Admission criteria are different for each school. For example, schools may give priority to children:

  • who have a brother or sister at the school already

  • who live close to the school

  • from a particular religion (for faith schools)

  • who do well in an entrance exam (for selective schools, eg grammar schools or stage schools)

  • who went to a particular primary school (a ‘feeder school’)

  • in care or being looked after (all schools must have this as a top priority)

Your local council can give you a booklet about schools’ criteria and how to apply.

Contact the council if you’re applying for a school place after the start of the school year (e.g. changing schools).


You must apply for a place at a school, even if it’s linked to your child’s current nursery or primary school. The way you apply depends on whether you’re applying for:

Private schools have their own admissions procedures. Apply directly if you want to send your child to a private school.

When applications open

Applications open on different days in each local council area - usually at the start of the autumn term of the year before your child is due to start school.

Find out from your local council when applications open for primary or secondary schools.

Deadlines to apply

You must apply for a primary school place by 15 January.

You must apply for a secondary school place by 31 October.

How to apply

When you fill in the form (online or on paper) you’ll be asked to list the schools you’re applying for in order of preference.

You must apply for at least 3 schools.

To get a copy of the application form on paper, contact your local council.

When you’ll find out

Councils will send confirmations for:

  • primary schools on 16 April

  • secondary schools on 1 March

See your local council’s website for more information or to find out your results if you applied online.


You’ll be sent a letter with the decision about your child’s school. You can appeal against the decision. The letter will tell you how. You must appeal against each rejection separately.

Appeals for infant classes

For 5 to 7 year olds, the class size is limited to 30. Your application can be turned down if all the classes already have 30 children.

You can still appeal if your child would have been offered a place. Your appeal could be successful if:

  • the admission arrangements haven’t been properly followed

  • the admission criteria aren’t legal according to the school admissions appeal code

  • the decision to refuse your child a place wasn’t reasonable

Appeals for children adopted from care

You can appeal a decision if both of these apply:

  • you adopted your child from local authority care before 30 December 2005

  • you didn’t get your first choice school for September

You can still appeal if you’ve already accepted a place at another school.

The school must admit your child if your appeal is successful.

Help preparing your appeal

Celsium's education consultant can help and support you with any appeal.

When the hearing will be

The ‘admission authority’ for the school (usually the school itself or the council) must give you at least 10 school days’ notice of the hearing. Appeals must be heard within 40 school days of the deadline for making an appeal.

What happens at the appeal hearing

There’s a panel of 3 people at the appeal hearing. The panel must be independent.

  1. The admission authority will explain why they turned down your application.

  2. You’ll be able to give your own reasons why your child should be admitted.

  3. The appeals panel must decide if the school’s admission criteria were properly followed and are legal according to the school admissions appeals code.

  4. If the criteria are legal and were properly followed, the panel must decide if they were followed fairly and thoroughly.

  5. If the criteria weren’t properly followed or are illegal, your appeal must be upheld.

  6. If your appeal has not already been upheld, the panel will decide if your reasons for your child to be admitted outweigh the school’s reasons for not admitting another child.

  7. The panel will send you and the admission authority their decision within 5 school days.

A panel’s decision can only be overturned by a court. If there’s a change in your circumstances which could affect the decision, you may be able to appeal again.

The national curriculum

The ‘basic’ school curriculum includes the ‘national curriculum’, as well as religious education and sex education.

The national curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.

Other types of school like academies and private schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum. Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, maths and science. They must also teach religious education.

Key stages

The national curriculum is organised into blocks of years called ‘key stages’ (KS). At the end of each key stage, your child’s teacher will formally assess their performance to measure your child’s progress.


The school must report your child’s progress to you. This can happen in different ways, eg an end-of-term report or meetings at the school.

Key stages 1 & 2

Compulsory national curriculum subjects at primary school are:

  • English

  • maths

  • science

  • design and technology

  • history

  • geography

  • art and design

  • music

  • physical education (PE), including swimming

  • computing

  • ancient and modern foreign languages (at key stage 2)

Schools must provide religious education (RE) but parents can ask for their children to be taken out of the whole lesson or part of it.

Schools often also teach:

  • personal, social and health education (PSHE)

  • citizenship

  • modern foreign languages (at key stage 1)

Tests and assessments

Year 1 phonics screening check

The check will take place in June when your child will read 40 words out loud to a teacher. You’ll find out how your child did, and their teacher will assess whether he or she needs extra help with reading. If your child doesn’t do well enough in the check they’ll have to do it again in Year 2.

Key stage 1

Key stage 1 tasks and tests cover:

  • reading

  • writing

  • speaking and listening

  • maths

  • science

The tasks and tests are taken when the school chooses.

Your child’s teacher will use the child’s work (including spoken work and homework) to work out what level your child is at in each area.

You can ask for the results but they’re only used to help the teacher assess your child’s work.

Key stage 2

Key stage 2 tests cover:

  • English reading

  • English grammar, punctuation and spelling

  • maths (including mental arithmetic)

The tests are taken in mid-May and last under 5 hours 30 minutes in total. You’ll get the results in July. If your child is demonstrating higher achievement then the headteacher may put them in for extra tests.

When your child reaches the end of key stage 2 the teacher will also report on your child’s progress in English, maths and science.

Key stages 3 & 4

Key stage 3

Compulsory national curriculum subjects are:

  • English

  • maths

  • science

  • history

  • geography

  • modern foreign languages

  • design and technology

  • art and design

  • music

  • physical education

  • citizenship

  • computing

Schools must provide religious education (RE) and sex education from key stage 3 but parents can ask for their children to be taken out of the whole lesson or part of it.

Key stage 4

During key stage 4 most pupils work towards national qualifications - usually GCSEs. The compulsory national curriculum subjects are the ‘core’ and ‘foundation’ subjects.

Core subjects are:

  • English

  • maths

  • science

Foundation subjects are:

  • computing

  • physical education

  • citizenship

Schools must also offer at least one subject from each of these areas:

  • arts

  • design and technology

  • humanities

  • modern foreign languages

They must also provide religious education (RE) and sex education at key stage 4.