The English Education System

On our home page there is an apocryphal English exam question about a train driver, remembered from Soviet times. The answer to the question is that the driver is the same age as the reader – since the reader is told to imagine that he (or she) is the driver.

It is, based on the facts given, the only possible answer to the question, yet it does require “out of the box” thinking. A child who learns within a rigid system, memorising facts, and who is never required to apply knowledge to new situations rarely develops this skill.

An English education, on the other hand, deliberately steers away from this narrow approach to learning. It teaches critical thinking, not blindly taking anything for granted. It teaches children to think, and to think creatively. When children grow mentally, they become more responsible and more independent, and this in turn helps them obtain experience for later life.

Independent schools can afford to attract the best teachers who can inspire their students, not just educate them. They help them to find their potential and vocation in life.

An important part of the reason why an English education achieves all of this so well is that considerable emphasis is given to sport and creative interests, as well as academic achievement. Sport, art, music and drama are built into the curriculum, but on top of that a wide range of extra-curricular activities are also available.

Secondary education in England

Compared to the Russian system of 11 years of school, schooling under the English system lasts for 13 years, from the age of 5 to 18.

The following table shows how there is a difference of one between the Russian and English class / form designation at any given age.


State system

Private education system

Year / Form in England


Year / Form in Russia

Primary School

Pre-preparatory school (without boarding)







Preparatory school
(until age 11, or in many schools 13)













Senior School








Senior school (from age 11, or in many schools 13)




10 (GCSE)



11 (GCSE)



Sixth FormA-level, IB
Diploma or Cambridge Pre-U Diploma

12 (AS-level)



13 (A-level)




The other points of note from terms used in the table are:

  • Preparatory schools were named as such because students were being prepared for senior boarding schools – often ones historically linked to the preparatory school. Formerly, this transition to senior school would be at age 13. In more recent times, many preparatory and boarding schools make the transition at age 11, in line with the State system. Many boarding schools are now also combined preparatory and senior schools, covering nine years of education.
  • Official exams are taken at two points in the school career: at age 16, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (“GCSE”), and at 18, either Advanced (or “A”) Levels or the International Baccalaureate (“IB”). Both levels are normally taken after a two year course, but a full GCSE can be taken in one year.
  • The number of GCSEs taken depends on the school, but normally ranges between 8 and 12. Subjects such as English, Mathematics and Science are compulsory, but others can be chosen from a menu. The final choice tends to be biased either towards science or humanities. Possible exam grades range from 9 (“Excellent”) down to 1, but any grade lower than 5 is not highly regarded.
  • The number of A-levels taken more likely depends on the academic skills of the child, but is generally 3 or 4 subjects. Some or all of these will reflect the earlier choice of (and success at) GCSEs, but more importantly will be chosen according to which subject is to be studied at university. Exam grades range from A to E. The more prestigious the university, the more exacting the requirements, in terms both of subjects studied and exam grades. Grades lower than “C” are unlikely to achieve a place at one of the better universities.
  • Many schools now offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma as an alternative to A-levels. It covers a broader range of subjects (6, rather than 3 or 4 at A-level) and the course is considered to be more academically demanding than A-levels. The IB Diploma is widely recognised by universities around the world, as well as in the UK.
  • The Cambridge Pre-University Diploma is a new qualification which is growing in popularity among private schools. Only one attempt to pass the exam is permitted. Only UK and US universities currently recognise the qualification.

There are no university entrance exams: entrance depends on the grades achieved at A-level or IB in the final two years of school.

Note that the official exam results for each school are publicly available and there are rankings of schools published each year. The rankings are dominated by the private (rather than state) schools.

Admission to Independent schools

Foreign students who are not citizens of the EU can only study in independent schools. In the UK, there are around 2,600 independent schools.

The entrance requirements into a preparatory school (up to the age of 11 or 13), vary considerably from school to school, but foreign students are normally tested on their standard of English language and Mathematics.

Admission into a senior school from age 11 is either by taking the “Common Entrance Examination” – a collection of exams in a range of subjects, set and marked by a central body, or by taking the exams set by the particular school. Foreign students are normally tested on a narrower range of subjects, including English language and Mathematics.

It is normally possible to sit the exams in Russia under suitable exam conditions.

Apart from exam performance, an offer of a place will also depend on an interview and evidence of past academic achievement, usually school reports.

Schools which specialise in preparing children for normal English senior schools (e.g. “International Study Centres”) tend to have more relaxed entrance criteria.

The whole process of application and admission is long and arduous. It is often advisable to apply to more than one school in case the preferred school refuses a place – even though this may require taking a second set of exams.

Documentation needed to enter a school

  • Translation of last few years’ school reports
  • School and extra-curricular awards and achievements
  • Results of language/academic assessment(s)
  • Translation of headmaster’s recommendation (on schools’ request)

School holidays

The English academic year is divided into 3 terms. In the middle of each term there is a short vacation (“half-term”), thus a total of 5 vacations (plus the summer vacation).

In a year there are 7 months of study and 5 months of holiday.

Autumn Term - from the first or second week of September to early December
Half-term (1-2 weeks) - end of October or beginning of November

Christmas Vacation (3-4 weeks) - from early December to early January
Spring Term - from the beginning of January until the end of March
Half-term (1-2 weeks) - mid February
Easter vacation (3-4 weeks) - from late March to late April

Summer Term - from late April until the first week of July
Half-term (1 week) - end of May or beginning of June

During the vacations and half term holidays, students must leave the school.

The school also closes for two weekends each term for “exeats”.

During long vacations, students generally return home, but during half terms may stay in England with visiting parents, friends or host family, or attend a course or camp.

Admission to university

Most children in England reach university with A-levels, or an IB or Cambridge Pre-U Diploma, as described in the Secondary Education section above. (Secondary education in England)

Russian students who do not have these qualifications would normally need to take a one year “Foundation” or “Access” course offered by colleges and some universities. 

Applications for university are normally made in the autumn of the final year of school. The application, for up to five different universities/courses, is made to a central organisation (“UCAS”). Based on the application – which includes a promotional statement by the student telling about his interests and achievements, – and the predicted exam grades, universities will offer an interview, and perhaps after that a place, subject to the student achieving the required grades in the final exams in June of that final year.

Note that there are no university entrance exams: entrance depends on the grades achieved at A-level or IB after the final two years of school.

If the results are worse than expected, and none of the chosen universities/courses confirms the place previously offered, the student may still obtain a place at another university which has places and lower entrance requirements. This process is known as “Clearing”.

University courses begin in September and generally last three years. At the end, the student receives a “Bachelor’s Degree”.

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