British Curriculum: How it works

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GCSE Exams

Unlike in the US, assessment is not on a continuous, but is primarily cantered on national standardized exams. At the end of Year 11, students take national standardized exams, the GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education). Students may choose the number and subject of their exams (from the 48 GCSE exams available). They may opt to sit higher (possible results: A* – D) or lower (C-G) level exams. However, English, Math and Science are required subjects, and UK universities typically expect students to sit at least five GCSE exams.

Post-16 in the British system

After GCSEs, students may choose to pursue either an academic or vocational track. Students on a vocational track can choose to obtain a work qualification such as the BTEC or OCR Nationals. Students continuing on an academic track attend sixth form colleges during Years 12-13.

Students may choose the number and subjects of their A levels (from approximately 80 subjects available). However, universities typically expect students to complete at least 2 A level qualifications, and some university degree programs may specify A level subjects and results required for admission.

A level results range from A – E and are awarded by external examination bodies. Scores are based primarily on the AS and A2 level examinations, but may also include teacher assessment of coursework. AS level exams are sat at the end of Year 12, while A 2 level exams are sat at the end of Year 13.

Here is what the British Council says:


By law, all children in England and Wales between ages 5 and 16 must receive a full-time education, while in Northern Ireland, children must begin at age 4. For children under age 5, publicly-funded nurseries and pre-schools are available for a limited number of hours each week. After the age of 16, students can attend sixth form colleges or other further education institutions. Both options offer general education courses in addition to more specific vocational or applied subjects.

The UK introduced a National Curriculum in 1992 and state schools are required to adhere to it until students reach age 16. The Education and Skills Act of 2008 raised the compulsory age to 18, effective in 2013 for 17 year-olds and in 2015 for 18 year-olds. The government is including a provision in its Education Bill that will increase the participation age to 18 so that school leavers have the option of staying in school or move onto further training (Independent schools are not obliged to adhere to the National Curriculum).

School learning is split into 4 key stages relating to the curriculum. Pupils progress through the stages as they go through the school years.

National curriculum core subjects – 5 to 11 year olds (Key stages 1 and 2):

English, Maths, Science, Design and technology, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), History, Geography, Art and design, Music, Physical education

Schools also have to teach religious education and are encouraged to prove personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship, and at least one modern foreign language.

National curriculum core subjects – 11 to 14 year olds (Key stage 3):

English, maths, Science, Design and technology, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), History, Geography, Modern foreign languages, Art and design, Music, Citizenship, Physical education.

Schools also have to provide: Careers education and guidance (during Year 9), Sex and Relationship Education (SRE), Religious education.

Throughout key stages 1-3 pupils are routinely tested in Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) but these are being phased out by the Government.

Key stage 4 – GCSE:

At GCSE level, students have to take English, maths, science, IT, citizenship and physical education.

The GCSE is a single-subject examination set and marked by independent examination boards. Students usually take up to ten (there is no upper or lower limit) GCSE examinations in different subjects, including mathematics and English language.

After taking GCSEs, students may leave secondary schooling; alternatively, they may choose to continue their education at vocational or technical colleges, or they may take a higher level of secondary school examinations known as AS-Levels after an additional year of study. Following two years of study, students may take A-Level (short for Advanced Level) examinations, which are required for university entrance in the UK.