Relocating to the UK With Children, A Guide

If you are looking at sending your children to school in the United Kingdom, specifically England, then this article is for you. Designed to help you understand the system, its challenges and opportunities, this article will get you a long way down the road to finding the right school - for you and for your child.
Relocating to the UK With Children, A Guide
By Lisa Aubrey
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The UK, with 32,000 schools, is notorious for having a complicated system of schooling. That said, there are two main systems: fee paying private schools and those under government (and local authority) control, which are free.

Investing in private education is a huge financial commitment and should depend on both first-rate information as well as your own gut instinct. Our advice is that you should take a tour of each school you are considering. Every family is different and the decision should be an all-round one encompassing academics, facilities and the “feel” of the school.

A brief word about Covid-19. All schools went online this year but aim to resume normally from September, with social distancing. Some fee-paying schools have reduced their fees accordingly.  Virtual tours are available online but if possible, visit the school of your choice to get a feel of it and to talk to the pupils and staff.

The UK Education System

The UK academic year starts in September, with three terms, but most schools offer mid-year admissions.

Private schools

Wycombe Abbey, in the top 3 private schools in the UK for academic results, but will set you back over UKP 13,000 a term for boarding. 

Fee charging schools are called private or independent schools and these terms are interchangeable.  Just over 6% of the population in the UK attend private schools, so not a large number. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage is a personal decision, but the best private schools achieve the highest entry levels into the top universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Prep (short for preparatory) and pre-prep schools are private junior schools for children aged 7-13, or 3-7. They prepare pupils for entry into independent senior schools. The entrance exam is called the Common Entrance (C.E.) and is taken in the Spring term of the last year of prep school. Increasingly, public schools set their own exam to be taken first, normally a year beforehand, and if the child is successful then they sit the C.E. exam. If your child takes a scholarship into an independent senior school, it is earlier than the main C.E. exam. If the scholarship is not attained but their grades are good enough to be admitted, then they do not have to repeat the C.E. exam later, they will be offered a place but without the scholarship.

Private senior schools start at 11 for girls or 13 for boys. The most exclusive of private schools are confusingly called public schools, which are very expensive and tend to require students to live there full-time. These are known as boarding schools. They can be co-educational (co-ed) or single sex

State schools

State schools, such as The Henrietta Barnett School, Hampshire deliver stellar results, but entrance is hugely competitive.

UK state schools are funded by the government, not by tuition fees or endowments and they do not have a charitable status. There are different types of state schools.

Primary schools are for children aged 5-11 and secondary schools are from 11-18.  Most secondary schools do not have any admissions criteria, you simply apply to your local authority and your child attends the school closest to your home. However, some cities have selective secondary schools called “grammar schools”. As well as Greater London, which has, for example, an excellent grammar school called Tiffins, there are other counties, or areas, close to London which still have grammar schools, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire. These schools take children who pass an exam known as the 11+, at the age of 10. They are always single sex schools. The UK also has a good selection of schools which accept you based on your religion, known as Faith schools.

Success at the 11+ Exam is the pass you need into the country's grammar schools, but be aware: Parents in the UK send their children to tutors years in advance of the examination in order to prepare them. Even the very brightest children will not be able to compete with those students that have spent their Saturdays sitting thousands of past papers, like this one pictured above.


Academies are run by Trusts and are overseen by central government rather than the local authorities. They have more power over their finances, curriculum, teacher’s pay and conditions than the local authority run schools. The government argues that this drives up standards by putting more power in the hands of head teachers. They have more freedom to innovate and can opt out of the national curriculum. They can also find an external sponsor, like a business, university, charity or faith body. Schools with an Ofsted rating of less than ‘outstanding’ must have a sponsor, whereas ‘outstanding’ schools can instead form a trust of people sitting on its governing body.

The government says they have been shown to improve twice as fast as other state schools and in the case of the Kensington and Chelsea Academy, this has proven to be true. They have six applicants to Oxbridge this year and have overtaken Holland Park School, which was always rumoured to be the best community school in London. Some failing community schools were forced to become Academies having been classed as inadequate by Ofsted. Academies can be faith schools, so preference would be given to pupils coming in from local Church of England primary schools, or they just have the same entry requirements as a community school. That is, they will have a catchment area, usually within their borough of London, or the town where they are located.

Free Schools

Free Schools are fairly new state-funded schools. They provide a way for groups of parents, teachers, charities, existing schools or other organisations to respond to a need for a new school in their community – whether for extra places, to raise standards or just to offer choice. Like all state schools, Free Schools are free to attend and open to all children. They have been opened all over England. They can be primary and secondary, or just sixth form and can open specifically for children with special educational needs, or those who struggle in mainstream schools. 

Free schools are legally academies, so they are funded by central government and have a range of freedoms. These could be considered counter productive by traditional educators. They can extend the school day or year. They do not have to offer the National Curriculum and some schools use this freedom to teach in an innovative way, such as outdoor expeditionary lessons. They have more flexibility in the way they employ their staff. Some choose to offer teachers performance related pay to keep and reward their best staff, while others choose to bring in outside expertise by employing people without traditional teaching qualifications. This is potentially controversial. They have full control over their budget and they have independent governance, run by an Academy Trust.

All schools are regulated by the government and state schools are inspected regularly by “Ofsted”; they are graded from inadequate to outstanding.

Boarding State Schools

These are a well-kept secret!  State boarding schools provide free tuition, only charging fees for the boarding element. State boarding schools can be grammars, academies, some are “free” schools and some are run by local authorities. To re-iterate, grammar state boarding schools will still set academic entrance examinations; comprehensive academy boarding state schools will still be bound by the admissions code for state-maintained schools in the UK. State boarding schools give priority to children who have a particular need to board and will assess children’s suitability for boarding, for example, Forces children.

State boarding schools - yes they exist - offer many of the advantages of private boarding schools, but come at a fraction of the cost...

If you would like your child to board but simply cannot afford public school fees, state boarding schools are much less expensive – between £10,000 and £16,000 a year in boarding fees. They interview prospective students, which other state schools are not allowed to do. Admissions vary but to take Cranbrook, (a grammar school in Kent) as a good example, for 2021 there are 60 places available for successful candidates and entry is by means of the Kent Test (11+).

This is for the “normal” entry at the age of 11.

However, for Year 9 (13+) admissions there are 38 day places and 52 boarding places (34 boys’ and 18 girls’ places) available for students joining the school in Year 9, for September 2021 entry. 

For Sixth Form Admissions nearly 90% of the Year 12 entry is drawn from the school’s GCSE student roll.  Each year, however, they accept a small number of students from other schools.  Candidates (both day and boarding) must achieve a minimum of 48 points at GCSE, or the equivalent for candidates overseas. (1=1 and 9-9, plus at least a grade 6 in the chosen A level subjects as a minimum). 

These schools will almost definitely not have the grandness of independent boarding schools, so physically they might be a lot shabbier but academically some are excellent. Several provide for day pupils as well as for boarders.  For a list of these schools they are available on Wikepedia and other sites.

Advantages and disadvantages of private vs. free schools

However deep your pocket, there are drawbacks and advantages to every type of school, so it is really worth thinking hard about the schooling system in the UK. Whether you dislike single sex schools, disapprove of boarding schools or have three mixed sex children who you would like to have at the same school, everything is achievable with planning and knowledge. If you do not have time to plan, do not panic, there are still plenty of options.

Firstly, you must be extremely honest about the abilities of your children.  There is no point in putting them forward for an extremely competitive exam, if they do not have the ability to flourish once in the classroom. You do not want them to scrape in due to excessive and expensive tutoring to be at the bottom of the class, in a very fast paced, academic environment. Also note, that if you fail the 11+ by even one mark you do not get into a grammar school.

White Lodge, the junior Royal Ballet school.

Also expand the definition of academic: If you have a child who is a brilliant musician, consider the Yehudi Menuhin music school, or if your child is a fantastic ballet dancer, there is White Lodge, which is the junior Royal Ballet school. There are plenty of specialist arts schools, Special Needs schools and more.

Fee paying schools


  • 3-5 pre-prep schools
  • 5-13 prep schools, day or boarding, usually in the same premises as their pre-prep
  • 11-18 private or public schools for girls
  • 13-18 private or public schools, day or boarding, co-ed or boys only

Good prep schools have fantastic facilities. The children do absolutely everything in the school day, over and above the National Curriculum (English, maths, science, art, citizenship, computing, design and technology, a foreign language, geography, history, music, sport and religious education) and they come home exhausted, sometimes as late as 7pm, if they are not boarders. They offer sports, sometimes including horse riding and fencing, modern languages and usually Latin and Greek. They tend to have reasonable to good Special Educational Needs (SEN) departments. They also offer extra English language lessons.

Some have pets in the school grounds and they offer a more nurturing environment than state schools are able to. There is often significant parental involvement, which is fun, for example whole school and parents Requiem choir evenings (you can ask for the score in advance if you do not want to wing it!), debates and, of course, a lot of sports matches.

Prep Schools offer amazing school trips most holidays (at an extra cost), to places such as South Africa, China or up a mountain somewhere, skiing. Some own Chateaus in France and children get to spend half a term there to improve their French. The food is delicious with many dietary options.  The children have small class sizes and the teachers have time to spend on individual pupils. Some are boarding and some are weekly boarding or flexi boarding (which is one or two nights a week staying at school).

Beautiful grounds come at a price. Cothill in Oxfordshire offers tremendous facilities and a truly bucolic environment for those that can afford it.

The disadvantages of prep schools are that their terms are much shorter than state schools so your children are home more, which could be a problem for working parents. They nearly all have Saturday school, which you absolutely cannot miss. Forget your weekends away! They are also expensive, for example Cothill in Oxfordshire is over £9,900 per term without extras. Extras means uniform (do not discount this, some uniform such as tail coats for Eton are extortionate), trips, lunch at private day schools, LAMDA, sports equipment, violin/singing/piano lessons and the list goes on. Also, for girls whose senior school starts at 11, such as Benenden (Kent) or Roedean (Sussex), you have to pull them out of their prep schools before they get to enjoy the last two years. Or indeed, if you send them to prep school with the idea of sending them on to a grammar school, a very popular thing to do, these also start at 11.

Private senior schools

Eton, one of the few top boys only schools left in the United Kingdom.

The top private senior day schools tend to be in London and are usually single sex. Having said that, there are plenty of excellent private day schools all over the UK. Most boarding schools are now fully co-ed, such as Kings, Canterbury. There are only a few boys only public schools left in the UK (Eton, Radley, Winchester, Tonbridge, Harrow, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’, with Charterhouse and Westminster now admitting girls to the sixth form). Some well established public boarding schools are starting to take day pupils from 2021, such as Benenden, due to dwindling boarding numbers and an increased demand for good local private day schools.

The facilities of private/public senior schools are comparable with prep schools, ie fantastic, offering rowing, climbing, shooting etc, as well as all the extra academics and small classes. They are obviously much bigger than prep schools, some with over 1000 pupils. Having said that, some girls’ private schools are small, with only 450 places on offer.

Entry requirements for private schools

Schools will all want to interview you and your child and they will have entry exams, even for 4-year-olds! Thankfully most schools now offer year round admissions, so that September babies do not take the first places available and many rural prep and senior schools are actively seeking new pupils.

If you arrive mid year, and have missed the September 11+ or the June Common Entrance, you will still be able to find a place, if space is available. When it comes to the top private secondary schools it is important to try and take steps sooner rather than later, as in some cases the 13+ application deadline is up to three years prior to entry and there is often no room for latecomers. However, good headmasters of great prep schools have connections and are amazing at pulling strings, so if, say, Tonbridge or Eton are full, they will find many excellent alternatives. You do not have to worry.  A good attitude to have is that if a school turns you down then it is not the right place for your family, especially with so many options.

A word about private schools

Some of the smaller private schools are beginning to fold under the recent Corona pressure, so when choosing a school, please check that they are completely solvent.

Some people also believe that private schools cater for the more 'privileged' and are outdated and unfair. Universities are saying that they are trying to ensure a larger intake of state school children and it is believed that the “old boys network” of private schools is dying out. Of course it is unfair that not everyone can afford £45,000+ of fees per year per child, after tax, but there are a lot of bursaries, scholarships and endowments to be found at the older public schools.

Once your child achieves a scholarship, in art, music, sport or academics, then you can apply for a bursary. Some schools allow you to apply without a scholarship and most have sibling fee reductions. Not everyone flies around in helicopters and skis in Gstaad every holiday, but some do. On the other hand, some parents scrimp and save in order to pay for a private education and are willing to sacrifice holidays and smart cars. Some private schools are scruffy and parents drive around in muddy Volvos, very much “country” people, whereas some schools are extremely smart, have no peeling paint and are extremely expensive. Fees vary enormously. Consider where your children will fit in and flourish. “I wouldn’t be seen dead in that” was overheard recently on a tour of a school where the ankle length skirt was part of the compulsory uniform!

Impact of State Schools on House Prices

Tunbridge Wells house prices driven not by its postcard looks, but by the proximity to good grammar schools.

One interesting, and perhaps quite essential thing to know, is the impact that access to some of the schools in UK’s state system, in particular grammar schools, can have on house prices. House prices, for example in Tunbridge Wells (Kent), or Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire), are high relative to neighbouring towns located in a different county, where your children would therefore be ineligible for admission to grammar schools.

So, in Crowborough, which is in Sussex, a house usually costs 25% less than the same size house would cost in Tunbridge Wells, which is just ten minutes away. Why? Because Sussex does not have grammar schools. Having said that, grammar schools do have “out of county” places, but you have to be lucky. If your child is born in a year with a high birth rate, there will not be spare places for out of county pupils. 

Another factor for countryside living is whether the town not only has a train station, but if it is a fast line. The Salisbury train takes two hours to London so it is not a commuter belt area; therefore even though Wiltshire has grammar schools, this has not lifted house prices.  However Buckinghamshire is very close to London and has grammar schools, so it is extremely popular and it is more expensive to buy a house there. One could argue that a house will hold its value because of the schools, so it is worth the money. The other side of this argument is that people decide to buy a comparatively cheaper house and send their children to private school. 

Regarding outstanding and popular state primary schools, as mentioned above, house prices can easily be 30% more in small catchment areas, such as Honeywell Road in Clapham, London, which boasts the Honeywell Primary schools and currently has a 300m catchment area! 

Public exams in the UK

Pupils tend to take between 8 and 10 GCSEs at 16. Most pupils in the UK take 3 A levels at 18.  A lot of schools are turning to the International Baccalaureate, for example, Wellington College now only do IGCSEs as they think that GCSEs are too easy.  Very few offer only the IB, as does, for example, Sevenoaks School. This is an important consideration because to do the IB you have to able to cover a broad selection of subjects (6).

AS levels (lower 6th exams) were abolished last year, (2019) much to everyone’s relief. Lower Sixth became a fun year again, especially for pupils who changed schools after GCSEs. GCSEs were re-written. Also abolished were November retakes. The whole system has reverted to a linear one, much like the old O and A levels, with no coursework, minimum retakes and grades given on the end of year exams only. Obviously this year has been the exception due to Corona, and has been a more complicated year for grading as pupils could not take public exams, but hopefully this will resume to normal next year.

State schools


  • 5-11 Primary schools
  • 11-18 Secondary schools

The day starts at 9 am and ends at 3.30 pm with a break mid-morning and an hour for lunch. This leaves just 5 lessons a day. The national curriculum consists of 13 subjects. As you can imagine it is a tall order to fit these in. Many schools provide after school clubs once a week for, example, Spanish lessons, or early morning runs around the school for exercise. There is simply not enough time in the day to get everything done otherwise. The class sizes are 30+ pupils, however, they are free! Most pupils take in a packed lunch.

For the excellent ones you have to live 300m from the front door of the school because the intake is based on your location. This makes the real estate near to the best primary schools ridiculously inflated. However to get around this, you can rent and then move further away. Do not quote us on this though! You simply need an address to get your child into the school in the first place. These addresses are checked by the local authority and then again by the school. They will literally knock on your door to check that you live at the address on your application form.

The schools then usually offer sibling priority, so once one of your children gets in then you are home and dry. Having said that, one senior state school recently changed its policy and a family got caught out, having assumed their child would waltz in even though they had moved away. Read the small print. It is also much easier to get your child into an excellent primary school the older he/she is. So if you have missed the reception year but you are coming to the UK with a child in year 5, aged 9, you have much more chance of there being a space in the top primary schools, due to general movement. 

The children who attend primary schools need parents who have the willingness and time to do a lot of out of school activities, especially if they intend for them to go on to a private or grammar school at 11. So you would need to be prepared to take them to drama/ballet/clarinet lessons/ swimming lessons/ rugby on a rotating daily basis, to make up for their short school days and lack of “extras”.

Tonbridge Girls Grammar School

For secondary school, whether Grammar or non-selective senior schools, location is crucial. You are not free to choose the state secondary school you want your child to attend, but you can ‘express a preference.’ You then have a right to Appeal if you are not happy with the choice made for you, but the rules of Appeal are tightly defined. Senior schools all work on catchment areas. Having said that, some catchment areas are huge. For example Tonbridge Girls Grammar school (Togs), which is one of the top grammar schools in the country, in Kent, offering the IB only, has a lot of pupils coming 35 miles from London on the train every day. If you like the idea of sending your child to a grammar school then the exam, called the 11+ (in Kent it is now called the Kent test), takes place in the Autumn term of Year 6 when the child is 10. For a place at secondary school, you must apply through your local authority, even if it’s linked to your child’s current primary school.

If you do not live in the area where the grammar school is, there are out of area exams at separate times. However, priority will be given to a child who lives locally, if too many people pass the test. You absolutely have to be in the UK to take a grammar school test. They are extremely competitive and consist of maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning. The brightest of children attend grammar schools, the education is fantastic, some of them have good facilities (but not swimming pools or smart theatres, as they are still state schools) and they have the short school days. But the kids are motivated and hard working and the education is free! Lunches are ok, canteen style and cheap but a lot of pupils take in their own lunch.

The gap between 11yr (girl) and 13yr (boy) public school intake.

If your child attends a state primary school, which finishes aged 11, and you would like them to attend a boys/co-ed boarding senior school at 13, you would have to send them to a prep school for the 11-13 age gap in order for them to take the Common Entrance. This means moving school twice.

Schooling in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Northern Ireland

The education system in Northern Ireland has some important differences to the one in England and Wales. Whilst the school year also starts in September, the child’s age on 1 July (rather than 1 September, as in England and Wales) determines when they start school and what school year they are in. As elsewhere, children start primary school at 4+ and move on to secondary school at 11+.


The education system in Scotland is completely different from the rest of the UK. It is based on the Curriculum for Excellence which covers education from 3-18 years old. Children in Scotland usually start primary school in mid to late August when they are aged between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half years old. Your child will be at primary school for seven years (p1-p7) before progressing to secondary school around the age of 11/12.


Wales broadly follows the English system with the addition of compulsory Welsh lessons, with the vision of ensuring a truly bilingual country.

Sixth Form/Entry at 16

Just as you’re about to think, “Fine, got it,” there’s one more thing. All schools have a sixth form intake and there is a lot of movement in the UK at this age. Movement at 16, or entry into school at 16 from abroad will depend entirely on GCSE results. There are pupils who move to do the IB, or the opposite. Some children from Academy schools might decide, if they do well enough in their GCSEs, to apply for a Grammar School (which also turn co-ed at 16!). So boys go to girls’ grammar schools for sixth form and vice versa. Acceptance, apart from the required grades will also be determined by available places. Independent schools will definitely want to interview the prospective pupil, Grammar schools usually do too, but not always.

Some young adults can also decide that they do not want to focus on A levels or the IB and they enter Sixth Form College (these are free) to study a BTEC. This stands for the Business and Technology Education Council and they are specialist work-related qualifications. They combine practical learning with subject and theory content.

BTECs are designed for young people interested in a particular sector or industry but who are not yet sure what job they’d like to do, such as the music industry.  You do one subject for two years and it is equivalent to 3 A levels.


All exam results are published every year, normally in early September, in league tables for both private and state senior schools. Posted below are the top few from 2019. If academic achievement is what you are after and your child is bright, the league tables are helpful. A word of warning though, some schools refuse to have their statistics entered because they feel that it encourages schools to be “pushy”, and an all-round education is not always about the schools “clawing” their way up the league tables.  They are, however, very useful if you have bright children, are considering the state sector and deciding where to live.

It seems challenging but with proper guidance and a good clear idea of what sort of schooling you want for your family, it can be easily worked out. Although we do have a lot of choices, which might seem overwhelming, how lucky are we that we have such great schools and so much to offer, to everyone. 


Top 7 Prep Schools

Dragon School, Oxford

League tables are not available for prep schools as public exams are not taken there. It is a subjective view to say which the top ones are but your choice does depend on which public schools you wish your child to attend. So if you absolutely want him to go to Eton, for example, you must send him to an Eton “feeder” prep school. The following are 7 of the top academic prep schools:

School Fees a term
1)   Summer Fields,  Oxford  £10,424/£7,265 (day fees)
2)   Ludgrove,  Wixenford  £9.420
3)   Cothill House, Abingdon £9,930
4)   Dragon School, Oxford  £10,562/ £7,256 (day fees)
5)   Caldicott, Farnham Royal  £9,690/ £8,721 (weekly boarding fees)
6)   Westminster Under School, London  £6,834 (day fees)
7)   Sunningdale, Sunningdale £8,750/£6,840 (day fees)

* Some prep schools offer a sibling discount
**It is about £60 a night for the schools that offer flexi boarding (one or two nights per week).

Top 10 State Schools based on 2019 league table results

The Henrietta Barnett School, Hampshire

1) Queen Elisabeth’s School, Barnet
2) Wilson’s School, Wallington
3) The Henrietta Barnett School, Hampshire
4) Pate’s Grammar School, Cheltenham
5) The Tiffin Girl’s School, Kingston upon Thames
6) St Olave’s Grammar School, Orpington
7) Reading School, Reading
8) Altrincham Grammar School for Girls, Altrincham
9) Colchester Royal Grammar School, Colchester
10) King Edward V1 Grammar School, Chelmsford

Top 10 Private Senior Schools based on 2019 league table results

North London Collegiate School
School Termly Fees
1) St Paul’s Girl’s School (d/girls)  £8,629
2) Westminster School (d/b, boys, co-ed 6th)   £9,603/£13,869     
3)  Wycombe Abbey School (d/b/girls)                                   £10,090/£13,450
4)  Guildford High School for Girls (d)  £3,634-£5,834
5)  St Paul’s School (d/b, boys)                                               £8,636/£12,997
6) North London Collegiate School   (d/girls) £5,754-£6,810
7)  Godolphin & Latymer School (d/girls)  £7,695
8)  King’s College School,Wimbledon (d/boys/co-ed 6th)   £7,445
9)  St Mary’s School, Ascot (both, girls) £9,530/£13,380
10) City of London School for Boys (d) £6,313

** The only schools in this last list which are not in London are Wycombe Abbey, St Mary’s Ascot & Guildford High
*** There are added examination fees and large deposit fees for private schools
**** Some schools require much lower fees for the first two years, so St Paul’s starts at £6,904 for the first two years; not all schools offer this. Guildford High has increasing fees the higher up the school you go. St Paul’s girls is £600 more for entry into Sixth form, Westminster £800 more. There are variables so please check the fees against your year of entry.

All fees are correct at the time of hitting the go live button!

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