Education Blog

An Education Timeline – Understanding the British School System

The Telegraph, 3 May 2016 – Read the article in full here.

By Vivienne Durham

The examination season is almost upon us. But how can parents know which is which – and which are more important than others?

The standard exam entrance points for most academically selective independent schools are 4+, 7+, 8+, 11+, 13+ and 16+. Entrance exams for academically selective state schools are normally held at 11+ and 16+.

Here is the lowdown on the hoops a child might be made to jump through during his or her school life. 

4+ Assessments

For selective pre-prep schools in the independent sector: an opportunity to understand how your child learns, their potential and how they interact with other children. More academic schools will test basic numeracy and literacy skills so it’s useful for your child to be able to write his/her name and be familiar with numbers 1-20.

7+ Assessments: Year 2


If seeking to move your son or daughter at 7+, consider how they are performing in Year 1. 7+ assessment tests are held in Year 2 – often in January. Not all schools require them.

In the independent sector, processes vary, but you can expect your child to be tested in maths and English and, sometimes, verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

He or she – and often the parents – will also have short interviews. The exams usually total around three hours. Many schools also will request a confidential reference from your child’s current school.

8+ Assessments: Year 3

If you don’t think your child is ready to face the 7+ tests, the 8+ might be more suitable. The exams tend to be early in January – an assessment in maths, English, verbal and non-verbal reasoning and usually an interview.

Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs): Year 6

Taken in state primaries and some independent schools, the Year 6 SATs are based on Key Stage 2 curriculum and are taken in the summer term.

This year for the first time, SATs will test the new national primary curriculum, covering reading, maths and grammar. Sample papers for the 2016 SATs are available from the Department of Education website.


11+ Examinations: Year 6

Most academically selective state schools and almost all independent schools, for students aged 11-18, hold 11+ entrance examinations in Year 6.

The 11+ process for independent schools begins in Year 4/5, when, as parents, you will identify the schools you wish your child to apply to and registration to be assessed for a place.

11+ examinations are held in Year 6, normally in late autumn or early January. Formats vary, but all schools test maths and English and usually verbal reasoning. Most independent schools offer 11+ interviews to some or all candidates – and often parents, too.

Pre-Tests: Year 6 or 7

Routinely used for assessing those who intend to sit Common Entrance Examinations in Year 8 for entry to independent schools at age 13.

The tests are in verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, English and mathematics and provide a standardised assessment measure; the tests are usually online, multiple-choice and often adaptive. Exams are approximately three hours. 

13+ Assessments: Year 8

The Common Entrance 13+ exams, required for entry to independent schools at 13-plus, are in June of Year 8. Core subjects are English, maths and science.

Individual schools will specify other subjects which need to be taken. Interviews may take place at Common Entrance pre-test stage in Year 6 or at the time of the 13+ exam.

GCSEs: Years 10-11

In Year 9, students have GCSE choices for a two-year programme running throughout Years 10-11.

“Core” GCSE subjects are normally compulsory: maths, English, sciences, a modern foreign language and at least one humanity.

Students normally study between 7-11 GCSE subjects. Most sit GCSE or IGCSE exams in May and June of Year 11 and results are released in August.

Students looking for a more vocational route may be offered core GCSEs subjects alongside NVQs and other vocational qualifications. GCSEs and IGCSEs are an important marker for universities assessing the potential of applicants.

A-levels: Years 12-13

Changes to the structure of A-levels have, unsurprisingly, left many parents a little confused. From September 2015, the “new” AS-level is now a separate qualification and no longer counts towards a student’s final A-level grade.

New A-levels are being phased in from 2015, according to subject. New A-levels are linear rather than modular, with all exams taking place at the end of the two-year course, rather than an assessment after each module. Course-work has been limited in all subjects.

From 2017, Ucas will introduce a new tariff (points awarded for your A-level and AS grades) which will take into account changes to the exam system.  

International Baccalaureate: Years 12-13

The IB is an alternative qualification to A-levels, offered by more than 130 British schools. All exams for the IB take place at the end of the Upper Sixth (Year 13) with an emphasis on coursework and summative project work.

Students study six subjects: mathematics, literature, the arts, sciences, language acquisition and humanities. Subjects are graded 1-7 (45 being the highest total IB score) rather than A*-E, as at A-level.

Three chosen subjects will be taken to a higher level involving more scope to learning, as well as additional exam modules.

The IB diploma also has compulsory “theory of knowledge” lessons, an extended essay and co-curricular components through the creativity, activity, service scheme, setting students up well for university.

The IB diploma particularly suits those strong in both arts and sciences.

Vivienne Durham is Head of Enjoy Education’s Schools Advisory Service

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