British education system levels

February 22, 2017
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United Kingdom

| Education


While the higher education systems in the United Kingdom are similar in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, Scotland’s system is quite different, and resembles the US system.

After taking the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland 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.

Scotland has its own qualification framework that is separate from that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. After seven years of primary education and four years of compulsory secondary education, students aged 15 to 16 may take the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE). The Scottish Certificate of Education is recognized throughout the UK as the equivalent to GCE A-levels and is usually the entry qualification for university.

Undergraduate degrees take three years to complete in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, while at Scottish universities degree programs last four years. At the graduate level, a master's degree is normally earned in a single year, a research master's degree takes two years and a doctoral degree is often completed in three years.


The UK education system generally emphasizes independent, self-directed study over class time, attendance, and participation. Coursework may be less structured than you are used to in your country and students may be assigned significant outside reading that they will not be tested on until their final exam. Required readings and definite assignments given throughout the semester are less common. Students can expect an extensive reading list covering all topics to be discussed to be distributed at the start of the course. This will be used for independent research. British students typically consult a large number of sources from the library rather than intensively studying a few books purchased by everyone taking a course. In addition, students are required to write more essays and take fewer objective tests. Because there are usually fewer assignments counting towards the final grade, a final exam or paper carries much more weight. For these reasons, self-discipline, self-motivation, and good time management are very important in keeping up academically.

Modules (remember that, in Britain "course" refers to a degree program) often take the following forms: lectures, which are sometimes completely optional; tutorials, in which a small number of students meet with the lecturer; and seminars, larger discussion classes often based upon seminar essays. Students should be aware that there is often less face time with professors, and that tutors are often your most hands-on academic contact. You will have to be self-motivated and proactive.

British students often sit for final exams in May or June that cover the full year's work and determine the grades for the class. With the growth of modularization, however, there has been an increase in the number and variety of modules offered on a semester basis.


UK Phrase - US Translation

Course - Complete degree program or pre-set plan of the major
Module - Specific class within the course program
Joint Honors Degree - Double major (not necessarily at a higher "honors" level)
Marks - Grades expressed on a numerical scale, usually with passing grades ranging from 40-70
Postgraduate - Graduate
School - K-12 primary school, not university or college
College - High School


A typical British student takes 3 to 6 modules (or classes) per term. Most visiting students take 3 or 4 modules per term. The number of hours in class per week will vary by institution. In addition to lectures, students may also be required to sign up for tutorials or lab work. A full time student in the UK will normally carry 60 credits/ semester; or 120/ year, which is usually equivalent to 15 US credits or 30 ECTS credits/semester; or 60 ECTS credits/ year.

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