Primary education in England, Wales, Scotland and N Ireland

Education in the UK regional differences
We may be a United Kingdom, but schooling varies between each of our four countries. Our guide gives you an overview of the differences in primary school education in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

If you've ever spoken to a friend or relative from a different part of the UK about their child's education, you might well have been left feeling somewhat confused. Although the four countries follow a broadly similar structure, there are significant variations between the school systems, ranging from the age that children start school to the type of tests they take. Our at-a-glance guide will give you an overview of what school life involves for children in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

When do children start school?

  • In England most children start primary school in the September before they turn five.
  • In Wales children start Reception in the September before turning five.
  • In Scotland children with birthdays between March and August start school in the August following their fifth birthday. Children with birthdays between September and February start school in the August before their fifth birthday (but this can be deferred until the following September).
  • Northern Ireland has the lowest compulsory school starting age in Europe: children who have reached the age of four on July 1st start school the following September.

How are primary schools organised?

Throughout the UK, schools are organised into year groups, so children are taught with others of the same age (although in some schools – for example, very small ones, or those that admit more than 30 children in one year – year groups may be combined within the same class). 

  England Wales Scotland N Ireland
Age 4-5 Reception Reception P1 Year 1
Age 5-6 Year 1 Year 1 P2 Year 2
Age 6-7 Year 2 Year 2 P3 Year 3
Age 7-8 Year 3 Year 3 P4 Year 4
Age 8-9 Year 4 Year 4 P5 Year 5
Age 9-10 Year 5 Year 5 P6 Year 6
Age 10-11 Year 6 Year 6 P7 Year 7

In most areas, school years are then grouped together in larger stages or phases, usually with different curriculum requirements and outcomes for each.

In England:

  • The Foundation Stage includes pre-school, nursery and Reception.
  • Key Stage 1 covers Years 1 and 2.
  • Key Stage 2 covers Years 3 to 6.

In Wales:

  • The Foundation Phase covers children from age three until the end of Year 2 (this has recently replaced Key Stage 1).
  • Key Stage 2 includes Years 3 to 6.

In Scotland, there are no phases or stages; the Curriculum for Excellence runs progressively from age three to 18.

In Northern Ireland:

  • The Foundation Stage includes Years 1 and 2.
  • Key Stage 1 covers Years 3 and 4.
  • Key Stage 2 comprises Years 5 to 7.

What curriculum do primary school children follow?

Each country of the UK has its own curriculum, and although much of the content is similar, there are differences in the programmes of study. 

In England, the National Curriculum applies to children in Key Stages 1 and 2. It includes English; maths; science; art and design; computing; design and technology; geography; history; music and physical education. Key Stage 2 children must also study a foreign language.

The Welsh curriculum has recently been revised. Schools follow the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (NLF), which emphasises applying literacy and numeracy across the whole curriculum. The Curriculum for Wales identifies different areas of learning: personal and social development, wellbeing and cultural diversity; language, literacy and communication skills; mathematical development; Welsh language development (using Welsh as the first language in school, or learning it as a second language); knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development and creative development. 

In Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence includes expressive arts; health and wellbeing; languages; mathematics; religious and moral education; sciences; social studies and technologies.

The Northern Ireland Curriculum requires children in Key Stages 1 and 2 to study language and literacy; mathematics and numeracy; the arts; the world around us; personal development and mutual understanding; religious education and physical education.

How are children assessed?

Across the UK, children's learning and progress are continually assessed by their teachers. This is through activities such as classwork, homework, reading, spelling tests and maths tests. In some areas, there are also externally set assessments at specific points of a child's education.

In England, children have a baseline assessment in Reception to assess their ability on starting school (from September 2016), a phonics screening test at the end of Year 1, Key Stage 1 SATs in English and maths in Year 2, and Key Stage 2 SATs in English, spelling, punctuation and grammar in Year 6.

In Wales, children take National Reading and Numeracy Tests every year from Year 2 to Year 9.

In Scotland, general screening takes place in P1 to assess children's ability on starting school. Standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy, known as SNSAs, take place in P1, P4, P7 and S3. The SNSAs were introduced in 2017.

In Northern Ireland, children are assessed every year through teacher assessment and planned tasks and activities (assessments often take the form of InCAS tests). Formal results, in the form of levels, are reported to parents at the end of Years 4 and 7.

Who's in charge of inspecting schools?

English schools are inspected by Ofsted. This typically happens once in every five years, but more often for schools where problems have been highlighted. Schools are rated Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement or Inadequate.

In Wales, schools are inspected by Estyn at least every six years. They are graded from 1 (outstanding) to 5 (poor). 

In Scotland, Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Education (HMIe) monitors schools. They choose a random sample of 240 schools across the country to assess each year. Schools are not given a specific result or grade, but a letter explaining the strengths, weaknesses and targets. 

Northern Irish schools are inspected by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) on a risk-based schedule, so schools that are causing concern will be inspected more frequently. Schools can be rated as Outstanding, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory, Inadequate or Unsatisfactory.

What about school term dates?

Term dates vary not just from country to country in the UK, but also from area to area, so it's important to check the specific term and holiday dates for your school. However, on the whole:

  • The English and Welsh school year begins at the start of September and ends in the third week of July.
  • The Scottish school year begins in the third week of August and ends in mid to late June.
  • The Northern Irish school year begins on September 1st and ends on July 1st.

Education in the UK: regional differences

For more information about education in the devolved countries, visit https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education (England), http://learning.wales.gov.uk (Wales), https://education.gov.scot/ (Scotland) and http://www.deni.gov.uk (Northern Ireland).