UK’s education system

This is a slightly different post from the usual, since I’ll be going through a bit of history and giving you some explanations about the UK’s education system.

First things first, by the way: do we say education system or educational system?

My instinct is that it should be education system, because educational system describes a system that is educational (=pedagogical), but isn’t necessarily the school system. For example, you could perhaps argue that a mentoring system is an educational system (i.e. it teaches the participants something). For me, the school + university system is ‘a system of education’, i.e. the education system.

However, this distinction is a little pedantic, and I began to wonder if there was a British English vs American English difference, so I did a little more digging.

If you look at the two Google ngrams below (showing the frequency of use of the two terms in written sources), you will see that in American English, the two terms are used virtually synonymously, whereas in British English, there was a shift in the 1980s, when education system took over and became the more common term.

‘education system’ (blue) vs ‘educational system’ (red) in American English
‘education system’ (blue) vs ‘educational system’ (red) in British English

This also explains why I haven’t heard educational system used here in the UK: I’m too young (for once!). 🤣

To sum up: if you want to stick to British English, use education system; if you’re speaking American English, use either.

Now to some interesting (and sometimes tricky) questions about terminology.

Public school vs private school

This is a very confusing area.

In American English, ‘public school’ means ‘run by the State’. This is what we would call ‘State school’ in the UK.

In the UK, a ‘public school’ is actually an independent (usually secondary) school, i.e. it isn’t run by the government. Public schools are fee-paying, i.e. they can be equated to ‘private schools’ in other countries.

Why are they called ‘public’? In the 18th century, the reputation of some schools that taught academic subjects such as Latin and Greek spread, and these schools opened their doors to pupils whose parents could afford residential fees. In this way, the schools ceased to be local and therefore became known as public.

The UK has many public schools, some of which are boarding schools as well as accepting day pupils.

A side note: fees at top public schools are exorbitant. I spent a year at Sevenoaks school in Kent, taking A-levels. I’ve just looked up the fees:

Standard Fees

 Per termPer annum
Day Pupil£8,340£25,020

Compare the annual fee for boarders, at around £40,000, with the median salary in the UK: £25,971.

Grammar school

Now, what I didn’t mention in my explanation above, was that these academic schools teaching Latin and Greek were known (since the 16th century) as grammar schools.

[By the way, don’t confuse this with the term ‘grammar school’ in the US, which apparently is a synonym of ‘elementary school’ (or what we in the UK would call ‘primary school’) – confused yet??]

The modern version of grammar schools has existed since the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education after the age of 14 free.

Under this Act, secondary education was divided into two types of schools:

  • grammar schools, which were selective and academically rigorous, and to which pupils could be admitted at the age of 11 if they passed an exam called the 11+ (‘eleven plus’) – but only if there were sufficient places at the school. The idea behind these schools was that pupils would go on to higher education.
  • ‘secondary moderns’, which prepared pupils for trades.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Labour politicians and educational egalitarians argued that the grammar school system reinforced class divisions and middle class privilege, and that all pupils should be taught together.

In 1965, the government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools and secondary moderns, and replace them with ‘comprehensive schools’, i.e. secondary schools that accept all pupils, regardless of ability or aptitude.

There are no longer any secondary modern schools.

Grammar schools disappeared rapidly between 1968 and 1980, but they stubbornly persist in some parts of England, particularly in counties like Kent, Lincolnshire, and Buckinghamshire, and in some areas around Birmingham.

As it happens, there are a few grammar schools in Yorkshire, where I live, and both of my children are at single-sex (🙁) grammar schools.

There are now 164 grammar schools in England and 69 in Northern Ireland (out of 3,000 State secondaries). There are no State grammar schools in Wales or Scotland.

Grammar schools are selective State schools in England and Northern Ireland to which pupils are admitted on the basis of an exam taken in the last year of primary school called the 11+.

I could spend a long time discussing the pros and cons of grammar schools. On the one hand, they generally provide a very good standard of education, being academically rigorous and focused on high standards of discipline. Proponents argue that they promote social mobility, since they accept pupils based on ability, and not the ‘postcode lottery’ of catchment area (i.e. rich parents being able to buy a house in the catchment area of a good State school). Detractors argue that they perpetuate class divisions, and that rich parents can afford expensive coaching to get their children through the exam (children who then may not even be able to keep up with the demands of the curriculum).

I was certainly quite shocked when I discovered 99% of children attempting the 11+ in my local area were being coached, at a cost of £5,000 per year. I thought the test was a test of ability, not a test of how rich your parents were, and how well your coach had prepared you for the exam…🙁

The name ‘grammar school’

Now, because nothing is ever simple in the UK’s education system, you may recall that I said there were no State grammar schools in Wales or Scotland.


Some schools retain the name ‘grammar school’, while actually being non-selective, with no special status.


One of the schools near us is Bradford Grammar School, which is in fact an independent (i.e. public, i.e. private 🤣), fee-paying, school.

In other words, some schools calling themselves grammar schools are NOT selective, and others are NOT State schools.

Told you it was confusing.

The moral of the story is: regardless of what a school calls itself, you have to check whether it’s a State school, selective grammar school, or public school.

As far as translating the term ‘grammar school’ is concerned, given the terminological morass in which we find ourselves, I think your best option is to say ‘selective’, or ‘where pupils are admitted based on ability/exam results’.