Secondary school is a phrase that may seem foreign to those living in the United States, where high school is the common term for the educational stage from around age 14 to 18. However, in England and other countries in the UK, secondary school is the official name for the equivalent of American high school.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: In England, high school is formally called secondary school.

In this comprehensive guide, we will examine the English secondary school system in detail, looking at the different types of secondary schools, the educational stages within them, curriculum and qualifications offered, and more.

We’ll also highlight some of the key differences and similarities between English secondary schools and American high schools.

The Different Types of Secondary Schools in England

In England, the education system is divided into different types of secondary schools, each with its own unique characteristics and funding sources. Understanding these distinctions can help parents and students make informed decisions about their education.

Here are some of the main types of secondary schools in England:

State-Funded Schools

State-funded schools, also known as public schools, are funded by the government and are free to attend for all students. These schools follow the national curriculum and are open to children of all abilities.

Within the category of state-funded schools, there are different types such as community schools, foundation schools, trust schools, and voluntary-aided schools. Each type has its own governance structure and level of autonomy.

Independent Schools

Independent schools, also known as private schools, are not funded by the government and charge tuition fees. These schools have more freedom in terms of curriculum and admissions policies. Independent schools often have smaller class sizes and can offer a wide range of extracurricular activities.

They are known for their high academic standards and often have excellent facilities.


Academies are state-funded schools that have more autonomy and independence compared to other types of state-funded schools. They are directly funded by the government but are run by independent governing bodies.

Academies have the freedom to set their own curriculum, manage their own budgets, and set their own admissions criteria. They can also form partnerships with businesses and other organizations.

Grammar Schools

Grammar schools are selective state-funded schools that admit students based on their academic ability. These schools often have a strong focus on academic achievement and prepare students for university entrance exams.

Admission to grammar schools is based on a competitive entrance exam known as the 11-plus. Grammar schools are known for their high academic standards and rigorous curriculum.

Faith Schools

Faith schools are schools that have a religious affiliation and incorporate religious education into their curriculum. These schools can be state-funded or independent. Faith schools often have a strong emphasis on religious values and may require students to follow certain religious practices.

They provide education within the framework of a particular faith, such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.

It is important to note that this is just a brief overview of the different types of secondary schools in England. Each type of school has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it is essential to consider individual circumstances and preferences when making a decision about education.

For more detailed information and guidance, it is advisable to visit the official government websites or consult with educational professionals.

Key Stages in English Secondary Education

Key Stage 3

In England, the educational journey of students in secondary schools is divided into different stages, known as Key Stages. Key Stage 3 is the first stage of secondary education, typically covering the ages of 11 to 14.

During this stage, students build upon the knowledge and skills they acquired in primary school. The curriculum at Key Stage 3 focuses on a wide range of subjects, including English, mathematics, science, history, geography, languages, and the arts.

It provides a solid foundation for further study in Key Stages 4 and 5.

Key Stage 4

Key Stage 4 is the second stage of secondary education and usually covers the ages of 14 to 16. It is a crucial stage for students as they work towards obtaining their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) qualifications.

GCSEs are academic qualifications awarded in various subjects, and they play a significant role in determining a student’s future educational and career opportunities. During Key Stage 4, students have the opportunity to specialize in specific subjects of interest, while also continuing to study core subjects such as English, mathematics, and science.

Key Stage 5

Key Stage 5 is the final stage of secondary education in England, typically covering the ages of 16 to 18. This stage is also known as sixth form or college. Key Stage 5 provides students with the opportunity to further their education and specialize in specific subjects.

It is a crucial stage for those who wish to pursue higher education at universities or colleges. Students in Key Stage 5 typically study for qualifications such as A-levels, which are advanced level qualifications in specific subjects.

A-levels play a significant role in university admissions and are highly valued by employers.

For more detailed information about the different Key Stages in English secondary education, you can visit the official website of the Department for Education in the UK:

Qualifications and Exams in English Secondary Schools

English secondary schools offer a range of qualifications and exams to students, providing them with a solid foundation for their future education and careers. These qualifications are designed to assess students’ knowledge and skills in various subjects, and they play a crucial role in determining their academic progress and future opportunities.


One of the most well-known qualifications in English secondary schools is the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). GCSEs are typically taken by students at the age of 16 and cover a wide range of subjects, including English, mathematics, sciences, humanities, and languages.

They are assessed through a combination of coursework and examinations. GCSEs are considered essential for further education or employment opportunities.

A Levels

A Levels are the next step after GCSEs and are usually taken by students between the ages of 16 and 18. A Levels are subject-specific qualifications that allow students to specialize in their chosen subjects.

They are highly regarded by universities and colleges and are often required for admission to higher education institutions. A Levels are assessed through examinations at the end of the course.


Another type of qualification offered in English secondary schools is the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC). BTECs are vocational qualifications that provide students with practical skills and knowledge in specific industries or sectors.

They are often seen as an alternative to A Levels and are assessed through a combination of coursework and practical assessments. BTECs are recognized by employers and can lead to employment or further education opportunities.

Other Vocational Qualifications

In addition to GCSEs, A Levels, and BTECs, there are various other vocational qualifications available in English secondary schools. These qualifications focus on specific career paths and industries, such as construction, healthcare, and engineering.

They are designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge needed for specific occupations. These vocational qualifications are assessed through a combination of coursework and practical assessments.

It is important to note that the specific qualifications and exams offered in English secondary schools may vary depending on the school and region. It is advisable to consult the official websites of educational authorities, such as the Department for Education, for the most up-to-date information on qualifications and exams in English secondary schools.

Comparison to American High Schools

Age Range

In England, high school is called secondary school and typically encompasses students aged 11 to 16. This is similar to the age range of American middle and high schools, which usually include students from 6th to 12th grade.

School Types

While American high schools are typically divided into four grade levels (freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior), secondary schools in England often have a different structure. Some secondary schools in England are called “comprehensive schools” and admit students of all abilities.

Others are “grammar schools” that have selective admissions based on academic performance. Additionally, there are “academies” which are independently managed schools that receive funding from the government.


The curriculum in American high schools is typically more flexible, with students having the opportunity to choose elective subjects in addition to core subjects like English, math, science, and social studies. In England, the curriculum is more standardized, with a focus on core subjects.

Students in England usually study English, math, science, history, geography, and a foreign language.

Assessment Methods

In American high schools, students are assessed through a combination of tests, assignments, projects, and class participation. In England, students are assessed primarily through exams taken at the end of each school year.

These exams, known as the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams, cover the subjects studied throughout the year.

University Applications

In both England and the United States, high school students apply to universities after completing their secondary education. However, the process and requirements can vary. In the United States, students typically need to complete standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT, write essays, and submit letters of recommendation.

In England, students apply through a centralized system called UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) and are usually required to submit predicted grades, a personal statement, and references.

For more information on the education system in England, you can visit the official website of the UK government:


While American high schools and English secondary schools share some similarities, there are notable differences in terminology, structure, curriculum, and assessment methods across the two systems. Understanding how secondary education works in England can shed light on the country’s overall approach to education and priorities.

Whether you’re researching education abroad or just curious about how school systems differ internationally, this guide outlines the key facts about secondary schools in England.

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