Methodology

Education and training statistics for the UK

Published

Education systems in the UK

Overview

Across the UK there are five stages of education: early years, primary, secondary, Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE). 

Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 (4 in Northern Ireland) and 16. In England, young people must also do one of the following until they are 18: stay in full-time education; start an apprenticeship or traineeship; work or volunteer while in part-time education or training. 

FE is not compulsory and covers education that can be taken at further (including tertiary) education colleges and HE institutions (HEIs). The fifth stage, HE, which is also not compulsory, is study beyond A levels and their equivalent which, for most full-time students, takes place in universities and other HEIs and colleges. 

Early Years Education

England

All 3 and 4 year-olds are entitled to 30 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) is a single regulatory and quality framework for the provision of learning, development and care for children in all registered early years settings between birth and the academic year in which they turn 5.

Further information on early years education in England can be found at:

Early years: detailed information

Scotland

In Scotland, all 3 and 4 year olds, from the relevant start date, and eligible 2 year olds are entitled to funded early learning and childcare (ELC) of up to 600 hours per year. The Scottish Government and local authorities committed to increase the entitlement to up to 1,140 hours per year from August 2020. The impacts of coronavirus pandemic necessitated a delay to the full roll-out of the statutory duty to provide 1,140 hours of funded ELC, with the full roll-out commencing in August 2021.

Further information on early years education in Scotland can be found at:

Early learning and childcare (ELC)

Wales

Children are entitled to a free part-time place from the term following a child’s third birthday until they enter statutory education. The Foundation Phase is a holistic developmental curriculum for 3 to 7-year-olds based on the needs of the individual child to meet their stage of development. 

Further information on early years education in Wales can be found at: 

Education and skills

Northern Ireland

Funded pre-school places are available in statutory nursery schools and units and in those voluntary and private settings participating in the Pre-School Education Programme (PSEP). Places in the voluntary/private sector are part-time whilst both full-time and part-time places are available in the statutory nursery sector.

Further information on early years education in Northern Ireland can be found at:

Early years education and learning

Primary and Secondary Education

The major goals of primary education are achieving basic literacy and numeracy amongst all pupils, as well as establishing foundations in science, mathematics and other subjects. The major goal of secondary education is to prepare pupils for higher education or to enter the labour market.

England

All schools are legally required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and all maintained schools must teach the national curriculum for 5-16 year-olds. 

Primary schools generally cater for 4-11 year-olds and it is usual to transfer straight to secondary school at age 11. Children are assessed at the end of key stage 1 and key stage 2. At the end of secondary education, pupils are normally entered for a range of external examinations. Most frequently, these are GCSEs (General Certificate of
Secondary Education).

Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A) level qualifications are the traditional academic qualifications offered by schools and colleges. Many students take AS and A level qualifications in years 12 and 13 after completing their GCSEs and their primary purpose is to prepare students for degree-level study.

Further information on education in England can be found at: 

Department for Education

Scotland

In Scotland, learning in primary schools (ages 5-11 in general) is part of the broad general education phase of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), an integrated curriculum from 3-18.  Teachers will use a range of assessment methods to monitor learners’ progress, including national standardised assessments at P1, P4 and P7, and to plan next steps in learning. 

Education authority secondary schools in Scotland are comprehensive in character and offer six years of secondary education, with compulsory age being 16 (S4); however, in some remote areas there are several schools which cover only some of these six years, with primary provision also sometimes offered within the same establishment. The broad general education phase of CfE is up to the end of S3, providing a strong grounding for a move to study for qualifications and awards in the senior phase (S4-S6). 

Pupils tend to study qualifications at SCQF level 6 (including Highers) in their fifth year at secondary school, and in sixth year they may study more SCQF level 6 and/or SCQF level 7 qualifications (including Advanced Highers). However, there are no pre-conceived notions about which qualifications and awards should be taken when.

Further information on education in Scotland can be found at: 

Education Scotland

Wales

At the primary stage, the Foundation Phase covers children aged 3-7 and key stage 2 covers 7-11. All learners in their final year of Foundation Phase and key stage 2 must be assessed through teacher assessment and National Reading and Numeracy Tests track the progress of pupils from the end of the Foundation Phase right the way through into secondary education.

Middle schools are a separate sector as they have pupils from nursery to the end of secondary years.

Secondary schools take pupils at 11 years old until the end of statutory school age and beyond. Secondary education is also provided in middle schools and some special schools, Pupil Referral Units and Independent schools.

At the end of secondary education, pupils are normally entered for a range of external examinations. Most frequently, these are GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education).

Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A) level qualifications are the traditional academic qualifications offered by schools and colleges. Many students take AS and A level qualifications in years 12 and 13 after completing their GCSEs and their primary purpose is to prepare students for degree-level study.

Further information on education in Wales can be found at: 

Education and skills

Information on upcoming changes to education in Wales can be found at:

Education is changing

Northern Ireland

In primary the statutory curriculum is split across 3 stages: Foundation Stage (the first two years of primary school, ages 4-6), key stage 1 (6 to 8) and key stage 2 (9 to 11). Children are assessed at the end of key stage 1 and key stage 2.

It is usual for children to transfer to post-primary education at age 11. Post-primary education consists of five compulsory years and two further years if students wish to remain in school to pursue post GCSE / Level 2 courses to Level 3. 

At the end of secondary education, pupils are normally entered for a range of external examinations. Most frequently, these are GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education).

Advanced Subsidiary (AS) and Advanced (A) level qualifications are the traditional academic qualifications offered by schools and colleges. Many students take AS and A level qualifications in years 13 and 14 after completing their GCSEs and their primary purpose is to prepare students for degree-level study.

Further information on education in Northern Ireland can be found at: 

Department for Education

Qualifications

The qualifications that pupils work towards at the end of their secondary schooling and beyond are determined by the devolved authorities in each of the four UK countries. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales all qualifications can be mapped onto the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which has nine levels from entry level to doctorate (for example, PhD) level. In Scotland all qualifications can be mapped onto the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).

NQF LevelEntry12345678
QualificationEntry level
awards,
certificates
or
diplomas
GCSE
grades
D-G /
1-3 
GCSE
grades
A*-C /
4-9 
AS and
A
levels 
Certificate
of Higher
Education
Diploma of
Higher
Education,
Foundation
Degree 
Honours
Degree 
Master’s
degree
Doctorate 
SCQF Level123456789101112
QualificationNational 1National 2National 3National 4National 5HigherAdvanced Higher,
Certificate of Higher Education
Diploma
of Higher
Education
Bachelors,
Ordinary Degree 
Honours Degree, Graduate DiplomaMaster’s DegreeDoctorate 

Further information on qualification measures in each country can be found in the section on qualifications.

Further Education (FE)

Further Education in a general sense covers all courses taken after the period of compulsory education between the ages of 16 to 18. This may be at any level from basic skills training to higher vocational education.

A distinction is usually made between FE and HE. HE is education at a higher level than secondary school and is usually provided in distinct institutions such as universities. FE in the United Kingdom includes education for people over 16, usually excluding universities and covers vocational education at various levels. It is primarily taught in FE colleges, work-based learning, and adult and community learning institutions, although some HEIs are involved in some FE provision. This includes post-16 courses similar to those taught at schools and sub-degree courses similar to those taught at HE colleges (which also teach degree-level courses) and at some universities. Most FE Colleges offer HE qualifications including undergraduate and/or postgraduate level courses often referred to as “HE in FE”.  

England

Colleges that are regarded as part of the FE sector include general further education colleges (GFEC) and tertiary colleges, sixth form colleges, specialist colleges (mainly colleges of agriculture and horticulture, and colleges of drama and dance), National Colleges, Institutes of Technology and adult education institutes. In addition, FE courses may be offered in the school sector, both in sixth form (16-19) schools, or, more commonly, sixth forms within secondary schools. The scope of provision in Further Education Institutions also includes Higher Education.

T Levels are new courses which follow GCSEs and are equivalent to 3 A levels. These 2-year courses have been developed in collaboration with employers and businesses so that the content meets the needs of industry and prepares students for work, further training or study.

Further information on FE in England is available at:

Further education courses and funding

More information on T Levels is available at:

T Levels

Scotland

The college sector delivers a significant percentage of undergraduate entrants at the HE level. HNCs and HNDs make up the majority of the HE courses at college and are at SCQF level 7 and 8. Colleges run FE courses from SCQF levels 1 to 6 including most apprenticeship training programmes. 

School pupils are also able to study at college as part of their curriculum. This can be for National qualifications such as Highers but also vocational subjects such as construction or engineering. Some of these pupils will study HNC qualifications that are at the HE level. In contrast to other parts of the UK, Scottish colleges deliver more HE courses alongside their FE level provision.

More information on FE in Scotland can be found at:

Education Scotland

Wales

FE is considered part of a wider post-16 sector that includes work-based learning and adult community learning. Two FE institutions are part of wider group structures with HE institutions; there is one sixth form college and one adult learning specialist institution. The sector sits alongside sixth form provision within schools. Under the Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure 2009, learners are entitled to 30 subject choices, of which at least five must be vocational.

More information on FE in Wales can be found at:

Post-16 education and skills

Northern Ireland 

Learners in schools post-16 are entitled to access to at least 21 courses, of which at least one third must be general subjects, and one third applied subjects; courses may be offered in the child’s own school or may be accessed in another school or FE college. 

FE is defined as post-statutory education that is not delivered in a school and is not HE. It therefore encompasses professional and technical education and training for full-time learners who left school at 16, apprenticeships, adult education (including part-time learners and continuing education for people in employment) and leisure courses to support lifelong learning. 

Most of the focus of FE in Northern Ireland is on delivering regulated vocational qualifications to learners at levels 2 and 3 (European Qualifications Framework levels 3 and 4, respectively), but a number of providers also deliver qualifications at higher levels, as well as more general qualifications such as essential skills or A levels.

More information on FE in Northern Ireland can be found at:

Further Education

Higher Education (HE)

Higher education in the UK is defined as any course that is of a standard that is higher than GCE A level, the Higher Grade of the SCE/National Qualification, GNVQ/NVQ level 3 or the Edexcel (formerly BTEC) or SQA National Certificate/Diploma.

There are three main levels of HE course:

  • Undergraduate courses -  first degrees (honours and ordinary), first degrees with qualified teacher status, enhanced first degrees, first degrees obtained concurrently with a diploma, and intercalated first degrees (where first degree students, usually in medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine, interrupt their studies to complete a one-year course of advanced studies in a related topic).
  • Postgraduate courses leading to higher degrees - diplomas and certificates (including Doctorate, Masters (research and taught), Postgraduate diplomas and certificates as well as postgraduate certificates of education
    (PGCE) and professional qualifications) which usually require a first degree as entry qualification.
  • Other undergraduate courses that include all other HE courses - for example SVQ or NVQ: Level 5, Diploma (HNC/D level for diploma and degree holders), HND (or equivalent), HNC (or equivalent) and SVQ or NVQ: Level 4 and Diplomas in HE.

School, pupils and teachers

The data for this section has been compiled from published sources across the United Kingdom. Therefore, differences in coverage and methodology will exist between figures. For more information on the methodology of the data production and how it was collected visit the following links:

England

Scotland

Wales

Northern Ireland

Information that has been provided for this publication that is not available from other published sources is:

  • Pupil data by age, gender and school type which has been presented as a UK total in this publication.
  • Full-time equivalent teacher numbers in Northern Ireland, split by gender
  • Full-time equivalent teacher numbers in independent schools in England
  • Full-time equivalent teacher numbers in early years in Scotland, split by gender

Higher and further education

This section compiles data on the number of institutions, staff (not published in 2021) and students in post-compulsory education. Statistics on the number of students in higher and further education should not be added together, as some figures for higher education students are based on enrolments and not unique learners and some students are enrolled on courses at both a higher education and further education level.

Higher Education

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) collects information about HE students within UK HE institutions (HEI) and at alternative providers (AP).  Further information can be found on the HESA website

The data collected include enrolment numbers, qualifiers and destinations of qualifiers. This includes students who are registered at HEIs but taught in Further Education Colleges (FECs) through a franchise arrangement. 

Information about students who register directly on HE courses at FECs comes from the Individualised Learner Record in England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Welsh Government (for figures prior to 2018/19) and the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy. HESA also collect information on academic and non-academic staff in UK HE institutions via the HESA Staff Record. 

Learners that are funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) are excluded to avoid double reporting with further education.

Further Education

The number of further education students are collated from students in further education and higher education institutions. Data on students in HEIs are provided by HESA and data on students in FECs come from the sources below. 

England

The source used for FE student data for England is the Individualised Learner Record, whilst college and sixth form college numbers were obtained from the Association of Colleges

Teaching workforce figures were provided by the Education and Training Foundation prior to 2019/20; the approach was to take the total teaching staff FTEs from the ESFA college accounts data for each academic year and apply the male and female teaching FTE percentages derived from the Staff Individualised Record (SIR) for each academic year (as this is not available in the college accounts data).  2019/20 data is unavailable.

Further statistics are provided at:

Statistics: further education and skills

Scotland

Statistical information on FE students in Scotland are provided by the Scottish Funding Council. Further statistics are provided at:

Scottish Funding Council statistics

Wales

FE student numbers in Wales are obtained from the Welsh Government’s Lifelong Learning Wales Record (LLWR) on FE students. Further statistics are provided at:

Further education, work-based learning and community learning

Northern Ireland

Statistical information on FE students are provided by further education colleges to the Department for the Economy. Further statistics are provided at:

Further Education Sector activity of students in Northern Ireland 

Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET)

Statistics on people aged 16 to 24 Not in Education, Employment or Training ('NEET') are produced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) using data from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and reproduced here. 

More information on the methodology used to produce these statistics, and on the LFS, are available at:

NEET

LFS

Qualifications

The information for this section has been compiled from published sources across the United Kingdom. Data was not presented in this publication in 2021 as, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer exam series was cancelled in all parts of the UK in 2020. 

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different headline measures for the performance of students in examinations, using different methodologies to calculate the relevant percentages or scores. Given the different qualifications systems and headline measures, it is not suitable to present a direct comparative picture of pupil performance across the UK. 

More detail on the national performance measures used across the UK can be found at the relevant sources for each country and each level of education:

England

Scotland

Wales

Northern Ireland

Information that has been provided for this publication that is not available from other published sources is:

  • The subject level breakdown of entries and achievement in Northern Ireland, for Year 12 and Year 14 examinations.

Highest qualifications among adults aged 19-64

Estimates for the highest qualification held by adults aged 19-64 years are derived from the Labour Force Survey (LFS).

More information on the LFS is available at:

Education expenditure

Education expenditure figures are provided by HM Treasury from their Public Expenditure Statistical Analysis (PESA).

Education expenditure is defined here as under-fives, primary education, secondary education, post-secondary non-tertiary education, tertiary education, subsidiary services to education, research and development education and education not elsewhere covered. This is based on the UN Classification of the Functions of Government (COFOG) and is a sub-set of the education and training category. Training expenditure is not included. 

Total Expenditure on Services (TES) is a definition of aggregate public spending and covers most expenditure by the public sector that is included in Total Managed Expenditure (TME), where TME is a measure of public sector expenditure drawn from components in national accounts produced by the Office for National Statistics
(ONS). TES broadly represents the sum of current and capital expenditure of central and local government, and public corporations, but excludes general government capital consumption and other accounting adjustments.

More information on the methodology and coverage of the PESA data can be found from the link above.