Children, Education, and Life in the UK

Pre-school childcare in the UK

Settling your family in a new and unfamiliar environment can seem daunting. We’ve created this guide to help you understand pre-school childcare and primary and secondary education in the UK. You will also find an overview of the funding and assistance that may be available to you, including government support. 

Childcare options

In the United Kingdom, the following childcare/education options are available:

  • For children aged 0 to 2 years: privately funded childcare, including childminders, nannies and day nurseries.
  • For children aged 3 to 4 years (also available for some 2 year olds under certain criteria): childminders, nannies, day nurseries, or pre-schools. Public funding is available to support families paying for approved childcare.  
  • For children aged 4 and above (in September, following their 4th birthday): primary school (public or private).

Childminder. Childminders are self-employed carers registered with Ofsted in England or the Care and Social Services Inspectorate in Wales (CSSIW). They host children in their own home. In addition to pre-school years, they can provide childcare before or after school (or during holidays). To use their services, you need to agree on working hours, negotiate pay rates (including extra working hours and holiday pay) and sign a contract. Rates will differ by region and age of child. For example, a childminder looking after a 2 year old in London may charge £7/hour, with the nappies or food sometimes representing an extra charge. You can find a childminder by talking to other parents or through various websites, such as 

Nanny. A nanny takes care of your child at your home. It is your responsibility to choose a nanny, as they don’t require special qualifications or need to be registered, although some may have nursing or childcare training. You will need to pay them an agreed net weekly rate, as well as their tax and national insurance. The rate can vary based on the hours required, experience, live-in or live-out and a number of children to be cared for. Nannies can sometimes be a cost effective solution for families with 2 or more children. For example, a nanny looking after a 1- and a 3- year old in London may charge £14 (net) an hour. You can find a nanny through various websites, such as or

Day nursery. Nurseries can be private, or run by a community, council or workplace. The childcare options include morning/afternoon or full-day sessions for children aged 0 to 5. Ofsted / Social Services Inspectorate Wales perform inspections and give each educational setting a rating based on a number of criteria. The prices can significantly vary, usually ranging from £140–350+ per week.  

Part-time child care. This is possible through playgroups, early education or nursery classes, typically available for children 3 to 5 years old. You can find recommendations in the local Facebook groups or by checking your local council website.  

Baby-sitters. You can find a baby-sitter to look after your child at your home occasionally, for an average price of £10-12 an hour. Various websites can be used for this purpose, such as and

To find a particular childcare setting in England and Wales (nursery school place / registered childminder / free early education and childcare) you can also use the government website

To check if your childcare facility or childminder is registered with Ofsted, check their rating or to find a detailed inspection report please visit an official ofsted website  

Get help to cover childcare costs

The government supports childcare in England in three main ways: free entitlements from the Department for Education, support through the tax system for working families, and support through the benefits system for families on low income. There is one application for the first two forms of support, and you can get both if you qualify. But eligibility criteria apply, so please read this section carefully, and learn more from the government website.

Free entitlements. The largest programme includes ‘free entitlements’ from the Department for Education. 

  • All children are entitled to 15 hours per week of funded childcare from the term after they turn 3 (if the child is born in November, the entitlement starts the following January). 
  • For the poorest 40% of families, as well as for vulnerable children, the 15-hour entitlement starts at age 2.
  • Children in working families can get funding for up to 30 hours per week. This entitlement is subject to minimal revenue: you need to earn at least the National Minimum Wage for 16 hours a week on average over the next 3 months). If you have a partner, they’ll need to expect to earn at least this much too. 
  • You may also be eligible if your partner is working and you get Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Carer’s Allowance or contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance. To check your eligibility please check the government website.

Support through the tax system. For every child, working families can get up to £500 every 3 months (up to £2,000 a year) to cover the costs of approved childcare. This goes up to £1,000 for every 3 months if the child is disabled. 

  • Visit the government website to check if you’re eligible. Generally speaking, you’ll need to be working at least 16h a week, and expect to be paid at National Minimum Wage or above over the next three months.
  • If you get other benefits or tax credits, check if applying for Tax-Free Childcare is the right option for you. If you apply for Tax-Free Childcare and get accepted, your tax credits will stop, and you will have to cancel your Universal Credit and Childcare vouchers, so please check carefully which scheme is better for you.
  • Apply online for Tax-Free childcare. You’ll need your National Insurance number, and UTR if you’re self-employed.
  •  If you are accepted for  Tax-Free Childcare, for every £8 you pay into the online account of your child, the government will pay £2 in. 
  • Please note: you can only use it to pay for approved childcare (childminders, nurseries and nannies, after school clubs and play schemes) if your provider is signed up to the scheme. More information is available here:

For lower-income working families, it is also possible to receive support through the benefits system. The size of the subsidy will depend upon your exact circumstances. As an example, families on Universal Credit could have up to 85% of their childcare costs paid for by the government. Use our tool to learn more about Universal Credit, and if you are eligible to claim. More information is available on this government website.

Please use the government website to find out if you can get help with funding childcare (all UK). 

Other useful resources include:

  • Childcare Choices, a government website that helps you find out how you can save money on your childcare.
  • This comprehensive resource, which covers everything from cycling/walking routes to schools to after school clubs.
  • Information on everything from finding childcare to accessing financial support.  
  • For Asylum seekers, this website contains information about free support. 

Primary and secondary education in the UK

The education system in the UK

The education system in the UK is divided into:

  • primary education (4 to 11 years old);
  • secondary education (11 to 16 years old); 
  • further education (16 to 19 year old; includes any study after secondary education that’s not part of higher education, meaning it is not leading to an undergraduate or graduate degree).
  • higher education (post 18 year). 

There is a legal obligation for children in the UK to attend primary and secondary education settings from the age of about 5 to the age of 16.

Another way to describe the education system is by "key stages".

  • Key Stage 1: 4 to 7 years old
  • Key Stage 2: 7 to 11 years old
  • Key Stage 3: 11 to 14 years old
  • Key Stage 4: 14 to 16 years old

Primary school

Primary school education begins in September, following the child's 4th Birthday, and continues until age 11, comprising key stages one and two.

Children will have to pass two national exams, known as SATs. These take place in Year 2 (age 6-7), for Key Stage 1, and in Year 6 (age- 10-11), for Key Stage 2. 

Secondary school 

GCSE. Mandatory secondary education covers Years 7 to 11. In Year 10 and Year 11, starting at age 14, students prepare for GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education) that take place at the end of Year 11.

In the UK school system, during the GCSE programme, 9 to 12 subjects are usually studied. 

Some subjects are compulsory at GCSE level.

  • English (English Literature and English Language or a single English GCSE)
  • Maths
  • Science (Combined Science or Individual Sciences)

Please note: some schools also make other subjects compulsory.

Optional subjects vary from school to school, but overall the chosen subjects and GCSE results are important for future studies (A-Level or International Baccalaureate) and for their University admission. Optional subjects usually include at least one course in each of the four groups of subjects that students can choose from, depending upon their future career choices.

  • Arts
  • Design and Technology
  • Humanities
  • Modern Foreign Languages

At the end of the 2-year GCSE programme, students receive their GCSE Certificates. It is now a requirement for students to retake both maths and English GCSEs until they obtain a Grade 4 or above.

Intensive 1-year GCSE. Some schools offer a 1-year GCSE programme in Year 11 for international students. These intensive courses cover a maximum of 6 subjects and are available for students aged 15+ with the appropriate academic level from their own country.  

IGCSE. The IGCSE programme (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) prepares international students for A-Level and/or IB. Students study between 5 and 7 subjects. Each school has a list of available subjects for IGCSE students. At the end of Year 11, students take exams in each studied subject and receive IGCSE Certificates.

Further education

A-level study. At the age of 16 students can start a 2-year programme which leads to A (Advanced) level examinations. Students specialise in 3 or 4 subjects to prepare for their university studies. A-levels are state examinations and are recognised by UK universities and institutions worldwide. At the end of Year 13 the students receive A-level Certificates based on the result of the examinations in each subject.

The alternative to A-level studies would be to go for Applied qualifications, created for students 16 - 19  willing to continue their education through applying their learning to a particular job area e.g. Law, Creative and Media, and Business. Applied General Qualifications allow entry to a range of higher education courses by meeting the entry requirements or being accepted alongside other qualifications at Level 3.

Another alternative is Further education colleges which offer higher qualifications such as foundation degrees. You can find more information on the government website

Choosing a school

Before you choose a school, it is important to understand your options. The government website includes a good overview. But broadly speaking, there are three types of school available: state schools, special schools, and private schools.

State schools

All children in England between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a state school funded by the local authority or directly by the government. The most common ones are:

  • community schools, not influenced by business or religious groups, who follow the national curriculum;
  • foundation schools and voluntary schools, which are funded by the local authority but have more freedom to change the way they do things - sometimes they are supported by representatives from religious groups;
  • academies and free schools, which are run by not-for-profit academy trusts - they are independent from the local authority and can follow a different curriculum;
  • grammar schools, which can be run by the local authority, a foundation body or an academy trust. The selection for these schools is done based on academic ability and there is a test to get in.

Special schools

Children with learning difficulties can get support from a special school. You may choose this type of school if you feel that mainstream education isn't right for your child. Class sizes are often smaller in special schools and staff have a better understanding of the needs of their pupils and how to teach them. 

Special schools for pupils aged 11 and older can specialise in 1 of the 4 areas of special educational needs, which are:

  • communication and interaction;
  • cognition and learning;
  • social, emotional and mental health; and
  • sensory and physical needs.

Boarding and private schools

Boarding and Private schools are not funded by the government, so parents must pay fees for their children to attend. Boarding schools are residential, which means students live and study there during the school year, whereas private schools (also known as 'independent schools') are not. Although they are not funded by the government, these types of school must be registered with (and meet regulations set by, the DfES (Department for Education and Skills). 


Make your selection

State schools. If you live in England you can contact your local council to find a state-funded school in your area or receive information about the admission criteria for the schools you’re interested in. The process is different if you live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

You can also apply for places at state schools in other areas through your local council. You can search online to find schools in England.

Private schools. For a place at a private school (also called ‘independent schools’), you can contact the school directly. You can also choose to teach your child at home. This is known as home schooling.

Special schools. If your child has special educational needs (SEN), their Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan will name a school for them. The school must give your child a place.  

To find more information about the school of your choice you can:

  • read the school’s most recent Ofsted reports or check the school’s performance results;
  • visit the school - please contact the school about their open days; or
  • talk to other parents about what they think of the school.

Admission criteria

The school or local council usually sets admission criteria to decide which children get places. They are different for each school. You can contact your local council about schools’ criteria and application processes. The priority may be to give places to children who:

  • live close to the school
  • have an older sibling at the school already
  • are from a particular religion (for faith schools)
  • pass an entrance exam (for example, for grammar schools)
  • went to a particular primary school (a ‘feeder school’)
  • are eligible for the pupil premium or the service pupil premium; or
  • have a parent who has worked at the school for 2 years or more.

Students with English as the additional language 

It can be stressful for a child to join the new and unfamiliar educational setting, especially if they don’t speak the language. But most primary and secondary schools in the UK have students for whom English is the additional language (referred to as “EAL students”), with the government providing support and framework to ensure an inclusive environment.

The school will usually involve an interpreter for an initial “admission” meeting with parents and child to make sure you receive all the necessary information about the schedule and routine, as well as to assess your child's individual needs.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework states that for children whose home language is not English, providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning.

Teachers in Primary or Secondary school usually adapt their lessons by involving  students in activities where the language is challenging but appropriate to their abilities and interests.  

Some schools get the support of experts from their local authority, while others employ  consultants or have their own specialists to help the EAL students. 

Help your child learn English

You can use online resources to help your child progress, such as:

ESOL Courses - this website provides free English lessons, including listening, grammar and vocabulary. 

LearnEnglish Kids is another free learning resource, created by the British Council. It has games, songs and stories to help children learn the language, as well as articles for parents on how to support children while they learn. They have created flashcards, which are useful if your child is a visual learner.

BBC Bitesize is another well-known educational resource in the UK. You will find learning content in the categories of 'primary', 'secondary' and 'post-16', so it is easy to navigate and great for helping your child to prepare for exams. 

We also encourage you to talk to your school, contact your local authority, or even just do an internet search for "English classes" in your area.