The English school system can look notoriously opaque to many, as a result of the long history of many of the schools themselves, as well as a history of constant reform by various governments. Due to these two factors, there are a myriad of different types of school existing, which can lead to well-meaning parents getting confused when trying to select which schools they are targeting for their children. Furthermore, the labels themselves are sometimes misleading, with a great number of overseas applicants not knowing why public schools in the UK don’t refer to government run schools. Here, we try and give an overview of the secondary school system (for students age 11-18) to clear up any misconceptions:

Comprehensive schools

These are the most common type of secondary school in England, and are called comprehensive schools as students are accepted without having to pass any entrance exams or aptitude tests. They are controlled by the local government (country council or borough), with funding by the government, and as such have to stick closely to the English National curriculum. Depending on the area, these schools can range from very high to very low standard, so many parents will try and move to an area to get their children into a good local comprehensive school.

Foundation and trust schools

Similar to comprehensive schools, Foundation and Trust schools are funded by the government, and admit students without an entrance exam. The difference between this type of school and a comprehensive school is that it is run by a trust, in which the school governors have greater freedom to decide how the school is run, although teaching still follows the national curriculum.

Voluntary schools

Voluntary schools are schools which are run by a voluntary organisation, often a church, with government funding. These schools are jointly controlled by the voluntary organisation and the local government. Many of these schools have long histories and rigorous academic standards, and so are very competitive to get into. As almost all of these are church schools, over the years many ambitious parents have pretended to be a certain religion to get their children into a church school that happens to be the best in the area.

Academies and Free Schools

Academies and Free schools are a very recent invention, with the introduction only dating from education reforms in the year 2000. Created to try and “free” schools from poorly performing local governments, these schools are funded directly by the department of education, but not controlled by the local government at all. As such, Academies and Free schools have great freedom on teaching, able to set any curriculum they wish as long as standards are maintained..

Grammar Schools

Grammar schools are the most controversial government funded school type in England. Although funded by the government, Grammar schools select their pupils based on entrance exams. Supporters claim that it gives bright students from poorer backgrounds the advantages which are commonly only found in private schools, although critics claim that Grammar school places are monopolised by the middle classes and judge the academic worth of students too early. Successive governments since the 1960s have blown hot and cold over the concept, with the ideas of either expansion or abolishment frequently mooted. As a result of this regulatory limbo, only certain areas such as Essex or Birmingham have Grammar schools, and no new Grammar school may be created, whereas in the past these were common all over the country. Many former Grammar schools in areas which have abolished them have since turned into private schools. Since comparatively few of these schools exist, competition to gain admission is always ferocious.

Private (Independent) Schools

A world away from the austere settings of yesteryear, some boarding schools, such a Rodean College pictured here, have won design awards.

If you are not from England, but are looking to send a child to England for education, Independent Schools will be the schools in your crosshairs. Education has been one of the most successful British exports of recent years, with a flourishing independent education sector. Similarly to Grammar schools, Private schools are politically controversial, with supporters claiming that they free up resources to spend more on state schools, and critics claiming that they entrench the advantages of the better off. The VAT exemption of school fees is currently under debate, with many politicians asking why this sales tax is not applied to a “luxury” good. As these schools do not have to take any funding from the government, they have almost complete control about how the school is run. The one exception to this is that scholarships must be offered to talented but less well off students, otherwise the charitable status that exempt these organisations from tax would be withdrawn. With such a large sector, the price and entrance standards of different private schools vary considerably. Living standards at Private school also run a full range between spartan and 5 star hotel.


Public schools

Eton School has educated 20 British Prime Ministers.

Public school as a term frequently confuses overseas applicants to British schools. Although the term in other countries refer to normal school, in Britain it is quite the opposite. Strangely enough, Public Schools in England specifically refer to the schools created by the Public School Act of 1868, namely: Charterhouse, Eton College, Harrow School, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School, Westminster School, and Winchester College. The term public school refers to the fact that these schools were open to students of all religious beliefs, occupations and home locations, as almost all schools previous to this were run by churches or guilds for the benefit of their members. Even more confusingly, the term is sometimes extended to refer to all private schools. As Public schools are some of the oldest independent schools, the prestige and reputation that belong to these schools are considerable, with a large number of British Prime Ministers and influential figures having attended them. The fees and selectivity for Public schools are typically the highest out of all private schools.


In conclusion, the multitude of options in the English Secondary schooling system is rather more than are available in other countries, with seemingly each new government in modern times trying to create a new type, but can be easily understood upon a little research. However, there is no single optimal school, and therefore the best one is the one that fits your child’s needs the best.