Up to the age of 16, the vast majority of UK private schools offer a version of the national curriculum leading to GCSE or IGCSE exams at the end of Year 11. The exceptions to this are some independent schools in Scotland and the handful of international schools. It is in Years 12 and 13 that students are really faced with a choice of curriculum and we discuss these in more detail below, and also in our eGuide, Choices at 16+.
Please read the full overview below, or jump to the following curriculum-specific pages:
Preparatory Schools (up to 11 or 13)
Private prep schools catering for children up to the age of 11 or 13 are free to teach their own curriculum and all will offer a broad a balanced range of subjects.
The National Curriculum of England and Wales consists of three core subjects (English, Maths and Science), plus eight foundation subjects (History, Geography, Art and Design, Foreign Language, Computing, Design and Technology, Music and Physical Education) with a detailed syllabus with learning objectives for each subject. There is also a requirement for all schools to teach Religious Education.
Private schools are not bound to follow the National Curriculum but in general they choose to teach this, supplementing it with other areas of study as they see fit. Prep schools generally devote double the amount of curriculum time to music and modern foreign languages compared to state schools and offer phenomenally more sport and drama.
Prep schools naturally focus on ensuring that children are prepared for entry to senior school whether via the ISEB pre-tests/Common Entrance or schools' own entrance exams. See our Prep School page, or our dedicated website, bestprepschools.co.uk, for more information.
Senior School Curriculum (11 - 16)
Children at senior school study a broad range of compulsory subjects until the end of Year 9. In Years 10 and 11 students take GCSE or IGCSE courses culminating in pubic exams at the end of Year 11. Parents are often confused by the difference between GCSE and IGCSE (International GCSE) but in reality they are equivalent qualifications. There are different 'exam boards' which set GCSE and/or IGCSE exams. IGCSEs are offered by CIE and Edexcel. Students in international schools overseas are generally entered for IGCSEs because the curriculum content and assessment arrangements are more suitable. However, many UK private schools have also chosen to teach the IGCSE syllabus in certain subjects if they feel it is a better course. Many academically selective schools opted for IGCSEs in recent years when a huge coursework/continual assessment element was introduced for standard GCSEs, which many teachers felt ate into teaching time and effectively 'dumbed down' the qualifications. Now there is far less coursework in most GCSE subjects.
You will find that in most private schools there will be a mixture of GCSE and IGCSE exams on offer, depending on the subject and normally decided by each Head of Department. This means that often students will end up with a mixture of GCSE and IGCSE qualifications and universities make no distinction between the two.
The International Baccalaureate offers the Middle Years Programme (MYP) for students age 12-16, but this is only taught in a handful of schools in the UK, predominantly the international schools. We advise most parents of 12 to 15-year-olds seeking an IB school to start with a GCSE school and switch to the IB Diploma at 16+.
16+ (Sixth Form) Curriculum (16-18+)
The most common sixth form curriculum in UK private schools is the A-Level, which is commonly taken over two years (Year 12 and Year 13). There are well over 40 possible A-Level subjects, but most independent schools offer between 20 and 25 subject choices – but it does not matter what you want to study, we will find you somewhere which offers it!
Over the last 10 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of UK schools offering the IB Diploma Programme. The IB is an attractive alternative to A-levels for students who would like to continue studying a broader range of subjects in the sixth form and not be forced to specialise at the age of 16. The IB is a global qualification highly rated by universities worldwide and it is potentially transferrable because you can move from one country to another on the same syllabus.
BTECs are offered by an increasing number of independent schools and colleges as an alternative to A-levels. These qualifications are characterised by a more vocational approach to learning and assessment is continual throughout the course rather than focused on final exams. There is a broad range of subjects available, but only a few are widely offered within the private sector, with the most common being Business Studies and Sport. Please speak to us if you are looking for a school that offers BTECs.
Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers
Scotland has its own system of Highers and Advanced Highers, with Advanced Highers roughly equivalent to A-Levels. They are equally valid for entry to University. Indeed you can get into many universities with Highers alone. Additionally, some schools in Scotland allow pupils to take a mixture of Highers and A Levels. Note that Highers are accepted by all UK Universities, such that there is no reason to disregard them.
International Foundation Programmes are specifically designed for international students aged 17 and above who wish to focus on preparation for entry to a UK university, and for whom A-levels may not be the best option.
Foundation programmes are generally offered by private sixth form colleges or Universities themselves. Typically they offer fast track entry into University over 12 or 18 months, focusing intesively on a particular subject area such as Business, Engineering, etc. Intensive English language support is usually provided where needed.
There are further "international pathway" courses which provide international students with pathways into British universities. Please read the full page for further details.
In this page, we can only scratch the surface of the various curriculums in the UK, but we give much more detail in the corresponding sections. We are more than happy to offer detailed consultancy advice on not just the right curriculum for your child, but also how to find the right school.