Are you considering moving to the United Kingdom for your child’s education? Or perhaps you are thinking about sending your child overseas to attend a UK boarding school? Our guide is here to help.
The first part gave an overview of the UK school system and how to choose a school. In part two, we'll cover what to expect when applying to British schools, and how to help your child prepare for entrance exams.
Although children can join at any age and any time of the school year, the most common entry points to British state schools are in September at age 4 (primary school), age 11 (secondary school), and age 16 (sixth form).
Independent schools are more varied: the main points of entry are September at age 7 (prep school), 11 or 13 (senior school) and 16 (sixth form). Entrance assessments usually take place the year before joining.
The application deadline is usually about one year before your child is due to start school. Most schools offer year-round admissions, so if you apply after the deadline your child may be able to join mid-year if the school is not full.
However, this depends on how competitive the school is. At some elite private senior schools the application deadline is up to three years before entry. Applying as far in advance as possible will increase your child's chances of getting a place.
Application processes and deadlines can vary considerably, so always check each school's website. Here is what the average process looks like:
Research and shortlist schools
Before starting applications, you may wish to register your child to take the UKiset and start visa arrangements.
Spring–early summer: enquire with schools. When you register with a school, they'll usually request your child’s current school report and may request UKiset results.
September: application form. If the school thinks that your child will be a good fit, they will invite you to submit an application form. At this stage you can also apply for scholarships and bursaries.
October–January: assessment (if the school is selective). The school will invite your child to take part in entrance exams and interviews. Usually the school will register your child for the exams, but they will let you know if you need to make any arrangements yourself. Assessments can often be taken at a test centre in your own country or online.
If you’re applying for a non-selective secondary school, the application deadline is usually about one year before your child is due to start school. Most non-selective schools offer year-round admissions, so if you apply after the deadline your child may be able to join mid-year (unless the school is full).
For selective state schools (grammar schools) the application deadline is earlier. For example, if you want your child to start at the school in September 2024, you would usually need to apply before the summer of 2023.
Research and shortlist schools. The local council website of where you will be living will have information about the schools in the area and their application processes. Most local councils will allow you to list 3–6 schools on your child’s application in order of preference. You should have at least one alternative in mind in case your child does not get a place at their first-choice school.
Spring–summer: register for 11+ exams (selective schools only). Your local council website will have information on how to do this. You will need to register with the school or with the local consortium.
September: your child takes the 11+ exam (selective schools only).
Mid-October: receive 11+ results (selective schools only).
Late October: submit local authority application form. You must submit an official application on your local council’s website, with your list of preferred schools in order. Only include grammar schools on the list if your child passed the 11+.
March: National Offer Day. You will get an offer of a school place. The offer will be for your highest-ranked school that is able to offer your child a place. If none of your preferred schools can offer your child a place, they will be offered a place at the nearest school to your home with space available.
UK schools do not require you to currently live in the country before applying. Your school application should not be refused on the basis that you live abroad. However, it is common for schools to give priority to children who live nearby. For example, many schools have ‘catchment areas’, where the distance from home to school is a deciding factor in whether to offer a child a place.
You may be asked for an address or proof of where your family will be living. If you don’t have a permanent UK home address at the point of applying, your application will still be processed, but children who have proof of address close to the school may be given priority.
If you would like to send your child to a UK boarding school while you live overseas, your child must have a guardian living in the UK. This is a requirement of most boarding schools. The guardian is there to help your child on your behalf in case of an emergency. They may also help your child with transport, such as meeting them at the airport, and your child can stay with them during school breaks if they are not returning home.
Your child’s guardian can be a family friend or relative, and it is always best to choose someone who lives near the school. There are accredited organisations that you can pay to act as a guardian for your child. As well as offering transportation and emergency support, some of these programmes can match your child with a host family to stay with during school holidays.
Admissions consultancies or agencies offer a bespoke service to help with independent school applications. They assess children’s strengths and preferences and advise families on which schools would suit their child. Popular consultancies include Bonas MacFarlane and William Clarence, who have placed students at some of the UK’s most prestigious schools.
Although admissions consultants are a convenient way to navigate the admissions process from overseas, you don’t need to work with one. Plenty of private schools offer this type of support directly, particularly if they have a large cohort of international students. If your child goes to an international prep school, they will offer support with applications and transitions.
To enter the UK to attend a state school, foreign national children who live outside the UK will need either:
An immigration status which permits them to enter the UK to attend school
Before you apply for a state school place, make sure that your child has a right to study at a UK school under their UK entry conditions. State schools will not ask for proof of immigration status before offering a place – in fact, they are not allowed to do this. You must check your child’s eligibility yourself.
Irish citizens can access a state school place in the UK without needing permission. Citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland who are already living in the UK can continue to attend a state school.
There are several other circumstances in which children can enter the UK to attend a state school, including:
Children of a BNO (British National Overseas) visa holder from Hong Kong
Children of foreign nationals who have settled status
Children who have been recognised as refugees and asylum seekers
If you would like your child to attend private school in the UK, you should look for a school that is a licensed student sponsor. These schools can sponsor international students to study in the UK. You should apply to these schools directly. If the school accepts your application, you will be sent a CAS reference number (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies).
You can then use your CAS number to apply for a Child Student visa. It costs £348 to apply for this visa from outside the UK. If you are already in the UK, you can apply to extend the visa or switch to a Child Student visa for £475. Children on a Child Student visa are not allowed to attend a state school.
If your child is applying to a selective school, whether it’s a state grammar or private school, they will need to take entrance exams. Private schools will usually interview your child after they take exams. Some schools even interview you as parents.
Most selective secondary schools in the UK use one or more of the following entrance exams. Some schools also set their own unique entrance exams.
An entrance assessment designed for overseas students.
The UKiset can be taken by students aged 9–18 wishing to apply to a UK independent school. Over 250 schools currently use the UKiset in their admissions process. Most of these use the UKiset as an initial assessment of a student’s level of English and academic potential, before asking them to sit their own entry exam. However, some schools offer places based solely on UKiset results and school reports.
The ISEB Common Pre-Test is an online entrance exam used by many independent senior schools. It is taken in November or January of Year 6 (when children are 10–11 years old). Children are tested on English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning.
Exams to get into state grammar schools take place in the autumn term of Year 6. In most areas they are very competitive. Children are tested on English, maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Unlike entrance exams for independent schools, which can often be taken from abroad, children usually need to be physically in the UK to take grammar school exams.
CAT4 stands for Cognitive Abilities Test (Fourth Edition). It’s designed to measure children’s natural ability, rather than their grasp of knowledge. Children can take it at any age from 7–18. Some independent schools consider CAT4 results as part of their admissions process. Schools also use the results to help identify strengths, areas for development, and learning preferences for each student.
Many UK children will have tuition to help them prepare for entrance exams. A good tutor will help children build strong study skills and cover any gaps in their learning. One-on-one tuition is also a great way to help children improve their English language skills, giving them confidence and fluency for studying in the UK.
Online learning is a fun and effective way to build knowledge across the Key Stage 2 national curriculum, giving your child a smooth academic transition to a UK senior school.
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90,000+ interactive questions in Key Stage 2 English, maths, science, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning
Unlimited online practice tests that replicate exams such as ISEB and CAT4
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Advice from education and admissions specialists
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We hope this guide has been helpful for you and your family. If you have any questions about UK school admissions or entrance exams, Atom’s education experts are here to help via live chat or email.
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