What's the difference between the main school types in the UK?


Are you a Grad, Primary or High School teacher looking to make the move to teach in the UK?

The UK has a wide variety of school settings for pupils of different ages, faiths and needs. While the fundamentals of education remain the same at all of them, there are a few subtle differences that are useful for International teachers to know before making the move to teach in the UK.

Knowing the difference between the various school settings can help you know what to expect, and what sort of levels of support might be on offer at each.

Some of the key terms you can expect to come across include maintained schools and state schools (often used interchangeably), academies, faith schools, primary and secondary schools and special schools.

In the case of the latter, these are specialist schools that provide additional support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Maintained schools

The vast majority of state schools are deemed to be maintained schools, meaning that the local authority is responsible for maintaining them.

In these schools, the national curriculum is followed closely and teachers will receive the national rates of pay and associated conditions.

Primary and secondary schools

The main differences between primary and secondary schools relate to the age of pupils and what a teacher will be expected to know.

At a primary school, a teacher will have the same class for all subjects, and often for a certain year group, meaning they’ll need a broad knowledge of the curriculum.

This means a lot of teaching time with individual pupils and a chance to provide plenty of extra support if it is required (although you may also have teaching assistants present to help with this).

It’s far easier to build bonds with primary school pupils as a result, whereas at secondary level teachers will often specialise in certain subjects and could teach a range of different classes in different year groups.

Teachers at this level can also expect to take registration periods or to have a form group, although the amount of time spent with these pupils will be limited.

Secondary teachers across several subjects are in demand at the moment, and the government’s teacher and retention strategy highlights this – in particular, there is demand for English, maths, science, history and modern languages teachers.


Academies are independent of the local authority and are directly funded by the Department for Education.

While they do not need to follow the national curriculum directly, they must ensure that what is taught is balanced and broad. English and Maths remain core subjects, however.

As they are not under local authority control, academies have greater freedom over school hours and term dates, as well as staff pay and conditions.

Faith schools

Faith schools need to follow the national curriculum, but they are given far greater freedom over what they teach in religious studies. Religious practices also tend to be more prevalent in these schools.

Many have different admissions criteria and staffing policies when compared to other state schools, although anyone can still apply to teach there.

Special schools

Mainstream education is not always the answer for some pupils with SEND, which is why special schools have a vital role to play.

Around 50% of pupils with special education needs statement or education, health and care (EHC) plan are taught in specialist school environments.

These schools meet the needs of pupils in situations where other state-funded schools cannot – broadly speaking, these schools can be divided into four specialisms:

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

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