Education in England is overseen by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Local authorities (LAs) take responsibility for implementing policy for public education and state schools at a regional level.
The education system is divided into nursery (ages 3–4), primary education (ages 4–11), secondary education (ages 11–18) and tertiary education (ages 18+).
Full-time education is compulsory for all children aged between 5 and 16, with a child beginning primary education during the school year he or she turns 5. Students may then continue their secondary studies for a further two years (sixth form), leading most typically to A-level qualifications, although other qualifications and courses exist, including Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) qualifications, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Cambridge Pre-U. The leaving age for compulsory education was raised to 18 by the Education and Skills Act 2008. The change will take effect in 2013 for 16-year-olds and 2015 for 17-year-olds. State-provided schooling and sixth form education is paid for by taxes. England also has a tradition of independent schooling, but parents may choose to educate their children by any suitable means.
Higher education often begins with a three-year bachelor's degree. Postgraduate degrees include master's degrees, either taught or by research, and the doctorate, a research degree that usually takes at least three years. Universities require a Royal Charter in order to issue degrees, and all but one are financed by the state via tuition fees, which are increasing in size for both home and European Union students.
Education in Northern Ireland differs slightly from systems used elsewhere in the United Kingdom, though it is more similar to that used in England and Wales than it is to Scotland. A child's age on 1 July determines the point of entry into the relevant stage of education unlike England and Wales where it is the 1 September. Northern Ireland's results at GCSE and A-Level are consistently top in the UK. At A-Level, one third of students in Northern Ireland achieved A grades in 2007, compared with England and Wales.
Scotland has a long history of universal provision of public education, and the Scottish education system is distinctly different from the other countries of the United Kingdom. The Scotland Act 1998 gives Scottish Parliament legislative control over all education matters, and the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 is the principal legislation governing education in Scotland.
Traditionally, the Scottish system at secondary school level has emphasized breadth across a range of subjects, while the English, Welsh and Northern Irish systems have emphasised greater depth of education over a smaller range of subjects.
Following this, Scottish universities generally have courses a year longer (typically 4 years) than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, though it is often possible for students to take more advanced specialised exams and join the courses at the second year. One unique aspect is that the ancient universities of Scotland issue a Master of Arts as the first degree in humanities.
Education in Wales differs in certain respects from education elsewhere in the United Kingdom. For example, a significant number of students all over Wales are educated either wholly or largely through the medium of Welsh: in 2008/09, 22 per cent of classes in maintained primary schools used Welsh as the sole or main medium of instruction. Welsh medium education is available to all age groups through nurseries, schools, colleges and universities and in adult education; lessons in the language itself are compulsory for all pupils until the age of 16.
Since devolution, education policy in the four constituent countries of the UK has diverged: for example, England has pursued reforms based on diversity of school types and parental choice; Wales (and Scotland) remain more committed to the concept of the community-based comprehensive school. Systems of governance and regulation - the arrangements for planning, funding, quality-assuring and regulating learning, and for its local administration - are becoming increasingly differentiated across the four home countries. Education researcher David Reynolds claims that policy in Wales is driven by a "producerist" paradigm emphasising collaboration between educational partners. He also alludes to lower funding in Welsh schools compared to England, echoing similar concerns at university level. He concludes that performance data do not suggest that Wales has improved more rapidly than England, although there are considerable difficulties in making these kinds of assessments.