In the UK, schooling begins with primary school when children are 5 and then continues with secondary school, where they remain until they are around 17, or complete “year 13”. From there, they may go on to university. School is compulsory from the age of 5 till 16. Nursery school for children aged 3 and 4 is optional and can be attended either full or part-time.
Secondary schools are mostly comprehensive schools which means that they do not select children on the basis of academic attainment or aptitude. However, in some areas there are still a few grammar schools that are, in essence, Comprehensive schools which select pupils through an exam called the 11 plus exam (about 10% of “gifted” children pass the exam).
English, mathematics, and science are compulsory for students aged 5 to 16. Students can then choose to study a variety of subjects from geography to music to foreign languages.
Students are required to take government-implemented exams starting with SAT at age 7 and 11 then throughout their final 4 years of secondary school in order to be able to apply for university admission. Students can choose in which subjects to be examined (except for SAT which cover English/Maths and Science at age 11).
The school system in London offers the choice of attending either ‘state’ or ‘public’ institutions. It’s important to note that in the UK ‘public’ is the equivalent of the fee-based ‘private’ schools in the US, Canada or EU countries.
State Schools are financed through the local taxation system and are free for children aged 3 to 18.
Public Schools are independent schools which charge between £2,500 and £30,000 per student per year. There is a general consensus that these schools offer ‘better’ education but the high fees limit attendance. Scholarships are available for students with specific aptitudes so contact the school that you’re interested in for further information if you think your child might be eligible for funding. Having said that over 90% of children in London attend state schools.
To consult a table describing the most common patterns for schooling in the state sector in England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_England
As an expat, you might want to enrol you child in an international school where his/her specific needs will be addressed – such as bilingualism. There are many in London.