Responsibility for education and training is divided between two specialized governments departments, each headed by a Secretary of State: the Department for Children, Schools, and Families, with a remit for compulsory education and children's services; and the Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills, with a remit for science, further and higher education, and skills training.
Education in school is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 16, although more than 50 per cent of under‐5s attend some form of pre‐school provision, and the Early Years Foundation Stage sets out a curriculum for children aged 0–5. The majority of 16‐year‐olds remain in some form of education or training at least until the age of 18, and there are plans to require all young people to stay in school, training, or workplace training until the age of 18 by 2013.
In most local authorities there is a system of primary schools and secondary schools, with transfer to secondary school being made at the age of 11. In some authorities, however, a system of first, middle, and secondary schools operates, with middle schools providing for 8–12‐year‐olds. Most secondary provision is in the form of comprehensive schools, although a small minority of local authorities have retained a system of selection at 11 through the Eleven Plus examination, according to the results of which pupils are allocated a place at either a grammar school or a non‐selective school in their local authority area.
A national curriculum was introduced in 1998, consisting of four key stages, for ages 5–7, 8–11, 11–14, and 14–16, at the end of each of which pupils are assessed. At the end of Key Stage 4 the assessment for most pupils takes the form of the General Certificate of Secondary Education, which was originally conceived of as a school‐leaving examination, but is now seen more as a means of selection to determine the next stage in pupils' progression. This may be into a school sixth form or a sixth form college to study for General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels (A levels) or Vocational A levels or a diploma, or to a college of further education for a more vocationally focused education or training. Some pupils may take the option to begin studying for a 14–19 Diploma at the beginning of Key Stage 4 in place of some of national curriculum subjects.
At 18 many students use their A level, diploma, or equivalent qualification to progress to university or some other form of higher education. The current government target is that 50 per cent of all 18–30‐year‐olds should at some point be participating in higher education by 2010. Others may proceed to employment or further skills training. The creation of a more highly skilled workforce has been the goal of successive governments since the last quarter of the 20th century. Adult and continuing education may take the form of reskilling or up‐skilling for work, of personal development, or of learning for leisure. Only the first of these qualifies for subsidized funding. Providers of adult education include the Workers' Educational Association, local authorities, and further education colleges. Ofsted is responsible for the inspection of primary, secondary, and further education provision, and of teacher training provision in higher education. Other higher education provision is subject to inspection by the Quality Assurance Agency.