United Kingdom – Wales Overview

United Kingdom – Wales Overview


Key features of the education system

Overall responsibility

Overall responsibility for the education service in Wales lies with the Welsh Government. Powers were devolved to Wales by the Government of Wales Act 1998 and subsequent legislation. Although a number of structural features and much of the legal framework are shared with England, reflecting a common history, education policy has developed since devolution to meet Welsh needs and priorities.

Responsibility for participation

Parents are responsible for ensuring that a child of compulsory school age (5 to 16) receives efficient full-time education suitable to their age, ability, aptitude, and to any additional learning needs they may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise. Parents may educate their child at home without seeking approval.

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring regular school attendance by pupils.

Governance and accountability

Reforms in the 1980s and 1990s changed the balance of responsibilities for publicly funded education outside of higher education. Schools became more autonomous as responsibility for staffing and budgets was delegated to each school’s governing body. Further education colleges were incorporated as autonomous bodies.

Although the role of the 22 local authorities was reduced by these reforms, they retain their duty to ensure a sufficient supply of school places, support school improvement, and support vulnerable children and young people. Since 2012, some school improvement services have been delivered by four regional education consortia of local authorities.

Outcome measures are used for school accountability and are combined with moderated self-evaluation indicators to identify schools in need of support within a national school categorisation system. For primary schools, outcome measures focus on pupil attainment measured by teacher assessment and pupil attendance data. For secondary schools, outcome measures focus on national qualifications taken at age 16 and attendance data.

Early childhood education and care providers, schools, colleges, work-based learning and adult community learning providers are inspected by Estyn in accordance with a common inspection framework. Inspection reports are published and providers may be subject to intervention if important areas for improvement are identified.

School curriculum

The school curriculum is framed by broad aims to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life, as established by the Education Act 1944. A national curriculum was introduced under the Education Reform Act 1988, giving pupils an entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum and setting standards for pupil attainment. Re-enacted by the Education Act 2002, the National Curriculum for Wales specifies compulsory subjects and programmes of study, although it does not prescribe teaching hours for individual subjects and does not aim to be the whole school curriculum. It sits alongside other statutory requirements for religious education, sex education, personal and social education and careers and the world of work.

The curriculum framework from age 3 to 7 is provided by the Foundation Phase, which spans pre-school provision and primary education.

A statutory National Literacy and Numeracy Framework was introduced for pupils aged 3 to 16, alongside annual national standardised literacy and numeracy tests for pupils aged 6 to 14, following disappointing results in the 2009 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

A new curriculum, to be introduced between 2020 and 2022, will move away from traditional subject structures to six common areas of learning and experience.

Pupils are organised into year groups according to their age and may be taught for some subjects according to ability. Grade repetition and early tracking into different study programmes are not typical.


From age 14, the curriculum is framed by external qualifications, provided by independent awarding organisations and regulated by Qualifications Wales. Qualifications are assigned levels of difficulty on the Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW), an umbrella framework which provides a common currency for learning achievement for learners of all ages and abilities.

Qualifications can be taken at any age, providing a structure for progression from school to adult learning.

General qualifications have undergone considerable reform since 2012, with the aim of developing a high-quality, robust and distinctive qualifications system for Welsh learners.

A bilingual Wales

Creation of a truly bilingual Wales is a goal of the Welsh Government. Depending on local factors, Welsh-medium and/or bilingual education is available alongside English-medium provision. In addition, and whatever the medium of instruction, all children must learn Welsh throughout compulsory education.

Higher education autonomy

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are private bodies that, subject to their degree-awarding powers, are free to design programmes and awards and to determine the conditions on which they are awarded. There is no system for the accreditation of HEIs, but institutions’ capability to manage their own quality and standards is assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), with the UK Quality Code as the reference point. A new quality assessment framework for Wales was published in 2018. Overseen by the HEFCW, this provides an annual external assessment of the quality of HEI provision against a set of baseline requirements.

Public funding for HEIs is provided by the HEFCW. The Welsh Government is consulting on proposals which would see the HEFCW being replaced by a Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales.

There has been a shift from direct public funding for teaching to tuition fees backed by public loans and a tuition fee grant. The tuition fee grant will be replaced with a loan from 2018/19 and, at the same time, maintenance grants will form part of the student support package.

Research infrastructure is supported by block grant funding, allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), while grants are awarded for specific research projects and programmes.

Stages of the education system

Full-time education is compulsory from the term following a child’s 5th birthday until they turn 16.


Children are entitled to a minimum of 10 hours a week of publicly funded education from the term after their 3rd birthday. The parents of 2- to 3-year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas of Wales are offered 12.5 hours of childcare per week under the Flying Start programme.

Settings include nursery schools, maintained primary schools, private and voluntary settings and registered childminders.

The majority of children attend a primary school reception class full-time from the September after their 4th birthday.


Primary education consists of the Foundation Phase for ages 5 to 7 and Key Stage 2 for ages 7 to 11.

Primary schools are mixed sex. A small proportion are faith schools. Schools are maintained by the local authority.

National standardised reading and numeracy tests apply from age 6. They do not influence pupil progression.


Key Stage 3 is for ages 11 to 14. It is provided in secondary schools, catering for pupils from 11 to 16 or 18/19. Secondary schools admit pupils without reference to academic criteria.

Most secondary schools are mixed sex. A small proportion are faith schools. Schools are maintained by the local authority.

National standardised reading and numeracy tests apply throughout Key Stage 3. They do not influence student progression.


Key Stage 4

Pupils normally continue at the same school for Key Stage 4, the final phase of compulsory full-time education for ages 14 to 16.

Attainment at the end of Key Stage 4 is measured mainly through GCSEs. Vocational qualifications may be offered alongside GCSEs.

These qualifications are important for student progression or transition to the labour market and school accountability.

16 to 18/19

At age 16, depending on the local offer and their preferences, young people may continue at the same school in the sixth form, or transfer to a further education (FE) college. Study programmes can contain a mix of general and vocational qualifications and the Learning Pathways Framework aims to ensure that local authorities, schools and further education colleges co-operate to ensure that young people have access to a wide choice of options to meet their individual needs.

Most academic routes lead to three A Levels (Level 3 qualifications). FE colleges typically offer a wider range of vocational options.

Students may also start an apprenticeship or traineeship. Apprenticeships are work-based training programmes for individuals not in full-time education aged 16 and over. They can be completed at different qualification levels (Level 2 through to 7).

Traineeships are available to support young people to progress into work, further education or an apprenticeship.

Adult learning

Adult learning includes apprenticeships and provision to raise achievement in basic skills, focusing mainly on English and maths qualifications. Most publicly funded programmes lead to a regulated qualification on the CQFW, whilst others encourage the hardest-to-reach adults back to learning and employment.

ISCED 5, 6, 7, 8

Programmes are structured on a five-level framework, which aligns with the five highest CQFW levels, and with three cycles of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies. The framework includes short programmes such as foundation degrees and postgraduate certificates.

Programmes are offered by higher education institutions (HEIs), FE colleges and alternative providers. Institutions determine their own admissions policies and wide variations in terms of competition for places exist. A Levels are the most common entry qualification for bachelor programmes, but other qualifications may be accepted. Well-established routes, such as Access programmes, exist for mature learners who lack formal qualifications.

Structure of the education system

Resource: https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-policies/eurydice/content/united-kingdom-wales_en