So you’ve decided to move to the U.K. Now it’s time to start thinking about when your children will go to school. It’s time to consider how schooling in the UK is different to school in South Africa. You need to find out what you need to do to prepare your children. There’s no denying this, moving your children from school in South Africa to school in the UK is stressful. In this post, I tell you what we did. I’ll share how it worked, and how my children have adjusted to their new education system in the UK.
So you’re moving to the UK from South Africa.
First things first, if you are moving your children from school in South Africa to the UK you need to understand one basic thing: your child will most likely be 18 months behind their peers in the UK schooling system.
But don’t panic. There are 2 reasons for this:
- Children in South Africa generally start Grade 1 the year they turn 7. In England they go to Year 1 the year they turn 6.
- In South Africa, the school year runs from January to December. However, in England, the school year starts in September, following a 6-week summer break.
At this point, I’m going to say that whilst we moved to the UK we live in England. There could be slightly different variations of the information I’m giving in this post if you are moving to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Whilst a lot of it is the same in terms of curriculum and the application process, etc, some are different such as term dates, benefits, etc. Please refer to the www.gov.uk website for all details regarding these countries.
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How and When we moved our children to the England school system.
When we moved from South Africa to the U.K. we left at the end of June 2018. The girls joined their new school in England for the last three weeks of the English school year. We did this intentionally. By moving at the end of June, they had completed half a year of schooling in South Africa.
We could have kept them at home and not sent them for those last three weeks but we wanted them to get a taste of what their new school would be like. Also, I guess it was like ripping off a band-aid/plaster, getting them straight into school would not have given them the opportunity to sit at home for two months and worry about what their new school would be like.
Tough Love Parenting
My eldest went from two terms of Grade 1 in school in South Africa to the last three weeks of Year 2 in England. Her birthday is the first week in July so she was turned 7 that first week we were living in England.
My youngest went from two terms of Grade RR to the last three weeks of Year 0. She had just turned 5 two weeks before.
When they went back to school after the six week summer break they went into Year 3 and Year 1 respectively at ages 7 and 5 years old.
It was a significant jump for both of them. In the English schooling system, children start learning phonics and writing in cursive handwriting from the age of 4, as well as numeracy.
Advance preparation and support
Once we had made the decision to leave South Africa, we knew what it would mean for the girls in terms of schooling in the UK. I wanted to try to give them both as much help as I possibly could to solidify the foundation of their reading skills in particular.
I decided to enrol my eldest in extra reading classes with the Wise Eye reading academy for the six months prior to our move. Unfortunately, they were not able to accept my youngest because according to the South African system she was far too young (Age 4). There wasn’t much I could do for her at the time.
How they were received into the English school system.
When we had our first meeting with the new school, we offered to put the girls into extra classes privately. It is fairly normal in South Africa, to pay for extra lessons privately if your child has ‘fallen behind’ or is ‘struggling’. However, this is not the first port of call in the UK. The school asked us to wait and to give them the opportunity to help bring the girls up to the required standard before going down the route of private tutoring. We agreed to leave it to them, and I’m so glad I did.
My eldest did struggle to change to writing in cursive handwriting more than the reading and spellings, but she coped. More than coped, she did amazingly!
My just 5-year-old was thrown right into the deep end. In South Africa, she was just learning her letters and could just about write her name. She went into a class where children were learning phonic sounds, reading books and writing in cursive.
Did they catch up?
It was a stressful and worrying time for us, but I can’t thank the school enough. They worked with the girls and most of the time I didn’t even know if they were getting extra attention or if they were just doing normal school activities like all the other children.
When the school year broke up for the summer, the teachers did give me some extra worksheets for the girls to continue doing over the summer holiday. But to be honest, they did very little. We spent that gorgeous summer exploring our new home, enjoying the summer weather, and having a holiday.
Immigrating is stressful and we all needed a break.
When they went back to school in September, the teachers worked with the girls through what they call “interventions”. They gave them extra lessons during the normal school hours by keeping them back during assembly and at other points in the normal school day.
Not once did my girls ever come to me and say, “Mummy, I have to go to extra lessons after school.” or, “Mummy all the other children can do it but I can’t.” Yes, I am no longer Mommy, I am Mummy.
As a mother, I was extremely concerned about the possible emotional effect of them being made to feel like they were behind the other children, but not once did this happen.
You can check out this post below that I wrote after our first few weeks of school in the UK.
Proud Mom Bragging
In April 2019, eight months into their first year of school, my youngest received an award at school. They only give one child in the school this award each month. The teachers nominate a student and then they all have to vote for who receives it. When her teacher explained just what she had overcome and in the time she had done it, all the other teachers agreed that she should receive it. It was for doing so well that she had caught up on 18 months of work and was equal to her peers. For a Year 1 student to receive this award is quite something in their school.
My eldest was also doing very well. She consistently gets 100% on her weekly spelling tests, is on track with her reading list and her maths. She’s also frequently selected to represent the school in various sporting contests that they have and this year is their class school council representative.
As much as I would like to take some credit for how well my girls have done adapting to school in the UK, I can’t. In fact, the only way I did help them in a practical sense was to STOP helping them! lol
There was a point in the early days when my youngest was struggling with her phonics. I was trying to help her with her reading and her sounds, but I realised that because of my accent, I was only making it harder for her. Some of the sounds I was making were completely different from the sounds she was supposed to be learning in class [clarse or class – it’s pronounced differently here!].
I realised I had to stop helping her and so for a time I had to ask her English half-sister to help her with her homework reading and phonics. It was at that point that her phonics and reading started to improve. I’m just going to leave that story here.
But enough about my amazing children. You are really reading this to find out how to work out which school Year your child will go to when you move them to school in the U.K.
What grade will my child go to in school in the UK?
One thing in my experience that is important to note is that the U.K. school system doesn’t care what year your child was in back in South Africa or wherever they are coming in from. When they get to the UK they will be put into the school year according to their age.
It doesn’t matter if you chose or were recommended to keep your child back another year from starting Grade 1. If they were 8 when they left Grade 1 in SA, if they arrive in the UK during that year, they could be put into Year 3. End of discussion.
Does this apply to teenagers and secondary school children as well?
The same applies to high school. My bonus daughter has been educated in England her whole life and is now in her final year of GCSE’s age 16 (Key stage 4). She has told us a few times over the past year that children have joined her classes from other countries, even if they can’t speak English. They are expected to be attending classes, writing tests and exams, regardless of the language barriers or their previous educational background.
Now I’m not saying there aren’t special measures in place for these children, I’m sure there are. The point is that they will put children into their respective age group Year and from there they will work with them. They don’t tend to put older children in a younger year. It’s just not something they do.
If you are looking to move teens over I would strongly suggest you contact the schools and local authorities where your child will be educated to discuss how this will work and what they will need to do. They do offer support, the important thing though is to just get your child into the education system as soon as you can.
Below is extracted from the official website www.gov.uk/school-admissions
Your child must start full-time education once they reach compulsory school age. This is on 31 December, 31 March or 31 August following their fifth birthday – whichever comes first. If your child’s fifth birthday is on one of those dates then they reach compulsory school age on that date.
For example, if your child reaches compulsory school age on 31 March, they must start full-time education at the beginning of the next term (summer term that year).
You can download a PDF document here that explains exactly which school year your child will go into according to their age. Please bear in mind the above, that the compulsory age to start school is after their 5th birthday, and they will go into Year 1 (Key Stage 1). However, schooling is available to all children from Age 4 in reception (Early Years).
How To Enrol Your Children In School When You Move To The U.K.
When you move from South Africa to the UK, you need a postcode. This is part of your address that identifies where you live.
School enrollments are allocated by the local authority. You apply to the local authority where you live for a place in the schools within the zone of your postcode. This is usually done online. Please see the link in the following section – school admissions.
Whilst you can give a preference to which school you want your children to attend, you may not get your first or even second choice for that matter. It’s all based on whether the schools have the capacity to accept more children into each school. You can appeal an application but this takes time.
I understand that a lot of people don’t have a postcode to use to apply, in this case you really do just have to wait until you have one.
Once you apply, if you join between September and July you will be applying for an ‘in-year placement’ meaning you apply for a space mid-year.
*This all assumes that you’re moving your children who are already of school-going age when they arrive in the UK. If you arrive with babies or children under the age of 4 then you will join the system as per everyone else.
More useful information about schooling in the UK.
The government website provides more information on the following topics related to your children and their education and I would strongly urge you to spend some time reading up on what the rules are. Useful topics to read up on are:
- School Admissions
- Choosing schools and the different types of schooling options including homeschooling.
- The different types of schools – faith schools, free schools, academies, private schools etc.
- Ofsted Inspection Reports – useful to find reports for schools, colleges, childminders, nurseries, children’s homes and more in England.
- The national curriculum for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 (Primary School).
- The national curriculum for Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 (Secondary school / high school).
- How to search for the school terms and holiday dates
Disclaimer: Please refer to the official gov.uk website for the most up to date information regarding schooling in the UK. The information I provide here is correct at the time of publishing (February 2020) to the best of my knowledge.
I know there is a lot of information here, but the whole point is that I wanted to try to help people. I remember having sleepless nights, stress, anxiety and sheer overwhelming panic just thinking about my girls and how immigrating would impact them. Moving your children from school in South Africa to school in the UK is scary. It’s a huge life-changing thing to deal with.
This post is intended to say that whilst the UK education system is not perfect, they do have a system and the system does work. There are so many resources here that will help you to navigate the education system in the UK.
Yes, there are long waiting lists.
No, you might not get your first choice of school.
Yes, your children will most likely be behind if they are already of school-going age, even if they were in a top private school. Please leave your pride on the plane.
No, that doesn’t mean they won’t succeed. The system here will help them, as will you, I’m sure.
If there’s the one thing that immigration has taught me, it’s that children do adapt. Even better and quicker than we do.
If you are planning a move to the UK and are concerned about your children starting school here or you just want some advice or reassurance, please do reach out. Either drop me a comment on this post, email me at email@example.com, or send me a DM on any of my social media. I will try to help as much as I can as I know that it can be a huge stress and a worrying time in your immigration process.
If you’d like to find out more about our immigration process, and why we moved so much, please download my podcast and have a listen to my story on The Migration Generation.
COVID UPDATE: This blog post has seen significant interest during lockdown. I assume that the current situation in South Africa has made more people consider leaving South Africa to move to the UK. I need to be clear that it has not all been rosy here. My girls go to state/government schools in the UK. There was very little educational interaction with teachers and schools, and a whole lot of home schooling responsibility placed on parents. I did not cope well. I was quite disappointed by the little to NO interaction that my girls had with their teachers, something that I think is vitally important. This was also in stark contrast to what was happening in Private Schools. I had a few public rants about this. However we are now in the last week of the school year and I’m extremely grateful to our school and the staff for the support that we have had. We received notice this week that all kids will be going back full time in September.
One of the reasons we left South Africa was the huge cost of private school fees. Private schooling in the UK is better, but it is not affordable for most people. With that said, I’m still glad we are here and I have would not go back to SA.
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