School Guide's A-Z Jargon Buster

Modern school terminology can be confusing.
Like Key Stage. Or SATs. Or the difference between the English and International
Baccalaureate. Even school years are unrecognisable for many parents. Forget O levels in the fifth year; now it's GCSEs in Year 12. Parents need an -ology just to navigate a school Open Day. We’ve made a list of some of the common school terms and explained them as simply and as accurately as we can. We’ve listed the words alphabetically.



A levels

A levels are the next step up from GCSEs if your child stays on in academic education after the age of 16 (as opposed to getting a job or doing a vocational qualification). Three or four subjects are continued usually studied at A level. A level results are the gateway to most university and college courses.

Age standardised test scores

The system used to show how your child is doing compared with other children born in the same month and year. Your child’s teacher will be able to show you this score for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 tests – giving the best indication of their progress to the end of their primary education. Eleven Plus exams are also age standardised, so summer-born children are not disadvantaged in the selection process compared to their classmates with Autumn birthdays.


Common Entrance Exam

Taken by some children as part of the admissions process for academically selective independent schools, following on from primary education (whether state or independent). There are two versions, catering for school admissions starting at 11 and 13 years old.


Eleven Plus

Mainly used as admissions test in areas that still have state grammar schools, the Eleven Plus is taken in the final year of primary education.

English Baccalaureate

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a performance measure, not a qualification and is not to be confused with the International Baccalaureate. The Ebacc measure shows where pupils have secured a C grade or above across a core of academic subjects at Key Stage 4 and enables parents and pupils to see how their school is performing. It is not compulsory for schools to ensure pupils sit the correct combination of subjects to tick the EBacc box and currently (Jan 2014) iGSCEs are not included in the measure so many high achieving academic schools will score a low or even zero Ebacc percentage.


First, Middle and Upper schools

There are only a few geographical areas in the UK that still use this system, which was most popular in the early 1980s (there were just 171 middle schools remaining in the UK at the end of 2013). The First School takes children from Reception to Year 4, the Middle School from Years 5 – 8, with the Upper school catering for Years 9 – 13.



The General Certificate of Secondary Education is a national qualification that pupils work for during Key Stage 4. Pupils often take a number of GCSEs, graded by a mixture of coursework and exams.

The IGCSE is an International General Certificate of Secondary Education and generally considered equivalent to a GCSE in a particular subject, although some argue it is tougher. A number of independent schools offer IGCSE syllabuses instead of GCSE in some subjects. The assessment process can include oral, coursework and practical work, as well as written exams.

GCSE 9-1 Grading

Summer 2017 saw the first set of results from the new, tougher GSCEs in English language, literature and maths published for many schools. This was the start of the old A*-G grading system being replaced with new gradings from 9-1, with more 9-1 GCSE qualifications following in 2018 and 2019, and a fully intregrated system by 2020. 

Under the new system, 1 is the lowest grade and 9 is the highest. 

It's part of a drive by the Department for Education to raise academic standards and focus pupils on achieving higher grades. There is now a distinction between a 'standard pass' and 'strong pass', and one of the government's headline measures is the percentage of pupils gaining both English and maths GCSEs at Grade 5 (strong pass) or higher. Former Education secretary Justine Greening said she expects more pupils to get a grade 5 over time as England's education system improves, and therefore this is the new, tougher standard.

Ofsted has also confirmed that Grade 5 will be its new line in the sand when assessing school “pass” rates.

So far, so tricky to compare. 

Furthermore, the new 9-1 numbers do not correspond evenly with the old A*-G system. 

The BBC says the following and also offers a handy table: 

"9 will be awarded to fewer pupils than A* is currently. In fact, three number grades, 9, 8 and 7, correspond to the current top grades of A* and A. This is designed to give more differentiation at the top end. A grade 6 is a bit higher than the old B grade. 

Meanwhile, at the bottom, the new system has less detail, with grades D, E and F corresponding to grades 1 and 2, and the bottom of a grade 1 corresponding to the bottom of a grade G."


'Standard pass' versus 'strong pass' (aka Poundland versus Waitrose)

In the old A*-G system, the Department for Education considered a 'good pass' to be a C. In the new system, the government sets down 4 as a 'standard pass' and 5 as a 'strong pass'. This has caused some to brand "Grade 4 the Poundland C" and "Grade 5 the Waitrose C". They are both a C but one C is already a little less welcome at the GCSE party. TES says: "They may be numerical next-door neighbours, but in terms of social status, the numbers four and five have been drifting apart from each other for many years." 


Independent schools

These are schools that are independent in funding (relying on tuition fees, endowments and so on) and independent in governance. Independent, public and private schools are fundamentally the same – having three different words to describe them is an accident of history. See our entry on Public Schools for more details.

Infant and Junior schools

The Infant school range goes from Reception to the end of Key Stage 1, covering ages 4-7. As part of a Primary School, Infants and Juniors are often separated by different playgrounds (to keep the little ones safe), different teaching methods and the demands of the National Curriculum.

Some Infant Schools are separate, in which case children move on to a Junior School afterwards, rather than moving to the next class up in the same school. The Junior school covers Key Stage 2 (Years 3 – 6).

International Baccalaureate

International Baccalaureate is an organisation that provides programmes of study from ages 3 – 19 throughout the world. The latter part of this programme, for 16 – 19 year old pupils is a challenging, internationally recognised course that leads to a qualification called the International Baccalaureate Diploma (often referred to as simply the International Bacculaureate). It’s well respected by universities and can be an advantage if your child is hoping to study overseas.

In the UK, it used to be taught in a small number of independent schools but it’s now an option in some state schools too, with 190 schools offering the course. Students complete assessment tasks in school and take written exams at the end of the programme.


Key Stages

Key Stages are how the government divides up the curriculum and pacing of your child’s education. The details of each Key Stage are given below.

Key Stage 1 (KS1)

Key Stage 1 covers Years 1 – 2 (age 5-7), with SATs taken when the school thinks best for the class in Year 2 (age 7). The Key Stage 1 curriculum includes reading, writing, speaking and listening, maths and science, with the assessments being done by the teacher.

Key Stage 2 (KS2)

The Key Stage 2 curriculum runs from Years 3 – 6 (age 8-11), with SATs taken in Year 6 (age 11). The tests are a mixture of teacher assessment and exam condition tests taken in mid-May, lasting around 5 hours in total – you get the results in July.

Key Stage 3 (KS3)

This runs from Years 7 – 9 (age 11-14), the first three years of most secondary schools. According to the government, evidence shows that if children do well in KS3, they significantly increase their chances in GCSEs and beyond. There are no mandatory tests at the end of KS3 but teacher assessment is still undertaken.

Key Stage 4 (KS4)

Most pupils spend KS4 in Years 10 – 11 (age 14-16) working towards national qualifications, usually GCSEs. Year 11 (age 16) is the final year of compulsory education.

Key Stage 5 (KS5)

Key Stage 5 covers Years 12 – 13 (age 16-18) and, while still free, is optional for all pupils. AS and A levels are the usual qualifications offered during this period, with pupils attending sixth form in a school or a sixth-form college.



The Office for Standards in Education inspects schools regularly and publishes its findings.

Options (GSCE)

In Year 9 (age 13 or 14) pupils have to choose their GSCE subjects. All students have to take Maths, English (either literature and language separately or as a single English GCSE) and a science subject. Schools have varying policies on additional ‘musts’ such as a modern language, RE and ICT. Most schools will advise on the maximum number of subjects your child is advised to take (up to around 12) or whether to combine GSCEs with vocational qualifications. The Department of Education are planning changes to GCSEs that will come in to effect from 2015 including changes to the way pupils are assessed and the style of exams.


Phonics screening check

This is a formal test in June of Year 1 (age 6), when your child reads out a list of words to a teacher. It tests their knowledge of phonics (the sounds that letters and groups of letters make) rather than their reading or comprehension skills.

Prep School

Prep schools prepare children for senior school and typically take children from the age of 7 up to either 11 or 13 depending on the school. Pre-Prep schools take children as young as 2 up to 7. So Prep and Pre-Prep together are the equivalent of nursery, primary and junior school in the state sector.

There is no individual school performance data for these schools, as the majority do not sit National Curriculum tests. The focus is generally on preparing pupils for the Common Entrance Exam, the usual entry requirement for an independent senior school.

Primary school

This is the most common type of early school in England and Wales. Children enter the Reception Year when they’re 4 (turning 5 during the school year). Primary schools are often divided internally into Infants and Juniors.

Primary Data (Key Stage 2)

You can read more about Primary Data on our Primary Data Jargon Buster for Parents

Public schools

The first public schools were so called because they were open to the public (as long as they could afford to pay, of course) and nowadays it’s a bit of an archaic term to describe the big guns of the independent world such as Eton and Harrow. In theory, while all public schools are independent, you could have an independent school that is not open to everyone, and therefore not a public school.

Progress 8 score

This is the average of all pupils' individual Progress 8 scores, which takes into account their best eight GCSE results as well as the educational level at which they entered the school.

Maths and English results are now graded 9 to 1 whereas other subjects are still graded under the old system of A* to G.

Each pupil's grades for their best eight GCSE results, including maths and English, are combined to produce an Attainment 8 score which is then compared with other pupils' scores to calculate their Progress 8 score.

Progress 8 was introduced by the government in 2016 to give a more holistic view of how our children are progressing. Previously, at GCSE, schools were judged by the main headline measure: the percentage of children achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. 

This was considered to be unfair on schools who took in pupils with poorer grades at the end of primary school. So, for example, if a child entered Year 7 (the first year of secondary school) with a level 3 in their SATs (below national average), and not a level 4 (national average) or 5 (above national average) or even the magical 6 before it was phased out (well above national average), it would be considered very good progress for them to achieve a grade C pass at GCSE. But this wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in the black and white exam results. 

Progress 8 sets out how much progress pupils make as it measures like-for-like groups of children across England and gives a score based on whether they make more, about the same or less progress at this school. Results from the end of primary school (SATs) are compared with GCSE results and a score given around a zero national average baseline that, for most schools, ranges from +1 (good progress) to -1 (less progress). 

On School Guide, we display more progress with an upwards arrow and less progress as a downwards arrow (see example above). It’s important to note that less progress is different to no progress. 

The score is calculated by giving points to subject grades: some, like English and maths, are double weighted. The overall score includes points for up to eight approved qualifications, ‘approved’ being the key word here as the government has strict guidelines on what’s in and what’s out. These are: English, maths, 3 so-called English Baccalaureate qualifications including sciences, computer science, history, geography and languages, and 3 other additional approved qualifications including academic and vocational exams. 

So, total points for the eight subjects are are divided by 10 (eight including English and maths that are double weighted) to get a per pupil result. The Department for Education website also offers a descriptive summary of how far above or below the national average each school sits. You can discover whether a school's progress is Well above average / Above average / Average / Below Average by searching here. 



Standard Assessment Tests taken in Years 2 and 6. (The official name for SATs is National Curriculum tests but you’ll rarely hear it used.)

Key Stage 1 tasks and tests cover reading; writing; speaking and listening; maths; and science. The tasks and tests are taken when the school chooses in Year 2. These SATs are set to be scrapped under new government plans announced in Spring 2017. 

Key Stage 2 tests cover English reading; English grammar, punctuation and spelling; maths (including mental arithmetic). The tests are taken in mid-May of Year 6.

Secondary Data – GCSE and A level 

You can ready more about Seconday Data in more detail on our Secondary Data Jargon Buster for Parents

State schools

At heart, these are government-funded schools that provide education free of charge to its pupils. The majority of state schools are under the control of local councils – these are known as Maintained schools. There are some other types of state schools, including Academies and Free Schools which draw their funding directly from the government.


TA or EA

Teaching Assistant or Education Assistant, also known as a Classroom Assistant. Helps the qualified teacher in the classroom on a permanent or occasional basis.


Vocational qualifications

These qualifications are all about the world of work, across the full range of jobs, industries and professions. BTEC and City & Guilds courses are the most common, taking in everything from Apprenticeships and NVQs (more hands-on), to certificates and diplomas (more classroom based).



The first year of formal education is called Reception. After that, things get rather predictable, starting at Year 1 (the second year in formal education) and going all the way up to Year 13 when a child is 18. So, the years in English schools run as follows:

Year – age (tests/exams)


Reception – ages 4 and 5

Year 1 – ages 5 and 6

Year 2 – ages 6 and 7 (KS2 SATs)

Year 3 – ages 7 and 8


Year 4 – ages 8 and 9

Year 5 – ages 9 and 10

Year 6 – ages 10 and 11 (KS2 SATs)


Year 7 – ages 11 and 12

Year 8 – ages 12 and 13

Year 9 – ages 13 and 14

Year 10 – ages 14 and 15

Year 11 – ages 15 and 16 (GCSEs)

Year 12 – ages 16 and 17 (AS LEVEL)

Year 13 – ages 17 and 18 (A LEVEL)