Here’s some basic info on the English school system. I’m planning a Part 2 as well to talk about other related issues. I reserve the right to be wrong, since I’m an outsider looking in. Any locals reading this please feel free to correct any errors. For example, apparently some of the terminology is used differently in different parts of the country, but this is how it seems to be used here (at least from my sources at my son’s school).

The typical school day runs from 9:00am-3:20pm. Instead of ‘grades’ students progress through ‘years’. The years are divided up into different Key Stages (KS), at the end of each stage the students (typically) take some type of exam. School is only compulsory until age 16.

Creche/Nursery: Before ‘reception’ (~kindergarten) kids often go to a ‘creche’ (~’day care’), which usually runs from 6 months-reception, or another option is a ‘child minder’ (~nanny/baby sitter). The state will fund 3 hours a day of Nursery (~pre-school) for 3 year olds. Some primary schools have nursery programs, but from what we’ve heard a majority don’t. You can go to a day care facility, but it must be specially accredited by Ofsted (I think) for the 3 hours to be free for you–for instance it’s not free at Cranmer Creche at St. John’s.

Primary: In the UK kids start ‘reception’ in the year they will turn 5, so all kids typically start when they are 4 yrs old (i.e., 1 year earlier than the US). Accordingly, the UK ‘year’ (~grade) system is obviously one year ahead of the US grade system by age; however, it seems that they cover similar material in year 2 as they would in 2nd grade in the US. From what my wife says, they place foreign kids in the ‘year’ according to age only and not according to their previous grade. (Our older son had skipped kindergarden so after finishing 1st grade in Dallas, he fit the proper age group for ‘year 2′ here, so it worked out fine for us.) We found the transition in levels (from 1st grade to year 2) to be about what we expected to be as far as the increase in difficulty, etc. Class sizes are a little larger than in the US–they can be as large as 30. We did find the Ofsted report for our sons’ school (St. Hild’s Primary) to sound like the school is worse than it is–we really like the school, and have no problems with it.

Secondary: I don’t know much about these other than the groupings and exam system laid out below.  The earlier secondary is called a ‘comprehensive’ school–also known as just ‘comp’.  At some point, students pick out subjects and study for their GCSE’s.  Once those are over, I think they can leave school (about age 16).  If you continue, you go to a Sixth Form for a couple of years (lower 6th and upper 6th) to study for 3 or 4 A-levels.  The results of these determine what kind of university you can get into if you go. Here’s a BBC story that lays out the history of the grammar/comprehensive school divide.

University: The English BA is only 3 years, and it is fairly specialised (i.e., no general education courses–basic english, math, etc.). The Scottish BA is 4 years. It seems to be much more focused on writing than the US system. MA is typically one year, and the PhD is typically 3 years (no course work). [Note: the term ‘college’ is used differently than in the US where it is basically synonymous with ‘university’. College can refer to the colleges at Oxbridge and Durham (e.g., St. John’s College), but most will use the term as the bridge between secondary school and vocational training schools (like a junior college in the US but less comprehensive in the subjects covered). So ‘college’ training then would be very different than ‘university’ training.)

Levels:
Foundation
Nursery: Age 3-4
Reception: Age 4-5 (~Kindergarten)
Primary
Infants: Yr 1-2 (KS 1)
Juniors: Yr 3-6 (KS 2)
Secondary
Lower Secondary: Yr 7-9 (KS 3)
Upper Secondary: Yr 10-11 (KS 4)
Sixth Form: Yr 12-13 (KS 5)

Exam Systems:
SATs (KS 1, 2, & 3) [pronounced like he ‘sat’ on the floor]
GCSEs (KS 4) – This is kind of equivalent to getting a high school diploma, or at least a GED, but I think A Levels are required for college entry. Students don’t have to take GSCEs, though practically all do. If their teachers don’t think the student will pass them, they will recommend that they not take them.
A Levels (KS 5) – Students choose subjects that interest them. I think traditionally they chose 3 subjects, but now I think they do more. Grades (A, B, C, etc.) determine how prestigious a school you get in as an undergrad. Oxbridge require AAA (or 3 subjects with A’s). Durham Theology department requires AAB.

Here’s a few links:
Durham County Schools Info, also Search for schools in Durham
Detail on key education terms

My Part 2