I live abroad with 4 children and the cost of schooling is going to force us home in 3 years when my eldest son starts 2ndary. Here you have to pay a 'building fee' of over 5000 pounds just to secure the place, on top of yearly fees of around 11,000 per year. But where do I start looking and what am I looking for in the UK? Do I need to put names down at state schools early? Or is it all catchment area driven? Are any state schools assessed entry? I don't know where I am going to be based yet, it could be Wales - are the systems the same in England and Wales? What does it mean to be a grammar school in the UK now? What is a 'free' school? Is a Beacon school a good thing? Help! All the basics!! Help! TIA
England and Wales are different systems, but more similar than England Scotland. Some areas have a traditional Grammar secondary modern (effectively) system eg. Kent and Buckinghamshire. Other places have a few Grammars, some of these canbe very hard to get into so are called "super selectives" these also occur in Kent (the Tunbridge schools?). But Comps here are more like true comps. Then there are places which are truly comprehensive eg. Surrey, some of these do very well even with highly intelligent pupils, as well as those of different ability. You apply for secondary in October of year 6, and admission is based on factors such as siblings, religion and distance. You cannot register early. If you move later you will be offered a school which has places (and are lucky if this is the school you want), you can go on waiting lists and can appeal for the school you want.
£11000 per year sounds pretty cheap for private school fees.
Beacon schools haven't existed for a number of years.
The problem with "free" schools is they are after started by a group of parents, so there is a clique which control the school. Sometimes the Head is not as qualified as other schools, sometimes the Head leaves after clashes.
Unless you are going to go private or try to move into one of the few grammar school areas, the key thing is to move as near as possible to a really good state comprehensive. Chances of getting into the state school of your choice will depend largely on how near you live.
You can look at any school's Ofsted report online. That will only give you a sketchy idea of what the school is really like, but it's a start. If you are going to be coming over for visits, looking at houses etc, then you can ask around about the reputation of the local schools.
Like the previous poster said, there is no system of getting in early or putting your name down etc. State school applications are done centrally through the local authority - there is no way around this, no way to improve your chances of getting the school you want.
Obviously it's best to be able to move to an area where several or all of the local schools are good, rather than just one of them. That way, even if you don't get your first choice it's not a disaster! Good luck!
If you are really planning ahead, Wales has different rules for University tuition fees. here However in the shorter term, Wales generally does not do as well, academically, as England. There is also the consideration of having to do lessons in the Welsh medium.