For the first few years at independent secondary school, most pupils follow roughly the same curriculum: English, maths, at least one modern language, history, geography, some science (physics, chemistry and biology), Latin (sometimes), religious studies (usually), ICT, art/design & technology, music, drama (often) and physical education. Most Heads of independent schools believe they cover the National Curriculum and more, although they are not obliged to do so.

At 14, pupils choose the subjects they will study for GCSE (S-grade or Intermediate 1 or 2 in Scotland), in a 2-year course over Years 10 and 11. They are usually obliged to take English, maths, science and a language but schools may impose extra constraints eg specifying the language taken, requiring pupils to take at least one humanity or arts subject, etc. It is common for pupils to take between 7 and 10 subjects and sit the exams when they are 16 at the end of Year 11. Some schools have a policy of allowing selected subjects (most often maths, a language, ICT or RS) to be taken a year early.

Sixth formers (Years 12 and 13) usually take 4–5 AS-level subjects in the lower sixth, and continue 3 of these (usually, though sometimes 4) to A-level in the upper sixth. At the comparable stage, Scottish students are taking Highers and Advanced Highers. Sixth formers taking the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma study a broad spread of six subjects.