As from 1947 there has been a Welfare State in the United Kingdom which means that most public services are free at the point of delivery (this has been slightly modified over the years so you do have to make contributions in a number of cases).
Education is free from primary school up to age 18 and is compulsory up to age 16; support is means tested at university. The school year runs from September to June with short midterm breaks usually in late October and late February, longer breaks of around three weeks for Christmas, two weeks at Easter, and the months of July and August.
Local schools come in four varieties:
Each of these come in both single-sex and mixed (co-educational) versions although by and large the schools are mixed these days
Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland currently retains a Grammar School/Secondary School system in its state schools. This means that at age 11 a test is applied, pass it (the "11 plus" test) and you can go to a Grammar School, fail it and you can't. In general, Grammar Schools are considered as preparation for university.
There are two universities, Queen's University, Belfast and University of Ulster, and the Open University is also represented. Depending on the parents income students will get a grant towards their expenses at university though they can also apply for a subsidised student loan too. This system is currently changing with a general tendency towards increasing fees and reducing the grant (the student loan limit is increasing to compensate for this).
Health care is free for us in most respects except for prescription medication which we've to make a contribution towards and dental treatments (both these are free up to age 16 and from age 65). Naturally there's also private health care but it's really only for routine operations and is on nothing like the scale in the US.
To gain access to the health system you will eventually need a National Health Service (NHS) Number. You obtain one of these by registering with a doctor (GP) who will ask you to complete a form and send it off to the Central Services Agency (CSA) who issue the NHS numbers. You need to register with a doctor before you can register with a dentist.
Most Social Security payments are means tested; all require you to have a National Insurance Number which you apply for via a local Social Security Office; an extensive interview is required if you are not a UK national.
You've a tax return to do each year on the self-assessment basis (ie something like in the US) which covers the year from April to March. We're taxed independently so that each person gets one of these. In practice, unless you're getting income apart from your salary, you don't get a return to complete as it's all worked out automatically in the simple cases (ie for most people).
A Value Added Tax system is applied to almost all goods at 17.5% (5% for home fuel). The tax is included in the prices quoted in shops etc. (not so if the shop in question would normally sale to businesses).
Means Testing: this is applied to an increasing number of public services and social security payments. What it means is that if you are claiming a social security payment the amount of that payment will be reduced roughly in proportion to your savings or income. Similarly, the amount you need to pay for a given public service will increase in proportion to your savings or income. The proportionality is not always "smooth" so, for instance if in 2003 you have less than £8000 in savings you will receive full support for nursing home payments, if you've £16000 you get nothing.
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