The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a sovereign state in Europe. Lying off the north-western coast of the European mainland, the country includes the island of Great Britain—a term also applied loosely to refer to the whole country—the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with another state (the Republic of Ireland). Apart from this land border, the UK is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to its east, the English Channel to its south and the Celtic Sea to its south-southwest. The Irish Sea lies between Great Britain and Ireland. The UK has an area of 93,800 square miles (243,000 km2), making it the 80th-largest sovereign state in the world and the 11th-largest in Europe.
A radial road network totals 29,145 miles (46,904 km) of main roads, 2,173 miles (3,497 km) of motorways and 213,750 miles (344,000 km) of paved roads. The M25, encircling London, is the largest and busiest bypass in the world.
The culture of the United Kingdom has been influenced by many factors including: the nation's island status; its history as a western liberal democracy and a major power; as well as being a political union of four countries with each preserving elements of distinctive traditions, customs and symbolism. As a result of the British Empire, British influence can be observed in the language, culture and legal systems of many of its former colonies including Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and the United States. The substantial cultural influence of the United Kingdom has led it to be described as a "cultural superpower".
The United Kingdom has a temperate climate, with plentiful rainfall all year round. The temperature varies with the seasons seldom dropping below −11 °C (12 °F) or rising above 35 °C (95 °F). The prevailing wind is from the south-west and bears frequent spells of mild and wet weather from the Atlantic Ocean, although the eastern parts are mostly sheltered from this wind since the majority of the rain falls over the western regions the eastern parts are therefore the driest. Atlantic currents, warmed by the Gulf Stream, bring mild winters; especially in the west where winters are wet and even more so over high ground. Summers are warmest in the south-east of England, being closest to the European mainland, and coolest in the north. Heavy snowfall can occur in winter and early spring on high ground, and occasionally settles to great depth away from the hills.
The UK has a partially regulated market economy. Based on market exchange rates the UK is today the fifth-largest economy in the world and the second-largest in Europe after Germany. HM Treasury, led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is responsible for developing and executing the British government's public finance policy and economic policy. The Bank of England is the UK's central bank and is responsible for issuing notes and coins in the nation's currency, the pound sterling. Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland retain the right to issue their own notes, subject to retaining enough Bank of England notes in reserve to cover their issue. Pound sterling is the world's third-largest reserve currency (after the US Dollar and the Euro).
Education in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter, with each country having a separate education system.
Whilst education in England is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Education, the day-to-day administration and funding of state schools is the responsibility of local authorities. Universally free of charge state education was introduced piecemeal between 1870 and 1944. Education is now mandatory from ages five to sixteen (15 if born in late July or August). In 2011, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) rated 13–14-year-old pupils in England and Wales 10th in the world for maths and 9th for science.
The majority of children are educated in state-sector schools, a small proportion of which select on the grounds of academic ability. Two of the top ten performing schools in terms of GCSE results in 2006 were state-run grammar schools. Over half of students at the leading universities of Cambridge and Oxford had attended state schools. England has the two oldest universities in English-speaking world, Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (jointly known as "Oxbridge") with history of over eight centuries. The United Kingdom has 9 universities featured in the Times Higher Education top 100 rankings, making it second to the United States in terms of representation.
The Welsh Government has responsibility for education in Wales. A significant number of Welsh students are taught either wholly or largely in the Welsh language; lessons in Welsh are compulsory for all until the age of 16.There are plans to increase the provision of Welsh-medium schools as part of the policy of creating a fully bilingual Wales.
Education in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the Minister of Education and the Minister for Employment and Learning, although responsibility at a local level is administered by five education and library boards covering different geographical areas. The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations & Assessment (CCEA) is the body responsible for advising the government on what should be taught in Northern Ireland's schools, monitoring standards and awarding qualifications.
British cuisine is the specific set of cooking traditions and practices associated with the United Kingdom. British cuisine has been described as "unfussy dishes made with quality local ingredients, matched with simple sauces to accentuate flavor, rather than disguise it." However, British cuisine has absorbed the cultural influence of those who have settled in Britain, producing many hybrid dishes, such as the Anglo-Indian chicken tikka masala.
Celtic agriculture and animal breeding produced a wide variety of foodstuffs for indigenous Celts and Britons. Anglo-Saxon England developed meat and savory herb stewing techniques before the practice became common in Europe. The Norman conquest introduced exotic spices into England in the Middle Ages. The British Empire facilitated a knowledge of India's elaborate food tradition of "strong, penetrating spices and herbs". Food rationing policies, put in place by the British government during wartime periods of the 20th century, are said to have been the stimulus for British cuisine's poor international reputation. It has been claimed, contrary to popular belief, that people in southern England eat more garlic per head than the people of northern France.
British cuisine has traditionally been limited in its international recognition to the full breakfast, fish and chips, and the Christmas dinner. Other British dishes include the Sunday roast, steak and kidney pie, shepherd's pie, and bangers and mash. British cuisine has many regional varieties within the broader categories of English, Scottish and Welsh cuisine. Each has developed their own regional or local dishes, many of which are geographically indicated foods such as Cornish pasties, the Yorkshire pudding, Cumberland Sausage, Arbroath Smokie, and Welsh cakes.
The UK's de facto official language is English. It is estimated that 95% of the UK's population are monolingual English speakers. 5.5% of the population is estimated to speak languages brought to the UK as a result of relatively recent immigration. South Asian languages, including Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Gujarati, are the largest grouping and are spoken by 2.7% of the UK population. According to the 2011 census, Polish has become the second-largest language spoken in England and has 546,000 speakers.
Four Celtic languages are spoken in the UK: Welsh; Irish; Scottish Gaelic; and Cornish. All are recognized as regional or minority languages, subject to specific measures of protection and promotion under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The number of schoolchildren being taught through Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish is increasing. Among emigrant-descended populations some Scottish Gaelic is still spoken in Canada (principally Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island), and Welsh in Patagonia, Argentina.
Scots, a language descended from early northern Middle English, has limited recognition alongside its regional variant, Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland, without specific commitments to protection and promotion.
It is compulsory for pupils to study a second language up to the age of 14 in England, and up to age 16 in Scotland. French and German are the two most commonly taught second languages in England and Scotland. All pupils in Wales are taught Welsh as a second language up to age 16, or are taught in Welsh.