Most UK schools are now genuinely thrilled to welcome foreign students, and no longer regard a cosmopolitan mix as a matter for shame (that they cannot fill the school with home-grown products). Foreign students are perceived to add breadth, excitement, new horizons, not to mention fantastic exam results in exotic languages (Turkish, Norwegian, Polish, Mandarin, Japanese, Gujerati, Urdu among the most common), high intelligence (often), motivation and - last but not least - cash.
The best schools in this country are outstanding by any standards. Beware, though, of being fobbed off with second-rate places.
A few thoughts for parents looking to send their children to a British boarding school:
- Look for a school that is popular with the British, as well as with foreigners. Read the reviews on this website to get a feel for that and, better still, talk to personal contacts if possible.
- Do not assume a school is good simply because it is famous: an obvious point, but you would be surprised how many people believe famous equals good.
- Do not be over-reliant on exam result league tables. Many overseas parents come see us waving newspaper league tables and considering only the schools in the highest echelons. A school’s high placement on league tables may owe more to its selective intake than to the quality of the education.
- Beware educational agencies that will ‘place’ your child in a British school for you for free. Such agents are usually paid fat commissions by the schools they recommend, and may be reluctant to mention those schools that do not pay them a commission (this includes many of the best ones). Equally, you do not need to pay many thousands of pounds for a ‘guaranteed place’.
- Always go and see a school you are interested in yourself, and bring your child if possible.
- If a school says it has got ‘provision’ for teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL), ask exactly what that provision consists of, and whether it will cost extra. EAL teachers need to have a proper teaching degree/ diploma AND an EAL qualification: the latter alone means very little. However quick at learning your child is, he/she will certainly struggle at public exam level without a sound knowledge of English - the pressure of work is just too high.
- If your child is genuinely outstanding academically, musically, sports-wise or in some other way, make sure to tell the school, providing evidence if possible. When we say outstanding, we mean the very best in his or her or current class or in an even larger pool. En passant, be prepared to ‘sell’ yourself a bit to the school too if you eg have a fascinating line of work (think Russian cosmonaut!).
- Be on guard against worthless scholarships. We have seen several schools offering ‘scholarships’ with zero, or miniscule, financial value to overseas pupils. If you like the school, fine, but don’t let the ‘scholarship’ sway you. Some schools are known to demand back any fee reduction if your child leaves before the end of year 13, so read the small print.
- You will usually be asked to appoint a UK guardian for your child - someone with whom the school can deal on day-to-day matters, and whom your child can turn to for help, outings and so on. Don’t try to get by without – we get stories every year of a child who has surreptitiously taken himself off to a London bed and breakfast each school holiday. Handy grandparents, godparents, cousins make logistical sense but you may well opt for paid guardians.
- Take care with your timing. The best ages to come into a British independent school from abroad are any time up to age 11, and the ages 13 and 16. 14 can work well, but only at schools that didn’t fill up at 11 and 13. Do not try to get a child into school mid-GCSE (aged 15) or mid-A level (aged 17).
- Check out how full the ‘full boarding’ is. There is an increasing tendency in the UK towards ‘weekly’ and ‘flexi’ boarding where pupils can go home any weekend they want and even mid-week. If you live overseas, this can be bad news. It’s best, if you can, to opt for a ‘full’ boarding school, which has a proper programme of activities at weekends. A few schools have flexible exeats so that the school is never closed during term time, except at half-term. But check how many children of your child’s age consistently stay at school at weekends.
- Ask prospective schools how many pupils from your country will be in your child’s year – fewer means more opportunities to learn English; more means an easier landing.
- ‘International Study Centres’ offer pre-boarding school programmes for non-English speakers and there are now loads of them attached to existing boarding schools. Pupils learn English while studying a slimmed down range of subjects like maths and science. Typically they spend a year at the school before moving on to a mainstream boarding school. These can work well for the child who arrives with no English, but they are a pricey option. Make sure to ask for a full list of their leavers’ destinations.
- Don’t over-commit yourself so much on the school fees front that you can’t – if need be – fly over in an emergency.
- Try to accompany your child for the first day at a new school. It helps to know the layout, meet the matron, the housemaster and tutor. Explore the school together; it makes communication that much easier in the future.