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For many people outside the UK, Britain's private school system is perplexing and impenetrable. An intricate web of gossip, secretive education 'consultants,' public exams with mystifying initials, and sniffy headmasters' secretaries seem to conspire to keep the system a closed book. Indeed, an entire industry of overseas and British education agents, schools reps and other advisers has sprung up around the accepted belief that breaking into a British school from abroad is a step of such complexity and daring that experts must be called in to assist the mission. Even the experts seem reluctant to part with advice until candidates submit three affidavits, a visa application, credit card details and results of a lie detector test confirming that they are serious about sending their youngster to school in the UK.

Nor are the schools themselves always very illuminating of the subject of admissions from abroad, although there are signs that they are waking up.  Unfortunately, you may still be told by the registrar of a major British public school that the best preparation a youngster needs to succeed in his institution is to 'come up' from one of Britain's private preparatory schools.

One important fact is lost in this obscurity: British schools, especially boarding schools, actually like to have children from abroad. 'Like' is too mild a word. They love them. They just can't salivate too hard for fear of scaring off the prey. Overseas pupils fill boarding places, can usually be counted on to pay the fees, are generally diligent and hardworking, keep their dormitories tidy and - if they are from China, Korea, or Japan - stand a good chance of providing an extra violinist for the school orchestra. And no matter what you may hear about London day schools being horribly oversubscribed (all true), only a small percentage of British boarding schools can count on filling their beds with British boys and girls alone.

If your child has a pleasing academic record at home, there are only two further criteria that bear on his or her acceptance to a good British boarding school: English-speaking ability and timing. For advice on timing, see our article on The UK School System.' Consider that the best ages to come into a British independent school from abroad are anything up to 11, and the ages 13 and 16. Don't try to get a child into school mid-GCSE or mid-A level During the year in which British pupils turn 15, they are well into their GCSE preparation and it is hard on both the pupil and the school to take newcomers.

Once GCSEs are over, however, all bets are off and schools can, and do, take new pupils to begin the two-year A level course. Some independent schools take in entire new classes at that age (NB: if your child has a good academic record in his or her home country but has not taken GCSEs, there is nothing to prevent him or her from starting A levels in the UK).

Don't wait until the last minute. We are finding that parents are increasingly leaving the idea of sending their youngster to school in the UK until only six or eight months (or less) before they wish him or her to begin school, a trend that has been confirmed by ISCis. Parents are then relying on agents to sort out places for children in a rush. The further in advance you make arrangements, the better are your chances of getting your child into the school of your choice.

As for English, if your child is genuinely fluent, congratulations. But what if your son or daughter doesn't speak English, or speaks it poorly? This is where the overseas schools agents and specialist international schools come into their own. Among your options are the following:

1. Force your child to improve his or her English- pronto! -in your own country by buckling down to it at school, taking extra lessons, hiring a private tutor, enrolling in British Council classes, or whatever it takes. If you are able to read this, you obviously know enough English yourself to sort this out! The earlier you remedy the lack of English, the better. Don't put it off thinking that sending him to the UK at 16 will miraculously solve the problem. You will be saving yourself a lot of time and money by cramming a good knowledge of English under your youngster's belt before he arrives here. If your child is one of those poor souls who has serious trouble with languages and seems congenitally doomed to lousy-English-itis do not assume, unless he happens to be four years old, that by sending him or her to England he will become fluent. Wherever and however he cracks it, it is going to take work.

2. 'International Study Centres.' Schools offering pre-boarding school programmes for non-English speakers have sprung up as independent wings of a number of long-established British public schools. These include Bedford School, Taunton International, Kings School (Ely), Rossall School, Dover College and St Bees School, but the best known is at Sherborne International. They all specialise in boosting overseas pupils' English while also teaching a basic curriculum of maths, science, etc. Children can attend one of these cushy centres for as little as a term but frequently stay for one or two years. Pupils are prepared for public exams such as: Common Entrance, GCSEs or IGCSEs and even, in some cases, A levels or the International Baccalaureate. Classes are kept small and lessons are normally taught six days a week. They can all be found through the AISC, who also list over 60 highly-regarded schools, including famous names, who have the machinery in place to help foreign students acquire the necessary skills.

The overseas pupils usually wear the same uniform as the pupils in the main school and are able to use the school facilities (swimming pools, tennis courts, games halls, theatres, music practice rooms, etc). However, they are taught in separate premises and live and sleep in international student dorms. While most of the youngsters will enter mainstream British schools, only a few will enrol at the school to which their centre is attached. Exceptions are Dover College, where overseas pupils may gradually integrate into the non-international side of the school, and St Bees, where most of the international pupils move on to join the main school-these two schools are also currently less expensive than the rest.

International study centres organise intensive summer English courses to prepare pupils who will be entering mainstream British schools in the autumn and some offer short GCSE revision courses for a week or two in the spring. The main advantage of these study centres is that they provide a 'soft landing' in the UK for young pupils with limited (or no) English who, in most cases, will have been attending day schools in their home countries. It is for this reason that we generally prefer these centres - where the youngsters live in dormitories, are looked after by school staff, make friends with children from around the world and take part in organised outings and sports events - to non-residential or 'home-stay' programmes offered by other academic institutions (see below). Another advantage is that these centres are attached to schools with reputations to protect so you are going to get what you pay for.

One disadvantage is the high cost. The chances are that you will be paying up to £15,000 for a ten-week term (much more than most British boys or co-ed boarding schools, and up to 75 per cent more than a typical girls boarding school). Also consider the disruption your child will experience after first settling into the centre, making friends, etc and then having to start over again when he or she begins at a 'proper' British school a year later. Most worrying of all to the parents to whom we have spoken is the idea that junior will be attending school in England with a bunch of foreigners who can't speak English properly themselves! Most people who send their children to school in the UK are hoping that their offspring will spend time speaking English like an Englishman, not comparing notes on the overseas arrival lounge at Heathrow airport.

If you are considering sending your child to a study centre, do compare them and, if possible, visit in person. Check which subjects are offered beyond English. In many cases, only maths, sciences and a nondescript course like geography are available which may not suit your child's interests. Ask about the guardianship arrangements. Like any British school, the study centres close for half-terms, between terms and sometimes for random 'exeat' weekends. You will need to arrange a guardian to look after your child during these periods. The schools can usually arrange guardians, but at an additional price. Or you can consult the guardian's association Aegis. Ask about sleeping arrangements. Some schools wisely make a point of ensuring that students share a bedroom with a student who does not speak the same mother tongue. Do ask for clear evidence of the centre's placement record. Sure, one rich kid in 1998 may have got into Eton, but which schools or universities do most pupils go on to? Insist on seeing the school's exam results (they should be proud to show you).

3. Tutorial Colleges. These are private academic institutions that offer schooling on the fringes of mainstream British education. You tend to see a lot of them at British Council 'Study in the UK' exhibitions. Not all of them take boarders but many do. Examples include St Clares College (in Oxford) and Cambridge Tutors Sixth Form College (in Croydon, south of London!). These schools generally provide a more adult environment, small classes, good EFL support and special programmes for entering mainstream British education, especially universities. They are a cheaper option than the international study centres for mature pupils whose ultimate aim is to attend a British university.

Most tutorial colleges will have some pupils from among the local population, but this is not the British public school education you or your child may have dreamed of. Accommodation will tend to be with local families rather than on campus, and students will need to be self-motivated and responsible. Do be careful, however. Ask to see the school's exam results and university placement record before considering any of these establishments. Bellerbys, an international 'college' promoted heavily by a string of agents outside the UK, offers residential and non-residential courses on four different campuses. Pupils may stay in off-campus residence halls or lodge with 'families' (one of its locations offers more traditional boarding facilities). Bellerbys stands outside the mainstream British education system, and, as one might expect, is less pricey than the study centres. Its literature provides a complicated chart showing how an overseas pupil could enter Bellerbys' pre-GCSE course at the age of 14 (after English tuition at Bellerbys' 'Embassy' English language school) and continue through its GCSE course, A level course, three year university degree course and Masters degree or MBA course-all without ever setting eyes on a British student or educational institution! Before rushing into this one, do consider sending your child to the local international school back at home.

4. Independent boarding schools with ESL/EFL support. Please note, this is not an option for pupils with no English. Do not try to fake your thirteen-year-old into one of the schools below, hoping that he or she will pick up enough English to get by. If you are very lucky, he or she may, but it can be a miserable experience. When it comes to choosing a school, here's what you should be looking for:

- Solid boarding numbers (ideally, though not necessarily, a majority of boarders over day pupils) to ensure companionship and fun on the weekends and in the evenings. Beware of schools where pupils are primarily weekly boarders leaving the dormitories hauntingly empty on weekends. Also check who the boarders are. It may sound politically incorrect, but do you really want all the boarders to be non-British if one of your goals is to improve your child's English?

- Good, strong EFL support. Help on this front is getting better and better and schools are becoming more honest about their facilities. However, if you are seriously interested in a school, do ask for the contact details of another overseas family. Then grill them mercilessly to get the inside scoop on EFL provision (among other things!).

-Schools that are popular with British expat families. British parents who work overseas and send their children to school in the UK are probably the biggest group of educational fusspots you will find. Scores of them at one school is a good endorsement of the school's ability to cope well with children whose families are a plane journey away.

- Schools with a good record of taking international pupils. All British schools take overseas applicants. The trick is to get the balance right between schools that depend on foreigners to fill vacant boarding wings - thereby appearing desperate and scaring off local parents - and schools where your son or daughter might be the only child from outside the UK. Most good schools will not wish to threaten their A level league table standing by taking too many EFL pupils. Make a point of asking the percentage of overseas pupils at any school you are considering. If it is higher than you like (above, say, 15 per cent), scrutinise the school with care.

5. British state schools. For families resident in the European Union or possessing EU passports, British state schools provide a popular and cost effective means of educating your children in the UK. Particularly useful are the 36 state boarding schools in the UK which provide free tuition and charge only for room and board (roughly £10,000+ per year at present far less than half the price of boarding schools in the private sector). Some of these schools are comprehensive (no selection on the basis of academic ability) while others are extremely choosy. One, the Hockerill Anglo-European School in Bishop's Stortford north of London, specialises in languages and is a popular choice with youngsters from the continent. It was the first school in England to offer the International Baccalaureate and, while still taking mainly British pupils, attracts many overseas boarders. Do apply well in advance, however: Hockerill currently receives five applications for every available place in the school. Visit the State Boarding Information Service website for further information.

Some EU pupils come to the UK to study in 'normal' British state schools (no boarding facilities). German youngsters, in particular, have a tradition of studying for a spell in the UK. Some come for only six months or a year, but others find it easier and cheaper to complete a two-year A level course rather than slogging through the German system's three-year preparation for university entrance. Check with the German university you are hoping to attend to make sure they will accept A levels if you are thinking of following this route-not all do. We know of one consultant (Barnes Educational) who specialises in helping EU pupils to secure places as day pupils in British state schools and organises home-stay arrangements with local families.

The Department for Education and Skills' website explains in detail the rules regarding admission of overseas pupils to state schools. The last time we looked, it was here.

A few final words of advice…

- Beware of agents who promote schools from whom they earn commissions. There may be nothing wrong with the schools they tout, and they often provide a useful service-sorting out visas, summer English courses, etc - but keep in mind that the agents may not give you unbiased advice. And the best schools may actually turn your child down because they know the agent will expect a payment, and the school can quickly fill that slot with another student, thank you very much.

- Beware of 'education fairs' populated by a seedy academic fringe of English language schools, boarding school preparation courses, struggling boarding schools and tutorial colleges: some of the institutions on offer will be excellent, but do scrutinise what they are offering.

- The British Council can provide useful contacts and, in some countries, eg Russia, provides a full school placement service, but do not allow their advice to replace your own judgment.

- Always try to visit a school to which you will be sending your child before you commit yourself.

- Keep in mind that for your child to qualify for a visa to study in the UK, you will need to provide evidence that you can financially support him throughout his stay.

- Remember that schools will always find places for brilliant pupils. If your child is genuinely towering above the scholars in his current school, and you have evidence for his or her impressive intellect, do make schools aware of it and don't settle for less than a top academic school.

Many British schools really are among the best in the world and offer a breadth of education that is unobtainable elsewhere. Make sure to take your time, talk to as many people as you can, and get your decision right.

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