Most independent UK schools are now genuinely thrilled to welcome in foreign students, and no longer regard a cosmopolitan mix as a matter for shame (that they cannot fill the school with home-grown products). State schools too are getting used to the influx of EU students (boarded out with locals, or accommodated by the state boarding school network). 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) and motivation.
The best schools in this country are outstanding by any standards. Beware, though, of being fobbed off with second-rate places.
Here are a few thoughts from overseas parents who are already in the UK system:
- Be on the look out for academic schools which pay lip service to 'potential' but in reality they are usually only interested in performance on the day of the entrance exam. No use explaining your child is trilingual and English is his/her fourth language - they do not want to take the risk or have the bother.
- The majority of schools in this country are not geared to teaching the English language to pupils who don't know it. Beware of schools which have a high proportion of foreigners, but no real way of teaching them English. (Schools which have very few foreigners in the school are another matter - being immersed in a language without the option can be the quickest way to learn, particularly for younger children.)
- If a school says it has got 'provision' for teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) ask exactly what that provision consists of, and whether it will cost extra. EFL teachers need to have a proper teaching degree/diploma as well as an EFL qualification. (The latter means very little.)
- Don't ask the impossible. Do not, for example, expect an English academic secondary school to cater at public exam level for a pupil whose English is almost non-existent. However quick at learning your child is, he/she will certainly struggle at this stage - the pressure of work is just too high.
- Be prepared to 'sell' yourself a bit to the school. Private schools in this country have a tendency to ask what you can do for them, rather than what they can do for you. This shocks parents from other countries, but it is a fact.
- Ask what arrangements a boarding school has for exeats (weekends when the pupils are allowed away from the school premises). There is an increasing tendency in the UK towards 'weekly' and 'flexi' boarding where pupils can go home any weekend they want. If you live overseas, this is obviously bad news. It is best, if you can, to opt for a 'full' boarding school, which has a proper programme of activities at the weekend, and one or two prearranged exeats per term.
- Ask what the school would do if your child were to be found guilty of a serious misdemeanour (drugs etc). You do not want to find him/her ejected from the school at a moment's notice, with you half a world away.
- Ask what arrangements are made at the end of public exam terms. There is an increasing tendency to send pupils home early once they have finished their exams - sometimes weeks and weeks early. Again, not good news for overseas parents. You need to know that the school has a proper programme of activities to keep pupils occupied until the last official day of term.
- Beware of 'international centres' which have just been set up. They may one day be good, but meanwhile, your child is a guinea pig while the new centre learns the ropes.
- 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).
- If - once your child is in a school - he tells you he is miserable/homesick/being bullied - believe him. Act at once by telephoning the school and explaining the problem. If the problem persists, consider taking your child out of the school and finding another, more compatible one. Better a temporary disruption to your child's schooling than permanent damage.
- Consider doing a summer/holiday course before opting for mainstream schooling. There are courses which take place in British public schools, for example, which will give your child a 'feel' for what's in store - and get the English up to scratch. The British Council vets most such courses, and lists the ones that it approves of.
- Always go and see a school you are interested in yourself - or at least send someone whose judgment you trust (and who knows your child). You will be surprised how much you can learn about a place from even a brief look.
- Look for a school that is popular with the British as well as with foreigners - talk to personal contacts if possible. British Embassies Abroad and The British Council are often useful initial points of contact, but don't rely on their advice over particular schools.
- Schools with a substantial international mix are often very good at involving parents socially, doing coffee and such, which provides a place for the newly arrived parents to network. For the most part this does not exist in schools with a largely local intake, where the parents have friends and a network already. As one overseas parent said of the experience of having children in a largely-British school: 'I found the lack of information from the school both a concern and a relief. Concern that maybe I was missing out on information I should have, and relief that the school is really taking responsibility for educating my child.'
- UK 'placement' agencies will give you a list of schools in the UK which have places available when you ask - beware, though, as these are usually no more than lists, and do not differentiate between the good, the bad and the ugly. Such agencies 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 more famous ones).
- You may need to find a 'guardian' to act as your presence in the UK, helping sort things out and covering for weekends, etc. The guardianship asscociation, Aegis, may help if the school cannot.