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Educating your child in the UK

British schools are a popular choice for parents who want to educate their children abroad, but competition for limited places can be tough.

British independent schools are among the best in the world. They offer strong academic results as well as plenty of opportunities for pupils outside the classroom. So it’s hardly surprising that so many parents living outside the UK are keen for their children to benefit from a British education.

There are 27,211 international pupils at independent schools in the UK who have parents living overseas, according to the latest figures from the 2015 Independent Schools Council (ISC) census1.

This represents more than 5% of all pupils. Of these, 10,000 are from Hong Kong and China, 2,800 are from Russia, 1,900 from Germany and a further 1,200 from Spain.

How the UK school system works

There are two types of school in the UK. State schools are provided for free by the local government authority, with primary schools going up to age 11, and senior or high schools up to 16 or 18. In contrast, independent schools charge fees, and do not have to rely on the government for funding. Pupils who are resident from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) are not eligible to go to a British state school2. As a result, their only option is an independent, fee-paying school.

Confusingly, people refer to independent schools in Britain as ‘private’ and ‘public’ schools, or as ‘fee-paying’. Some of the oldest and best-known ones are sometimes specifically called ‘public’ schools because they were historically open to pupils regardless of their religion or where they lived. Meanwhile, schools for younger children can be called ‘prep’ or preparatory schools.

Many independent schools offer both day and boarding places. Some offer full boarding, where pupils live at the school seven days a week during term time, with activities arranged for the weekends. Others provide only flexi-boarding, where pupils go home at the weekend and sometimes midweek, if they want to. Independent schools can be either single sex or co-educational, while some are single sex but admit the opposite sex in the final two years.

*Total of 27,211 international pupils at independent schools
Fig 2. Where international students come from in 2015
Source: ISC

Many private prep schools take children up to 13. Children are then required to take a Common Entrance exam to go into senior independent schools. Some private schools offer GCSEs (which stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education) from 14 to 16. This is followed by A-Levels for pupils aged 16 to 18 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with those in some boarding schools in Scotland. Most independent schools in Scotland usually offer Highers and Advanced Highers for those aged 16 to 18.

Certain subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, are compulsory at GCSE and many schools also require pupils to study a modern foreign language and a mix of other arts and humanities subjects. Pupils can choose their other subjects and normally take 10 in total.

With GSCEs, a big emphasis is placed on coursework (essays and other written work completed during the school term). However, in the future there will be more of a focus on exams, as the system is due to be overhauled in 2015. GCSE courses last two years and once they finish, pupils receive a grade for each subject, from A* through to G. Grade U means no GCSE was awarded.

After taking GSCEs, pupils can then go on to take A-levels, or Highers in Scotland. These courses involve intensive studying of a smaller number of subjects.

It’s worth noting that a small number of independent schools offer the International Baccalaureate instead of A-levels or Highers.

This means pupils study a wider range of subjects during their final years at school and can choose the ones they want to study in more depth. The International Baccalaureate is administered from Geneva.

Reports have shown that independent schools often achieve higher exam results than state schools3. Classes tend to be much smaller, so pupils benefit from much greater individual attention from their teachers.

According to the ISC, pupils from independent schools account for just 14.6% of A-level exam entries nationally, but achieve 32% of A* grades – the highest possible. Recently published research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies also shows that those who went to British private schools earn on average 7% more than their state-educated contemporaries, three and a half years after graduation from university4.

Independent school pupils have an outstanding track record at A-level, with 51% of entries achieving A* and A grades, compared to 26% nationally, says the ISC. More than nine in 10 (92%) pupils move on to higher education. Many go to institutions in the Russell Group, an association of 24 prestigious British universities.

Activities outside the classroom  

Pupils at UK independent schools not only do well academically, but can also choose from a wide range of extracurricular activities. Many schools, particularly those outside major cities, have excellent sports facilities, enabling pupils to excel at rugby, football, tennis and cricket. Some also offer more unusual outdoor activities such as sailing, rowing, golf and climbing.

Most schools also provide musical tuition, with many running their own choirs and orchestras. If your child is artistic, they will often have access to a purpose-built art studio or theatre space, and be offered expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, from ceramics to printing. Sometimes these activities can cost extra. If your child excels in music or dance, there are independent schools specialising in these areas. Cathedral schools, for example, enable pupils to sing in a cathedral choir. The Royal Ballet School is for outstanding dancers. There will also often be travel opportunities, such as geography field trips, or school skiing holidays.

Finding the best school for your child

Choosing a school for your child when you are living overseas isn’t always easy, but don’t pick one just because it’s famous. You may have heard about a particular school, but that doesn’t mean it will be the right place for your child. Similarly, while exam results are important, they aren’t the only factor to consider.

Most schools’ websites can give you a good indication of their facilities, as well as what life might be like for your child. They should also include any Independent School Inspectorate (ISI) inspection reports, as well as information on which universities school leavers usually go on to.

Fig 2. Percentage of pupils achieving A* or A at A Level
Source: ISC

Schools usually hold several open days throughout the year, often in September, October and November, so it’s a good idea to attend one. You can meet teachers and the head of the school, and speak to pupils. It might also be advisable to find out how many international pupils the school has.

You can search for UK independent boarding schools on the British Council-run website Education UK. The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.

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)
Good Schools Guide

Be wary of ‘educational agencies’ that promise to place your child in a British school for a fee. The Good Schools Guide has warned that, “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).”

Remember that location is important too. Think about links to airports and rail and bus stations, and how close any prospective guardians might be.

How and when to apply

The usual entry ages to independent schools in the UK are at 11, when children typically start senior schools; 13, after Common Entrance exam, or 16. Schools are often full up between these times, so it will much harder to get a place for your child, particularly if you want them to start in the middle of an exam course.

Demand for some of the top private schools in the UK can be huge – so you may need to register your child with your chosen school several years in advance. Registration fees usually cost around £100 and are non-refundable. While they do not guarantee that your child will be offered a place, registering does mean you will be on a waiting list if there is one.

Check a school’s website to see when you need to apply, or call the Admissions Office if you can’t find the information online. Some schools will require you to apply up to three years or more in advance. Others will only need you to apply a year before.

Applications must be made directly to the school. Most independent schools are selective, so your child will usually have to take an entrance exam before they are offered a place. They will also need to be proficient in English.

Before you apply to a UK independent school, you must contact them to check they have a sponsor licence. Any education provider in the UK wishing to sponsor students from outside Europe must be registered with the UK visas and immigration service. Around 650 independent schools in the UK have a licence, says the ISC. Also make sure you have a UK-based guardian whom the school can deal with and whom your child can go to for weekends if necessary.

School fees

There’s no escaping the fact that a private school education in the UK doesn’t come cheap. School fees in Britain usually rise much faster than inflation. According to the ISC census, published in 2015, fees have increased by 3.6% over the previous year, with average fees for boarding school currently at £10,123 a term or more than £30,000 a year5. Average termly fees for a day school cost £4,1746.

There are other costs to take into account. A report published by The Children’s Society in February 2015 found that the average annual cost for school uniform at an independent school in the UK is £4957.

There will also be additional charges for extra-curricular coaching, such as music tuition, as well as trips or outings, and any transport international pupils might need to and from airports.

If you are considering sending your child to school in the UK and aren’t able to cover fees and extra costs out of your income, start planning as soon as possible. Most schools require you to pay each term’s fees in advance, so think about how you will make these funds available in the right currency.

Scholarships and discounts

Many schools offer scholarships in recognition of particularly strong abilities that provide a reduction in fees. These typically range from 10% to 50%. Pupils usually apply for scholarships at the same time they take school entrance tests.

Scholarships are awarded to pupils who are academically very strong or can demonstrate a particular talent such as sporting, musical or artistic ability. However, scholarships are intended to be a mark or merit or honour – their primary purpose is not to help with fees. The Good Schools Guide spokesman says: “We have seen several schools offering ‘scholarships’ with zero, or miniscule, financial value to overseas pupils. 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.”

If you plan to send several children to the same school, you may also be eligible for a sibling discount. You will usually only qualify for a discount on your third child’s fees and this can range from 5% to 10%.

Some schools also offer discounts if you pay fees in advance. Each school offers different terms and conditions for a ‘fees in advance’ scheme. Check to see what’s on offer. Make sure you read the small print carefully too. While paying fees up front in return for a discount might look appealing, you may still have to cover the cost of any fee increases each year. You should also find out where you stand financially if you’ve paid fees in advance but your child leaves the school early.

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