How to Get into the Best Boarding Schools in Britain: A Sharp Guide
Given that Britain boasts some of the world’s most famous schools, it’s little wonder that there are plenty of overseas families who have their sights set on sending their children to a prestigious British school.
But getting into these historic establishments isn’t as simple as paying the fees and gaining automatic entry; these schools all have rigorous admissions procedures designed to assess a candidate’s academic and social suitability for life in a British boarding school. What’s more, although some schools have now abolished the age-old practice adopted by many parents of putting their children’s names down for a school from birth (even at Eton, “virtually all” candidates go through a pre-assessment aged 11), there are still plenty, such as Westminster, that allow parents to register their children at birth. So, coming from overseas, how do you get your child into such schools in the face of this level of competition? In this article, we focus on the processes involved in gaining entry to a top public school starting aged 13. As we discussed in our previous article on English schools, ‘public’ schools are in fact private schools, not state schools; the private schools referred to as ‘public’ tend to be the oldest and most exclusive, and so they’re the ones we’ll be looking at in this article.
The UK’s most famous public schools
If you’ve not yet decided which of Britain’s illustrious public schools to send your child to, here’s a little more information about four of the most prestigious and famous ones.
As the school at which numerous monarchs and aristocrats were educated, including Princes William and Harry, Eton College in Windsor is about as exclusive as they get. This boys-only boarding school charges fees of £11,090 per term, and Eton boys are instantly recognisable by their distinctive uniform of black tailcoat, waistcoat, pin-striped trousers and false-collar. Eton has its own set of traditions, to which it adheres rigorously, and even has its own special vocabulary to get used to; it calls terms “halves”, for instance, while those who are paying their own fees (i.e. those who aren’t scholars) are referred to as “Oppidans”. It was founded as a charity school by Henry VI, offering an education to 70 poor boys who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge; when others started to be admitted, these were known as “Oppidans” from the Latin word for town, oppidum. If you’re looking for a school with a fascinating history, you can’t do much better than Eton.
Founded in 1572, Harrow School (usually known simply as Harrow) in north-west London is another of the country’s old and prestigious boarding schools for boys. Like Eton, it has its own distinctive traditions and terminology (a teacher is called a “Beak”, for instance). Winston Churchill is among its illustrious alumni, as are three monarchs and six other British Prime Ministers.
Charterhouse – or The Hospital of King James and Thomas Sutton in Charterhouse, to give it its full original name – is situated in Godalming, in Surrey. Founded in 1611, its pupils are referred to as Carthusians after the fact that it was built on the site of an old Carthusian monastery. They call their terms “Quarters”, which is confusing because there are only three of them. Like Westminster, girls are admitted to the sixth form but it remains primarily a boys’ boarding school.
Westminster School boasts the highest Oxford and Cambridge acceptance rates of any secondary school or college in the UK. Notable alumni include Christopher Wren, A.A. Milne and seven British Prime Ministers. It’s boys-only until the age of 16, when girls are also admitted into the Sixth Form; only about a quarter of pupils board, most of whom go home at weekends, after lessons on Saturday mornings.
The admissions process
Application for entry aged 13 usually begins when your child turns 11. International pupils are admitted, though some schools, such as Charterhouse, do specify that these will be limited in number. The admissions process for the best public schools is rigorous, designed to select pupils on the basis of their character as well as their academic abilities. They will also assess a pupil’s suitability for life in a boarding school; it’s not a way of life that would suit every child. Admissions procedures differ slightly from school to school, but they have some common components for which you can start preparing.
Assuming you’ve read the prospectus and have a strong interest in a particular school, your first step is to arrange a tour of the school. You can usually do this via the Admissions Office, and it’s best to do it when your child is ten years old. This starts up the relationship between you and the school, and it’s an opportunity for you to assess the school and its surroundings, and ask plenty of questions of the staff to show your interest.
Make absolutely sure that you’re acquainted with the school’s deadlines for various stages of the application process. These are usually set in stone, so don’t miss them! Eton, for example, says that in order to go through the selection process, boys must be registered at the very latest by the age of 10 years and 6 months – a “firm deadline”, in their words. Charterhouse says that it receives so many applications that recently, its list has been closed nearly three years in advance. So allow yourself plenty of time to start researching schools to be sure of meeting their deadlines.
Expect your child to have to sit an hour-long computerised intelligence test, which gives the school an indication of innate abilities in areas such as numeracy, verbal reasoning and perception. Note that these are not based on current knowledge, and it’s not possible to ‘brush up’ for these tests. However, you can find similar sorts of test online to get your child used to the style of questions they might be presented with; here’s an example. You can find more information about these tests and how to prepare for them on the Independent Schools Examination board website. Not all schools require this test; Charterhouse, for instance, relies on interviews and school reports, because it believes that testing two years in advance of entry isn’t a reliable way to assess boys’ suitability.
As part of the initial selection process, your child will also be interviewed, at least once. They can expect a range of questions; some may be academic in nature, and may even include further short tests in English and Maths. Other questions are likely to focus on your child’s interests, both academic and otherwise. You can help your child prepare for interview by conducting ‘mock’ interviews with them, asking them questions about their favourite subjects at school, other interests, and so on.
Harrow requires what it calls a “short composition that assesses spelling, grammar and vocabulary” as part of the admissions process. To prepare for this, you could try setting your child grammar and spelling tests and written exercises such as short essays (in English, of course).
The school will want to gather reports from your child’s current school for evidence of academic potential, attitude at school and overall performance. It’s obviously not going to be possible to have much influence over these; all you can really do is nurture your child’s academic potential from an early age, encourage them to take part in a range of school activities and be an active member of the school community.
Offers and House allocation
Once your child has gone through this initial selection phase, they will either receive a conditional offer, be placed on a waiting list, or be told their application will not be taken forward. If offered a conditional place, an additional visit to the school may be required in order for your child to be allocated a place in one of the school’s ‘Houses’ (these are the boarding houses into which students are split, like Gryffindor, Ravenclaw and so on in Harry Potter). You may be able to have a say in which House you would prefer your child to go to after having been for a tour and met house masters.
The Common Entrance Exam
Any offer of a place after this selection process has been undertaken will be conditional on your child passing the Common Entrance Exam or scholarship exams. The Common Entrance Exam is taken after the initial selection process, usually in the June of the year they’re due to start. There are several papers, each testing knowledge and aptitude for a particular subject, which may include Mathematics, English, French, Science, Latin, History, Geography and Scripture. Many independent schools in the UK, known as ‘prep’ schools, prepare children to sit this exam; if your child went to a school that didn’t prepare for it, they’ll only be tested in Maths, English, Science and French (if they studied the latter). Nevertheless, brushing up on all these subjects prior to the test is advised. The Common Entrance Exam is usually taken at your child’s current school, but there are also approved test centres (contact the school’s Registrar or Independent Schools Examinations Board for details of your nearest centre). Pass marks vary; at Charterhouse and Harrow it’s 60%, including 55% in Maths and English at the latter, where 60-80% is average for those who gain places. At Westminster the pass mark is 70%. Overseas applicants may be required to sit the school’s own entrance exam papers rather than the national Common Entrance Exam, and proficiency in English will need to be demonstrated.
If your child is particularly academically gifted, and you’d like them to try for an academic scholarship, there are separate exams to the main Common Entrance Exam. At Eton they call it the King’s Scholarship examination; at Harrow, the Academic Scholarship exam; at Westminster, “the Challenge”. These are more challenging than the Common Entrance exam, and if your child has done well in these papers, they probably won’t have to sit the Common Entrance Exam as well.
Payment of fees
Naturally, fees vary from school to school, but you’ll typically need to pay an initial registration fee (this is non-refundable). Then, if your child is accepted, you pay a deposit when you sign a contract with the school; this tends to range from £1,000 to £3,000, and some or all of it will be refunded to you at the end of your child’s education once all outstanding fees have been paid.
Other things you can do to increase your child’s chances of getting in
These admissions procedures may sound daunting, but the best schools are so oversubscribed that they need some way of deciding which the best applicants are. Don’t despair, though; there are other things you can be doing in order to increase your child’s chances of securing a place.
Find out as much as you can about the school
In the run-up to applying, find out as much as you possibly can about the school. Read its Prospectus cover to cover. Attend an Open Day and chat to staff, tour the facilities and meet the Headmaster. Go to a public event organised by the school, such as a concert or play. Read internet forums and other online resources, and search for clues as to what a particular school might be looking for in a successful applicant. Knowledge is power!
Apply to more than one school
There’s nothing to stop you from applying to more than one school, and it won’t harm your child’s chances. Note, however, that your child will only be able to take the Common Entrance Exam for one school – but by the time you get to this stage, you’ll have made the decision of which school to go to anyway.
Encourage your child to take a particular interest in something
Public schools are invariably looking for pupils who will add something worthwhile to their community, and value those who have their own interests as well as being good in the classroom (and well-behaved!). According to Harrow School, for example: “It will help your son’s application if there is some activity in which he excels. The School is looking for boys who will contribute significantly to School life and make the most of the opportunities offered to them by Harrow.” This could be excellence in sport, proficiency in a musical instrument, a gift for writing, or any other special interest in which your child can demonstrate talent. Such interests are best encouraged from an early age, because skills take years to build up to an impressive level; but if your child currently has no particular hobbies, now’s the time to get them more intensively involved in something in which they have a genuine interest.
Ensure their English is up to scratch
Last but by no means least, it’s vital that your child speaks English, ideally not just adequately, but beautifully. Ensure your child gets plenty of practice at speaking English, and send them to extra lessons if necessary. Get them reading classic works of English literature, in English, in order to develop their vocabulary and syntax as well as their general knowledge. Applying to one of the top public schools is a process that requires a lot of commitment and determination, but bear in mind the old adage that “nothing in life worth having comes easy”. With your support, your child stands a good chance of getting into a brilliant school that will give them the best possible start in life.
Last reviewed: September 2015
Next review: September 2016