The International Pupils’ Guide to English Schools

Image shows Stowe School.

As with any big decision, sending your child to school in another country is best approached from an informed perspective.

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If you’re thinking about sending your child to a school in the UK, there are a few things you’ll need to know about how the British education system is structured and how different kinds of UK schools are run, as the system is likely to be quite different from the way education is structured in your home country. In this article, we introduce you to the different types of school available in Britain, the admissions procedures you may encounter and the things you can do to prepare your child for entry into a British school.

Types of school

There are several types of school in the UK, and with them, some confusing terminology to get to grips with. It’s worth knowing a bit about what kinds of schools are on offer, as the educational experience offered by them can vary drastically – as can your child’s future prospects.

Independent/private/public schools

Image shows Eton College.
Eton is one of the UK’s best known public schools and the alma mater of the current Prime Minister, David Cameron.

Though independent schools are subject to the same rigorous inspections as state schools, they’re not funded by the Government and instead charge fees of anywhere between £3,000 to £21,000 or more per year for day pupils, or £27,000+ per year for boarders. Independent schools are free to use their own admissions criteria and follow their own curriculum. They’re sometimes single-sex, though many that once taught all boys or all girls are now co-educational.
Generally, independent schools are perceived as offering a higher quality of education than state schools, and they often have the money to invest in better facilities (such as swimming pools or rugby pitches), resources (a well-stocked library, for instance) and activities (orchestras, sports teams, drama, Duke of Edinburgh Award and so on). They can often use their connections to offer better opportunities and prospects for their pupils (though it should be noted that the best state schools are on a par with or better than many independents). They have a reputation for offering a greater variety of subjects, including traditional subjects such as Latin and Greek, which have all but died out in state schools. Pupils from independent schools are said to be three times more likely to achieve top A-level grades than their state school contemporaries. Better discipline and lower student-to-teacher ratios are two reasons cited for this; there’s also a perception that independent schools foster individuality in their pupils, engendering an enthusiasm for learning, and that they are as focused on helping them develop positive personality characteristics as they are on academic achievement.
It may seem odd that independent schools are referred to as both “public” and “private”, but that’s just another quirk of the English language. The term “public school” originally came from the fact that such schools were open to anybody (not just those from a certain location or religion, for example), and it now tends to refer to the older and most exclusive independent schools such as Eton, Harrow and Westminster. To add yet another term into the mix, prep schools are independent schools that take pupils up to the age of 13.

State/comprehensive schools

Image shows King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford.
King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford is consistently in the top ten schools in the UK by exam results.

These are state-funded schools, which follow the national curriculum, and within this umbrella there are a number of different types of state schools, defined by the Government as follows:
– Community schools – state schools controlled by the local council, with no influence from business or religious groups.
– Foundation schools – these have more freedom to run in the way they want to than a community school.
– Academies – these are independent from the local council and run by a governing body. They are able to follow their own curriculum.
– Grammar schools – these select pupils on academic merit, meaning that an entrance exam often forms part of the admissions process. Grammar schools can be run either by the council, a foundation body or a trust. Many grammar schools are also academies.
– Faith schools – these have a religious association, following the national curriculum with the exception of the religious studies element, in place of which they teach their own faith. Anyone can apply for a place, but admissions criteria may differ.
– Free schools – these are funded by the Government but set up on a not-for-profit basis by groups such as charities, universities and community groups. They don’t have to follow the national curriculum, and they’re free to make changes such as lengthening the school day. Types of free school include:
– University technical college – these have a focus on subjects such as engineering and construction, and the universities and employers who sponsor them typically also provide work experience in these areas.
– Studio school – small schools with up to around 300 pupils, which deliver mainstream qualifications through practical projects.

International schools

International schools are designed to meet the needs of pupils who aren’t native to the UK, and typically promote international education in a cosmopolitan environment. Such schools often follow an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate, and they’re a popular choice for the children of those who’ve come to the UK as part of an international business or embassy.

Boarding schools

Image shows the Gryffindor dormitories from Harry Potter.
You may instinctively associate boarding with private education, or even with Harry Potter, but in fact there are 35 state boarding schools in England and Wales.

Boarding schools allow pupils to live on site for the duration of each term, going home in the holidays. Such schools can be either private or state-run, though boarding is generally more associated with private schools. Many boarding schools have places for day school children too (those who go home at the end of the school day rather than boarding). State-run boarding schools provide free education, but parents must still pay accommodation fees. Priority is given to children who are assessed to be temperamentally suitable for the boarding school experience and who need to board, for example because of the demands of their parents’ jobs.

How pupils are assessed in the British education system

Children in the UK education system are formally assessed at regular intervals throughout their education, starting aged seven, with so-called Key Stage 1 tasks and tests, followed by Key Stage 2 English and maths tests at the end of year 6 (aged 11) and Key Stage 3 ‘teacher assessment judgements’ aged 14. From there, children move onto the GCSE syllabus and complete their GCSE exams aged 16, followed by AS-levels aged 17 and A-levels aged 18. AS- and A-levels are theoretically optional, but they are essential for progression to undergraduate level. At some schools, particularly international ones, International GCSEs (iGCSEs) and the International Baccalaureate may substitute GCSEs and A-levels.

How to get into the best schools

Getting your child into a good independent school is about more than just being able to pay the fees. Here are a few things to bear in mind about the selection and admissions processes.

When to do it

Image shows an exam hall filled with people taking exams.
Reputable schools will discourage you from moving a child in an exam year.

Whether you go independent or state, 11 or 13 are good ages for your child to start school in the UK. At 16 and 18 they will take GCSEs and A-levels respectively, as we’ve already seen, so few schools will let a child move partway through those years (i.e. not in September). Ahead of GCSEs or A-levels, so at 15 or 17, for entry into year 10/fourth form or year 12/sixth form, is another popular time for a move (the numbering of the year groups varies between different types of school). As for the time of year, there will normally be a deadline for which applications for entry into the following school year will be accepted. However, if you’re trying for an independent school, the earlier you apply, the better; if you apply in the September two years before planned entry, you’ll allow your child enough time to prepare for the entrance exam. However, there’s no harm in applying mid-term or mid-year, as a place may have unexpectedly become available.

Visit schools in person

Visiting each school in person is an essential part of the process of choosing a suitable one. Talk in person with the head of the school, and get a feel for the atmosphere of the place, quality of its facilities, and so on. This will be time-consuming, but it’s the only way to make a properly informed choice.

Look beyond fame and the league tables

Image shows Harrow School.
Famous independent schools such as Eton and Harrow may be more advantageous in terms of the lifelong connections that can be made there, rather than the quality of the education on offer.

League tables are useful for giving you a general overview of how well a school performs, and can be a helpful way of identifying good schools to approach (both state and independent – there are plenty of state schools that perform better than independent ones). But don’t just rely on league tables, as they don’t tell the full story. Great exam results may owe more to selective academic admissions criteria than to the quality of education your child will receive. Furthermore, just because a school is famous doesn’t mean it’s going to offer your child the best education; Eton College, for example, is probably one of the most famous independent schools in existence, but it doesn’t even make the top 100 best academic results in this league table of best performing schools.

Entrance exams and interviews

If you’re aiming for a top school, be prepared for the fact that your child may be required to sit an entrance exam to assess academic ability. These typically test ability in English, Maths and reasoning, and you may be able to get hold of a sample paper from the school’s website (or similar ones elsewhere online) to give your child a chance to understand the format the questions are likely to take.
Your child may be interviewed, either with you there or on their own. As a parent, you may also be asked questions about why you have chosen a particular school, why your child should be given a place, and so on. You can use this interview-style situation to draw the school’s attention to your child’s merits and achievements, and how they could contribute positively to the school’s community.

Registration fee

You’ll usually have to pay a registration fee to put your child’s name down for an independent school. This is non-refundable and shouldn’t be more than £100. Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee that your child will be given a place – you’re just registering an interest, and adding your name to the waiting list, if there is one.

Don’t get conned by agencies

One thing to watch out for is the agencies that offer to get your child into a good school free of charge. They’re run on a commission basis, and their agenda is powered not by which are the best schools, but by which are the schools that pay them the biggest commission. Don’t trust them! Also, you shouldn’t have to pay handsome sums in order to ‘guarantee’ your child has a place.

Preparing your children for the move to their new school

Image shows Oxford, focusing on the Radcliffe Camera.
Getting to know English manners and cultural expectations can also be an advantage.

Starting at a new school is always daunting, but it’s especially so if that new school is in a completely different country. However, there are a few things you can do to help your child prepare for the big move and make it that bit easier.

Ensure that their English is up to speed

Children pick up languages far more easily than adults, but they’ll have a smoother time settling into their new school if their English is strong. If English isn’t your native language, investing in some extra English lessons for your child will go a long way towards helping them adapt to school life in the UK, as well as taking the pressure off them when they start their new school. English isn’t just necessary for understanding classes; they’ll need to be able to communicate with fellow pupils so that they make friends early on.

Visit your chosen school with your child in advance

If possible, arrange a visit to your chosen school with your child (in fact, you may have to do this if the school has requested an interview or entrance exam). This will make the place seem less scary for them when they start, because they’ll have seen it beforehand, and it will allow them to form a picture in their mind of where they’ll be going so that they can start to make a mental adjustment.

Send them on one of our courses

If your child is aged 13+, why not enrol them on an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course? As well as the academic benefits of our courses, this also gives your child the chance to experience a little of life in the UK so that they’ll be better able to cope with the move to an otherwise unfamiliar country. What’s more, they’ll advance their English skills if they’re not a native speaker, and the social aspects of the course will help them develop confidence when meeting new people, which will help them settle in better at their new school. We can guarantee they’ll have a great time, too!
Image credit: banner; Eton; King Edward VI Grammar School; Harry Potter; exam; Harrow; Oxford