Duncan Quirk, Marketing Manager and Senior Consultant for Education Advisers Ltd, provides a brief overview of how parents should weigh up the differences between the UK’s international schools, and the traditionally British institutions
The international school provision in the UK, particularly around London, is almost as developed and varied as its restaurant trade. Families can find institutes offering European, Asian, and American curriculums, with bilingual French, Arabic and Mandarin schools increasing in number each passing year.
The majority of relocating international families we assist usually have children studying either the IB or British curriculums in international schools. For them, they may decide to stick with what they know, or take a leap of faith into a more traditionally British institution.
The main considerations they need to make are lead time and entry point, curriculum, environment and long-term educational plans. As for all ‘rolling stone’ families, the challenge is to achieve a balance, which will keep the whole family as happy and as connected as possible.
LEAD TIME AND ENTRY POINT:
By far the biggest challenge for relocating families is the lack of notice they usually receive. Most of the families we assist receive just 6-12 months’ notice, often even less. Given that some of the more traditional private schools can require families to register a minimum of 12-18 months in advance of entry, new arrivals can find that they are left with relatively few options. It’s always possible to find solutions, but much harder to find a school that meets every single requirement.
A further complication can be when students are arriving at an irregular entry point. The usual years of entry for traditional schools are the September when a child is 11, 13, or 16. If a space is available, some private schools will offer what they call ‘occasional places’ outside of these entry points but, again, availability will be that bit harder to come by.
This is when international schools really prove their worth. They are, by design, far more flexible on timelines and entry points. There is a more transient, liquid cohort and these schools are more readily able to consider and cater for students on a more ad-hoc basis.
Some students we support are unfortunate enough to be moving in the middle of their iGCSEs or A-levels. This proves incredibly complicated and, excluding a few that offer specialised one-year GCSE programmes for international students, most traditional private schools will usually not consider such cases. International schools or private sixth form colleges are usually in a position to offer more flexible, bespoke programmes for such students.
There are some notable exceptions but, in the main, traditional private schools achieve higher academic results than international schools. This is, of course, solely concerning the British curriculum of GCSE and A-levels, plus the IB Diploma in sixth form. As always, keep in mind that a school’s average results tend to be a better indicator of their entry requirements, as opposed to quality of teaching. With a more transient body of students (and often teachers) most international schools are not academically selective, nor do they have the luxury of the levels of continuity in a more traditional school. However, international schools are generally able to offer a much wider range of curriculum options and have greater flexibility to adapt to a particular student’s unique requirements.
It is also worth considering that all schools pay particular attention to a student’s current level of English. A good range of traditional schools will be able to offer support for non-native speakers of English, though this is obviously an area where international schools specialise. Julian Davies, Principal of high-achieving Abbey College in Cambridge explains this model, “All students are streamed into academic English lessons that sit alongside their main course. This means that their English level is improving throughout the duration of their study, regardless of the level at which they join. The teachers at this school also undergo continuous professional development in areas relevant to the backgrounds of international students. For example, at Abbey Cambridge, we consider all subject teachers to also be teachers of English.”
To offer a summary on curriculum: Parents will need to choose between the variety and flexibility offered by the limited number of international schools or adopt the UK curriculum and unlock a wider range of international and, more specifically, traditional schools.
This always seems to be the last consideration for many parents, confident in their globalised offspring’s resilience and ability to adapt. However, a school’s environmental and cultural factors are paramount to a child’s comfort and success.
Firstly, where is the school located? If you are moving as a family, you may need to choose between living in a central, urban location, or a leafier, suburban neighbourhood. From there, you may need to consider commuting times for parents and/or children.
When considering location, parents should take into account a school’s facilities. It is usually true that some of the more centrally-located international schools lack the rolling playing fields, cloisters and turrets of a more traditional British private school. Most schools in central London struggle for the same space and sprawling facilities as a school out in the leafy home-county commuter belt. If parents want a school with its own theatre, swimming pool, sports centre and fields, they are usually going to have to look that bit further out of town.
It is worth keeping in mind that a lot of ‘out of town’ schools will offer weekly boarding options. This is increasingly popular with busy, city-worker parents, who afford their children more idyllic and focussed school settings during the week, then reunite as a family on a Friday evening. d’Overbroeck’s in Oxford, is one institution experiencing a rising demand in boarders from London. “Our Sixth Form… students… achieve outstanding results in over 35 different A-level subjects. Over 100 students join us from UK school and from over 30 countries. Our new Sixth Form and boarding is close to Oxford Parkway station, which provides another direct link to London and this makes weekly boarding an attractive option. Who wouldn’t want to live and study in Oxford?!” says Director of Studies, Andrew Gillespie.
Once settled on location and environment, parents should also consider the social and cultural side of things. It’s first important to dispel the myth that a traditional British private school is the exclusive domain of the white, establishment classes. The Independent Schools Council actually reports that just 66 per cent of current UK private school student come from White British backgrounds – compared to around 81 per cent of the population at large. So, whilst academic ability and good behaviour are a given, a student’s background is largely irrelevant. An international student should not feel out of place in a traditional UK school, and such schools are experts at fostering their own school culture and community.
Despite the widespread diversity in traditional schools, international schools will contain almost entirely international students, and a greater proportion of students who are new to the UK. There is often a more transient, temporary culture amongst staff and students.
The ultimate consideration is how well a child will ‘fit in’ in the new school. Will they be joining at the same time as other new students, or will they be the only ‘newbie’ trying to break into an established group of friends? Will they struggle to keep up with native English speakers, or will they feel out of place in a class where the majority are less than fluent? Will they be obliged to play rugby on a freezing Wednesday afternoon in February?
As always, it’s about attaining the right balance for your child, and finding the environment where they will feel comfortable and confident and will be given the platform to pursue their talents and interests.
LONG TERM EDUCATIONAL PLANS
At Education Advisers Ltd, we extol the benefits of making an ‘Education For Life’ plan. For us, thinking as far ahead as possible helps a family map out the preferred educational route for their child, and anticipate the obstacles and opportunities that may lie ahead.
When taking on a new role in the UK, families need to consider whether they will be off on another assignment after two or three years. Will the next move be the perfect time for their child to switch, or will it create no end of stress and disruption at a crucial time?
If the plan is to stay for just a year or so before moving on to pastures new, an international school is more likely to provide a convenient, more transferrable curriculum. These schools are perfect for the international, jet-setting families, and for students who require a softer, more temporary landing.
Families may, however, be planning to stay for a minimum of three years, or even indefinitely. It could even be the case that, when it is time to leave, the child (and parents!) would benefit from the continuity of a traditional school with the potential for boarding.
As with any decision for their child’s education, families have to simultaneously consider the short and long term. Once you have an outline of where you are and where you plan to be, you can begin to fill in the finer details and make a fully informed decision. No one knows exactly what the future holds, but the UK is the ideal place to start mapping out an ‘Education for Life’ regardless of where it may lead next.