Joint Managing Director of Education Advisers Ltd Mary Murayama considers the opportunities available for young people to develop their English language and social skills, and the particular value of Summer Schools  

“How will I cope in an English school?” 

“What if I can’t understand the lessons?” 

“How can I make friends if I can’t speak English?” 

 These are among the many concerns that a child about to join a school in the UK is likely to have. Some will be moving to the UK with their parents whereas others might be starting at boarding school. Imagine how overwhelming it is likely to be for a child entering an English-speaking school where not only the language, but the culture is unfamiliar.  

For families moving to the UK, finding a suitable school for a child who may not be confident in English is a major concern. Here, we address parents’ three main concerns: 

  • How can you find a school where your child’s language background will be taken into account?
  • What can parents do to ensure that their children are as linguistically and socially prepared as possible?
  • What is the best way to prepare a child whose first language is not English for admission to a top UK private school? 

One obvious option for families moving into the UK is to place their child in an international school. There is a good range of international schools in London and the surrounding area, some of which teach the IB curriculum and others either the American or other national curriculums, usually taught on a bilingual basis. Common to these schools is an understanding of the specific needs of speakers of other languages, and all have some form of special provision in place. Schools which are educating children with a wide range of native languages need to adopt specific practices to enable students to make progress in line with their intellectual ability regardless of their language skills.  The International Community School (ICS) is a London school in its fortieth year of providing mainstream education for UK and international families including EAL (English as an Additional Language) support and Summer School English Language programmes. The school operates a primary and secondary school and has a wealth of experience in supporting children with various levels of English language fluency.  

Head of School, Rose Threlfall, identifies the main challenges facing children at different stages in their education: “The biggest obstacles at primary level are fairly easy to deduce; the upheaval of moving school and country as well as the inevitable language barrier which makes it difficult for students to express their ideas and feelings. Older children can often feel self-conscious when they are asked to contribute in class. ICS has specialist teachers in place to teach children the academic language they need and give them plenty of chance to practice in student-centred small group activities before they need to face a bigger group of students with stronger language skills. The language teachers work closely with the class teachers by modifying learning outcomes, helping to differentiate activities and offering dedicated English grammar lessons.” 

The key is always to find the approach suited to each individual child. According to Threlfall, “Some students love the small group or one-to-one classes that we are lucky enough to be able offer at our school.  However, some find it embarrassing to be singled out in this way and simply want to be treated the same as everyone else.  Navigating what works best for each student is the key to getting students to feel comfortable enough to experiment with a new language and culture.”  

A major issue for children suddenly finding themselves in an English-speaking school is to know that their home language and culture is recognised and valued. This is regarded as a crucial factor at ICS in building a student’s self-esteem, which in turn is fundamental to a child’s learning.  

Generally, schools will do everything possible to ensure that children are integrated into mainstream classes, which is so important for forming friendships and feeling included. This will inevitably require extra effort on the part of the school and also a clear strategy for ensuring that all students can access the academic curriculum.  

TASIS, The American School in England, a day and boarding school in Surrey, has been a pioneer in making the academic curriculum accessible to EAL students.  Head of Upper School EAL & International Sections Coordinator, Eddie Spencer, explains:  

“At TASIS, the EAL department is working towards implementing the WIDA standards and assessment framework to support our English language learners with their academic language development and content area learning. WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) is an educational consortium of US state departments of education whose philosophy is centred around the idea that linguistically and culturally diverse learners have the potential to enrich the experiences of all learners and educators within any learning community. We believe that this integrated approach to language development and content learning is inclusive, forward-thinking and befitting of an international school such as ours whose mission is to embolden each learner to flourish as a principled, open-minded and compassionate member of a global community.” 

This global approach will be welcomed by many families. However, many parents, particularly those who are here on a long-term basis, are keen to have their children integrated into the British education system. There is no doubt that the UK’s top independent schools are an attractive proposition for many international families, who would like to see their children receive a traditional English education and enter one of the UK’s leading universities. This is, however, not always straightforward. The highest ranking UK schools are highly selective and, however brilliant they may be in Maths and Sciences, students need to prove their proficiency in English before being offered a place. Dinah Rawlinson, Registrar at Sandroyd Prep in Dorset, comments on how a child’s language skills, or lack thereof, can affect the whole school community. “A child who is not able to access lessons because they don’t understand the language in the classroom is likely to become easily bored and disengaged, which can lead to behaviour issues that can disrupt other children’s learning.” 

There are some excellent options for parents to assist their children in improving their English language skills: 


For a younger child, up to the age of about 13, a short-term stay in an English-speaking school – day or boarding – can be a wonderful opportunity to develop language and social skills without the pressure of having to take exams. Young children absorb new language easily, especially if they rely on it to communicate with friends in and out of the classroom. Some day schools and a great many boarding schools are able to offer a stay for as little as one term for a child who wants to immerse themselves in British school life. Boarding schools offer children a huge range of sporting, cultural and social activities outside lesson time, which are a fantastic way for children to absorb everyday language skills whilst making friends and having fun. Education Advisers Ltd can find you a range of schools to consider for your child.  


For the older child who is looking to complete their senior education in the UK it is vital to develop English language skills needed to embark on academic studies before starting GCSE, A-level or IB Diploma courses. It is simply impossible for a student to access the lessons, textbooks and wider reading needed to gain top grades without a firm grasp of the language. Developing language skills takes time and effort. In response to an increasing demand from international families, many schools are now offering ‘pre- Sixth Form’ courses, combining core GCSE subjects with intensive English language study. These are taken over one year, usually in groups taught separately from the mainstream classes, and enable students to then start their Sixth Form studies with a better foundation.  

Another popular option is an ‘International Study Centre’ (ISC) where students can enrol for one, two or three terms to prepare for boarding school life. Some ISCs are attached to mainstream boarding schools, whereas others are stand alone centres catering solely for international students. Again, Education Advisers Ltd can provide impartial advice on the most suitable courses for your child.  


One excellent way to familiarise your child with British school life is to sign them up for a summer school. This is a great way to keep children happy and occupied during the long summer holidays, especially for parents who remain busy during vacation periods. In recent years, a vast range of exciting programmes have sprung up at some of the country’s most prestigious boarding schools. Most are residential although there are a few day options available in London. Courses are available for children as young as five, and run during the summer months of June, July and August. Some schools also offer opportunities for parents to study at the same time as their young children, which can be an excellent way for adults to brush up their English skills in preparation for a stay in the UK, and for joining a school here.  

Lin from China, who spent four weeks on an academic preparation course before joining a girls’ boarding school in Year 9, says, “Attending a summer school before I started boarding school really helped me. I started school knowing what it would be like to board and, although I was still really nervous, it gave me confidence knowing that I would be able to understand the key words in each lesson and chat with the other girls during break times. I also realised that there would be other students feeling like me which made me feel more relaxed.” 

A summer school experience, particularly a residential programme, is ideal for instilling confidence in children and developing their communication skills. Tony Binns, founder of Our World English Schools, says: “Vacation courses offer genuine communicative experiences for children as they negotiate day-to-day tasks with their peers and staff members. They are exposed to a variety of accents and styles, which improves their listening skills and awareness of English pronunciation.  Students have meaningful practice in a way it is impossible to experience at home, as well as gaining valuable insights into English customs.” For a family planning to move to the UK or enrol their children in a British school, a summer school can be an excellent first step to ensure a smooth landing. 

The Education Advisers Ltd website www.bestsummerschools.co.uk lists a range of carefully selected summer courses, including English Language plus Sports and Activities, general academic preparation courses and specialist programmes for students applying for university or medical school.  Education Advisers also provide impartial advice on choosing a private day or boarding school to suit the specific needs of your child. Contact a consultant on T: +44 1622 813870 or E: info@educationadvisers.co.uk 


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