Britain has a lot to offer expat visitors. Her history extends back thousands of years, but can be seen on the streets of towns and cities as Roman roads are flanked by medieval churches, Tudor houses and Victorian engineering.
The country also boasts a proud cultural heritage, with literature, art, theatre and musical works that have been studied and celebrated the world over. This sits alongside a booming creative sector, churning out today’s coolest fashions, most popular musicians and favourite films.Economically, the UK is one of Europe’s leading players, with increasing growth in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.
With lively cities and serene countryside, the Green and Pleasant Land is the perfect place to raise an expat family, bringing up kids in the realm of Harry Potter, Robin Hood and Peter Rabbit.
But away from the storybooks and make-believe, Britain’s education system is one of the best in the world. According to one Pearson study, UK schools are the sixth best in the world, beating the USA by eight places. British kids enjoy the best educational standards of any country in Europe barring Finland. In terms of educational attainment alone, the UK is second only to South Korea.
There are many different kinds of schools in the UK, each offering a slightly different style of education, some for free and others for a sizable price tag. From pre-school all the way to postgraduate, Britain boasts world-leading institutions and high standards of performance.
That’s not to say that the standards are high across the board. There are schools, neighbourhoods and even towns which outperform others. Spots in the top performing schools are sought after, with more pupils applying than places available.
Parents have been known to go to great lengths to secure their preferred school spot, sometimes even moving house to be closer to their ideal school.
Britain extends the right to education to all children, meaning that expat kids have just as much right to study in British schools as those born within her borders.
Even with this right however, the process of securing a spot and enrolling is not as straightforward as it might be. Read through the first of two articles to work out exactly what you need to do in order to secure your child a spot in the school of your choice.
Understand the different types of school
At first pass, the British school system is hellishly complicated, with various kinds of schools on offer to confuse the new arrival. You need to know your JMI from your City Academy and your Prep from your Independent.
Essentially, the school years for British children can be broken down into three stages.
The first is pre-school, also known as kindergarten or nursery. This is for the youngest children, although every child is entitled to a place from after their third birthday to the age of five. Although state-funded, this phase of education is not mandatory and it’s not unheard of for children to skip this stage. The emphasis is on learning through play, with youngsters introduced to the alphabet, numbers and basic reading and writing as well as getting into the swing of school life.
The second stage is primary school, taking youngsters from the age of five to the age of 10 or 11. It’s here that the foundation is laid for the rest of the child’s academic career. Literacy, Numeracy, Science, History, English, Art and social subjects form the core of the curriculum, with optional extras available depending on the school.
Unlike many European countries, languages are not a strict part of education in these early years, but schools offering extra classes can be found. Various tests are sat by primary school children to monitor their progress and help identify areas for improvement, but none should be seen as career-defining.
Expats with deep pockets can look to send their children to a preparatory school, a fee-paying school that covers the ages of eight to eleven. These schools are geared toward getting youngsters ready for life at a public school, which is another fee-paying establishment.
After the age of 11 the system gets more complicated. Traditionally there were two ways in which schools were run in the UK. Public and private schools required prospective pupils to sit entrance exams and pay expensive fees, with private schools also having strict rules about who could study there.
These fee-paying schools also include a number of Hogwarts-style boarding schools, a few of which are geared toward expat kids whose parents may then move on to another country.
In the realm of state schools, all used to be overseen by local government, with Local Education Authorities (LEAs) taking charge of the schools in their area and ensuring quality. This system has been shaken up in recent years, with high and secondary schools remaining under this system while academies, free and independent schools have independence from this control.
Academies have met with mixed success, largely depending on the ability of the headteacher and any extra sources of funding they can rustle up. Some big companies sponsor academies, meaning your child may be able to study extra subjects or get work experience with a respected employer. Typically, academies offer the same GCSE and A Level courses offered in state schools.
Free and independent schools are a law unto themselves, with each having the freedom to decide what qualifications it will offer, whom it will accept and how to deliver teaching. There is a fashion toward these schools offering esoteric subjects and shrugging off standard school structures. These schools are often run by parents’ committees.
After the age of 16, pupils are permitted to exit education or to study A Level qualifications, often leaving to study at a specialist college, although some remain at their school to achieve these.
Understand how state schools are run
The vast majority of British kids will spend their school years in state-run schools, and they are the schools most expat kids are likely to end up in too.
The school year starts in September for every school and runs to July. Although the exact dates will vary area by area, the majority of schools will take off six weeks for summer, two weeks for Christmas and two weeks for Easter, with a number of one-week breaks elsewhere in the calendar.
These dates, along with funding allocations, provisions for special needs pupils, and the awarding of places are decided by the LEA, which means they vary from one area to another.
Funds are often handed down with orders about how to spend the cash, but headteachers have some freedom in assigning exactly how to utilise the money. Consequently, some schools invest heavily in sports facilities whilst others pour funds into technology for classrooms.
A good headteacher can make a school great, keeping the standards high and the pupils enthused and disciplined. Without good leadership, a school can quickly descend into chaos.
Along with oversight from the LEA, state schools are subject to inspections by OFSTED. This government inspectorate is the all-seeing eye of quality control for all levels of state schooling. Some academies, free, private, public and independent schools are exempt from inspection. Some will argue that OFSTED ensures quality; others suggest it distracts from the business of teaching.
Research catchment areas
The allocation of school places is a bit of a ‘postcode lottery’. Schools are responsible for providing transport to the school if pupils live a certain distance away.
Given that the majority of children live within this range, LEAs try to place kids in schools close to their homes in order to incur lower travel costs.
This is fine as long as you happen to live next to a top-flight school. If your nearest school is struggling, riddled with discipline problems or doesn’t cater for your child’s needs, you may have to fight to get a place at the school of your choice.
Many LEAs will publish maps online of each school’s catchment area. Expats who are especially keen on a particular school may be able to find accommodation that places them within this area.
Others may be able to make a special case for their children to attend certain schools if they have relatives already there or the school can support their particular learning difficulties in a way that another school cannot.
Understand the qualifications on offer
The British system is well regarded and has even been adopted by schools around the world.
There are tests in the primary years of schooling, but these are largely just to monitor progress. Once pupils reach the secondary stage, tests are used to steer them into ability groups and then toward the exams they will be sitting.
The vast majority of pupils, in any of the styles of school, will sit General Certificate of Education (GCSE) exams around the age of 16. These are the basic level of qualification in the UK.
GCSEs are usually undertaken in nine or ten subjects, including Science, Maths, English, a language and a humanities subject. The exact makeup of the subjects on offer will depend on the school; some may insist on an art topic whilst others may demand a business skill.
To a certain degree the pupil will be given a choice in the subjects they study, but the difficulty of the tests they sit will be decided by the teachers. Lower tier papers may be easier to complete, but will limit the top grade achievable; tougher papers can penalise low scores harshly.
Currently the GCSE is graded from an ‘Ungraded’ to a glittering A* (‘A star’). This is set to change in 2017 when numerical grades will run from a dismal nine to a shining 1.
After GCSEs, most pupils go on to study A Levels. This is the beginning of a more mature phase in their studies, swapping school uniform for their own clothes and taking more responsibility over their careers.
The Advanced Level (A Level) programme is two years in length, in which students can undertake courses in academic subjects or more vocational courses like Food Studies and Law. Typically, the student undertakes 5 subjects in the first year, earning Advanced Subsidiary (AS Level) qualifications.
Depending on the result of these exams, at least one subject is usually dropped and the remaining subjects are taken through to complete A Levels. It’s the predicted results of these qualifications that universities will look at when deciding whether or not to offer a place.
A few state schools and some fee-paying schools subscribe to the International Baccalaureate (IB) scheme. This qualification was originally designed to be taught to expat kids studying together in international schools, but has won respect worldwide.
The qualification is famous for its rigorous approach and its requirement to produce large amounts of project work. IB students are often well-rounded academics, having benefited from the more philosophical Theory of Knowledge unit which comprises one of the three compulsory modules.
Make contact with the Admissions Officer
The process of applying for places can be long-winded, and all the more complicated for those arriving from overseas. So it’s all the more important for arriving expats to make contact with the Admissions Officer.
This isn’t someone at the school, but at the LEA; the schools themselves generally have very little say in the pupils that can attend.
Reach out to the LEA long before you intend to move and enquire about the entry requirements and what paperwork you will need to provide.
This individual can make or break your chances of getting into the school of your choice, so stick to deadlines they set and give them what they need.
Keep your eyes open for Part Two of this guide tomorrow!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer