Home » What Expat Families Should Know About The UK School System

What Expat Families Should Know About The UK School System

Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. I’m your host, Carlie, an Australian living in France, and today we’re talking schooling options in the UK, and what expat families can expect. My guest is Steve Spriggs, the Head of Education at William Clarence Education. They advise and consult with families from around the world on British schools and universities.

So which schools are right for your children, factoring in not just their interests and your needs as a family, but also where you all might be in 5 years’ time. Listen on to find out, and if you have any questions for Steve, you can post them in the Expat Focus UK Forum or Facebook Group.

Steve, what’s the typical profile of an expat family that your company works with?

Steve: There’s not really any typical family. Just purely because every family that moves into the UK, and actually around Europe, has got their own niche, their own story behind their move, whether it’s family reasons or personal issues. But I guess they broadly fit into a few distinct categories of either British expats moving back to the UK after a stint abroad, work-related or families. Or, there’s one expat and they’ve met a partner abroad, had children and then they’re coming back to the UK. So, sometimes half the partnership has got a very good understanding of the UK system and some haven’t.

And then obviously the third category is the, first time to the UK ever, and they’ve, they need to really start from the beginning. So, we do everything from just a little bit of hand-holding at the beginning if you know roughly the, the route you wanna take, but then the most common route is that they’re looking for a consultant who, to go through the whole advice section from nursery through to university.

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Carlie: I know when it comes, for example, to American schools and universities, I have a picture painted in my mind that’s very much been put in there through popular culture references and movies growing up, and that kind of thing. Is there a typical stereotype that exists for UK schools and universities, and what is that, and what’s the reality?

Steve: It’s a good question! I mean, the mainstream press, and if you were to read that abroad, would paint the picture of an independent school of the listed building, the green meadows, the bowler hat of the uniform, sports pitches, all of that type of stuff. That slice of Britain that’s used really to export British education overseas, and that’s a selling point that…

Carlie: And a little bit Harry Potter, right?

Steve: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And to be honest, some of the schools play into that kind of story, you know? They, the prospectus and the websites do create that kind of ilk of the boarding houses, the uniforms and the school trips, and it all goes into that slice of Britain that someone, maybe in Shanghai or Beijing is gonna buy into, that they wanna send their kids to. The reality of it is that there are elements of that, depending on what type of school you go to. So, you know, traditional schools like Eton, Harrow, just to name two, there’s loads of them, in fact hundreds of great schools of a similar ilk.

But, once you dig behind that surface, they’re actually very modern. The curriculums are modern, the teaching methods are, you know, fantastic, and a lot of the teachers are very young, straight out of college or a couple of years in. So, there is a difference between your kind of the ‘brand Britain’, in terms of that education, and then when you get behind the scenes of what they’re actually gonna be delivering. I think the opposite is also true, for when you look at the US system, it’s ultra-modern, fantastic facilities, and a very different type of education delivery that you would get into, in the UK. Both are equally good in their own, in their own right.

Carlie: And what about throughout different parts of the UK? Is the schooling that you can expect in London and surrounds different to north or south?

Steve: It is a different type of education. But by that I mean, not necessarily academically different. So, essentially the, the stats of grades attained, there are fantastic schools dotted all over the UK, all that feed into the top universities., and all command the best teaching staff. So, it’s not necessarily academically different. What is different is the, the style of learning maybe. But also the environment.

So, obviously, if you’re going to go to a city centre school in the middle of London, it’s not gonna be the same delivery as a countryside campus-based school in the middle of the, in the country, where you’ve got acres and acres of land, sports is a very big thing, pastoral care and boarding homes. So, it’s just a different type of personality fit that we’re looking for, and that’s one of the integral parts of finding a school for someone, that they come into the UK thinking we really want to go to, we’re living in London, we wanna go to a city centre London school, but actually, maybe their son or daughter is a little bit more creative, and wants to have a bit of their own, their own space, and they’re much more suited personality-wise to a, maybe an out of city school. So that’s one of the challenges of kind of managing expectations along the way.

Carlie: So, say you’re an international family without the advantage of one person being from the UK, so you don’t have that, that insight from your upbringing. What will be laid in front of you, I guess, in terms of the different school types to choose from? And what are some key differences that, that these families should know?

Steve: Sure. So, this is probably the biggest question, and the biggest, longest amount of time we spend with new families when they come to the UK. Especially those with no prior knowledge. The UK is a very tough system to penetrate, when it comes to UK education. And it’s, it’s why it’s so daunting, actually. When you’ve grown up through it yourself, it becomes second nature, and it’s obvious. But when you’re new to the system, you’ve got questions like mixed or single-sex? A day school or a boarding school? City centre or campus-based countryside school? Selective or non-selective?

You’ve got prep schools, pre-prep schools, senior schools. Or then you’ve schools that start at nursery and go the whole way to 18. So, all of those questions need answering, to bring together kind of a shortlist I guess. If you didn’t answer all of those individual questions, you’d probably be faced with a list of 40 different schools.

It’s just not feasible to research each one. So, we start really with a family and say well where do you want to be in 5 years, potentially? And work our way back, and narrow down those options between all of those different questions. I think if you approach it from the beginning it can be totally overwhelming, because there’s no real way of saying well, this school’s great at this, but how do you compare it to this, if they’re two totally different schools? Which is why it’s so easy and, to sort of get a wrong choice, I guess.

Carlie: And that future forecasting bit, particularly if you’re an international family, you’ve, you’ve made some moves already, and you’re likely to again in the future, that’s so important to get right, isn’t it?

Steve: It is. And I always say to new parents that our job really is to make sure that you don’t close any doors that don’t need closing right now. And by that I mean that you can inadvertently close some doors along the way without realising it.

So, we always say well, if you’re coming in at, say, 11, so the family are coming with an 11-year old child, and we say where would you ideally like to be in 5 or 6 years’ time, i.e. university stage, if they say well, we’re looking to go to a US college, then that’s a very different answer to say well actually, we don’t really wanna go to university, or we’ve got military service to go back and do in a different country, or we wanna go to Oxford, or we wanna do medicine, or something like that, because along the way, from 11 through to 18, there’s some big decisions to make. A lot of subjects to be chosen. So, if medicine is the, is the course choice, then clearly business studies, English and PE probably isn’t gonna cut it.

So, we’ll be there to try and advise along the way, to make sure that we’ve got that final goal in mind. Now, that being a barometer of where they would like to be in 5 years, quite clearly from an 11-year old to 18, 17, things change (laughs). So, and that’s fine, that’s part of it. But, what we try and do is try and manage that change, so it’s not too much of an abrupt surprise when that change happens.

Carlie: I was gonna say, what if, when you ask your 11-year old, you know, what they wanna do, it’s gonna look completely different to, yeah, as you said, 5 or so years later in, in how they’ve developed and formed their views of what they like to, to do, and the direction they’d like to take in their academic life.

Steve: Yeah, we generally try and phrase it in terms of, not what you wanna do as a job, but we say where are your interests? So if they’re science-based, then that opens up a raft of different types of careers that in our minds we’re kinda thinking, OK, this may be an option down the road, and the types of schools that we’ll look at, maybe really nice science labs, or if they’re more sporty, then it makes no sense for them to go.

I mean for instance we had a family that had two boys that competed at national level for a certain sport, and it would have been completely insane to send them to an inner city school that had to hire their own sports pitches, because quite clearly that was gonna be some level of interest in their lives going forward, whether it’s business with a sports angle to it.

So, we try and angle our school choices and university choices to about where they’re gonna be in the future. And also talk to their parents, because if they’re super-academic parents with very professional careers, it could be the case that, you know, they’re gonna follow in roughly similar footsteps. Or the parents have got very, you know, strong ambitions for them. Which then opens up another kind of managing expectations exercise, where, you know, we’ve had families where very ambitious parents, very hung up on branding, really want that brand on the CV of their child, and really only want the best for their child, however, after an assessment, maybe an initial call, and some review of their reports, it’s quite clear that actually their child isn’t that way inclined.

And you can’t really push, because you put a student into a very academic hothouse, and they’re not gonna be happy. And our job is to really make sure that they are, they’re in an environment they’re gonna thrive and be happy in long-term.

Carlie: I was listening to another expat podcast the other day, and the American mom was explaining the difficulties she had in passing study and revision advice to her child who was going through the French schooling system, because she was taking one approach when actually the teachers expected a completely different approach as a measure of success. How does the English schooling system typically approach studies, and how can this surprise families if they’re not used to the expectation of teachers in the UK?

Steve: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a tricky one really, because, I think every family that we’ve worked with obviously have been brought up a certain way, and they’ve studied in a certain way. So, invariably they’re going to try and encourage their child to study in a similar way. Now, this practice changes all the time. So, the way UK schools generally encourage study is a mixture between self-study, demonstrating interest, pursuing your own interest. And there’s a mixture of hands-off and then obviously the, the stick side where you’ve got to do this and get through an exam.

And I think some of overseas families effectively, when they’re coming from a different education system, it’s very much more autocratic. Or the other way, it’s very more laid-back. So, matching those two, with a day school especially, is, is tricky, because when a student’s at a boarding school, they’re kind of on their own there, they’re in the environment and they’re looked after, and they go with the flow of that environment that they’re working in. When you’ve got one environment at school and then you go home and you’re being told to do a different thing, that’s where kind of a conflict can arise. But generally, we’ve not had a problem with that.

Carlie: Steve, I really love the idea of a boarding school, and I grew up reading Enid Blyton books, and found it all so fantastic to picture in my mind. A boarding school compared to a day school. Are they the sort of schoolings that really suit different personality types, or, you know, are they encouraged for any kids?

Steve: They are very very different. Obviously. From what I’ve seen, from, and spoken to so many people in the industry, they do suit different types of personality. The counter to that is that I think any personality can do well in them, you just need to be very careful on which school you pick. I mean, the stereotype of a boarding school personality would be very independent, extrovert, confident, social, all of those types of traits.

But the truth of that is that those traits come out once they’ve been to boarding school. Not necessarily, you don’t go to boarding school with that personality at 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 or 11. So, you know, there is an argument there that that kind of environment can bring out those traits later on.

However, we also have had students where they’ve been in a boarding school environment and hated it. They just were not that way inclined, a little bit more homely I guess, wanted to do other things outside of school. And their, their parents brought them out and put them into a day school.

And I think similarly, students at day schools feel a little underwhelmed sometimes, if they’re really independent characters and want to go and push and do different things, they’ve actually approached their parents and said we really want to leave and go, it’s a very mature thing to -do for, say, a 12- or 13-year old, to say we really want to go to a boarding school. And cut loose the parents!

So, we’ve seen both of them really, and, we kind of always introduce a bit of both onto our shortlistings, if the parents are open to it. Now a big trend that we’re seeing actually, over the first couple of years of, of working on school placements a long time ago, was that it would, had to be boarding, even for the domestic parents, they really loved that boarding experience, maybe because they were boarded when they were at school.

But actually recently, the last 2 years, a lot of domestic parents don’t want to board, and the day schools are becoming much more competitive. I think the fee levels are becoming a bit of a problem as well, boarding schools are very expensive.

Now obviously an overseas family, you kind of haven’t got a choice, you either send your student to a boarding school, or you’re relocating back to the UK, and then you’re gonna buy a house and go to your, your school. So there [are] definitely shifts in perception there, and some boarding schools are starting to accept day students. I think it’s probably a sign that there’s not enough demand for the, the pure boarding experience.

Carlie: We haven’t talked fees yet. What do international families need to be aware of when it comes to putting their children in the UK education system and, and how much it costs?

Steve: Yeah, it’s not a small undertaking. I mean, most boarding schools, for normal 3-term year, would be between £30-35,000 per year, and that’s really a starting point, that we always say, add on another £10k to £15k on that, because you’ve got uniforms, school trips, various other bits and bobs that crop up along the way.

And then if you’re joining at 11, 13, you’ve got through to 18, so, for one student you’re looking at maybe £200-300,000 investment there. It is a product and service that families are buying, and no wonder the buyers are getting much more discerning and know what they want out of their school. Which is why there’s a heavy investment going on of those fees back into the schools, to create the best facilities. It’s very competitive within, within schools to attract the students. But then you multiply that, you’ve got two kids or three kids, it does become very costly financially for parents.

Carlie: Steve, if you’re an international family and you have the money to pay, for example, for boarding school, or a very good school, does your child still need to sit some kind of entrance exam, or do they just get in?

Steve: No, they will have to sit entrance testing, 95% of the time. A lot of the, the top independent schools are selective. So, academically selective, and the main entry points that we give as a, an overview of the British system are 7- and 8-years old, 11, 13, and then 16.

And, generally there’ll be an entrance test at every single point of those. So if you started at one school and it was a through-school, or, we call them a through-school, all the way through to 18, then maybe there wouldn’t be an assessment throughout that course. But generally speaking, parents will move at 11 or 13, through to 18, so, most children will have at least one set of competitive examination prior to getting into a school.

Carlie: We talked earlier about how important it is to make decisions about schools based on, you know, a little bit of forward planning. What can happen if you don’t plot out, properly or well enough, or you don’t consider well enough where your family is going in the world in the future, or where your child might choose to study in the future?

Steve: Well, what we outlined before is the perfect scenario. Now, most families, obviously their circumstances change all the time. So, it’s not always possible to plan perfectly where you’re going to be in 3 years’ time or 4 years’ time. So, these are problems that we’re constantly seeing, and to be frank, if we didn’t have those problems we’d be out of a job (laughs).

So, really, a lot of the cases that we find, you know, parents are approaching and for various reasons they’ve had a circumstance change, and they’re moving into the UK. Or, they’ve left it a little bit too late, there’s a million and one other things going on. So the perfect scenario is that you think ahead and you want to go to this school which feeds to that school and then on to that university.

But in reality, we do deal with panicked clients, they’ve missed deadlines, their child hates the school that they’re in, they need to leave, they’re relocating, they’ve got a new job, and all of those things add to stress within a relocation. And schooling remember is just one element of relocation. There’s a million and one other things to do.

The reality of it is that most of the time, it’s never truly too late, as long as the client’s flexible. So if you’re coming to us in May, and you need a school place for September, then we’ll be able to help. It’s just about being flexible. You may not get into the school that is on the British brochure abroad, and it’s got a 2 year waiting list.

Carlie: And I guess that feeds into the, the question of what’s the benefit of, of talking to consultants like yourselves, when you are looking at where to put your child in the UK education system, and, compared to doing your own research, and getting a lot of internet tabs open, and making your Excel sheets, and figuring it out for yourself.

Steve: Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, I think collating the information is, is so so valuable. The method of assessment of all of those, because, when you come into the UK, and you’re looking for, say, a shortlist of four or five schools, you’re probably gonna look at maybe 15. It’s so difficult to decipher what that school is actually like. And, not what the website tells you, because the website will tell you that it’s the best on every single website.

What is it actually like? What’s the name of the admissions person? What type of student do they a) would like to recruit, but b) what do they, what do they sort of produce at the end? What type of student comes out the other side? What are their strong points? What did the last inspection say? Would we recommend it for your student, having seen their reports, having done an assessment, having seen you and your family together in your home?

And those are all of the different things that a consultant will be able to make an evaluation, and put together the right set of information. Now, ultimately the family will make the final decision, from an agreed shortlist of where we feel that they should go and they’ll thrive. Because, ultimately their child is gonna go to it, so they need to make that final call.

But the value of having someone by your side to go to an open day, make sure you’re asking the right questions, preparing to meet the Head, really is invaluable for some parents, and we’ve had some clients that haven’t gone into schools prior to coming to see us, and they really didn’t sort of understand the dynamics of an open day, for instance, or the application forms. There’re very convoluted sort of forms and application processes to go through, registering for entrance exams, that type of stuff. So, yeah, it’s a long process, but with the right help you can get it down to a, to a nice fine art.

Carlie: And having that insider alongside you to, as you say, make sure you are asking the right questions when you do tour a school, and hit the right deadlines, is so important.

Steve: Yeah, it is, and the open days can be very well choreographed. You know, there’s generally some shows happening, sports events, classrooms. But, you get to learn a lot more about the school when you go one on one with the registrar, we get a last-minute personal tour. And you see a school actually working, and it’s like a little community operating, and you get to really walk around and see how that works, without the choreographed open day going on.

Carlie: Yeah, it’s a bit like the difference between an open for inspection, house open for inspection and when you do a drive-by in the middle of the night (laughs).

Steve: Exactly. Yeah, there’s no cakes hanging out when you’re just driving by.

Carlie: When it comes to education consultants like yourselves, are all advisors the same?

Steve: In, in a word, no. They’re not. I mean (laughs), I’m kinda biased to say that, aren’t I? However, they really aren’t. It’s not a regulated industry. And actually there’s a lot of different types of practice going on within, within that market. And you see a lot of agents and consultants who are, kind of call themselves consultants from overseas, and what they’re really doing is representing a family, and putting them into a school, without really ever seeing the school, ever seeing the parents, and ever really considering whether it’s the right fit for that child.

And actually on that note, the type of model that we’re working in, we’re a completely free service for schools. We’re a school partner. We don’t accept any commissions or payments in exchange for a student attending their school. And that seems obvious, but it’s a very important point, because a lot, the vast majority of consultants and agents do.

And there is an inherent conflict of interest there, that if you have a very bright student coming in from Dubai, for instance, an expat family, and they have offers from three different schools, and, with three different commission levels, then quite clearly there’s gonna be a conflict of interest there to place them into the school where the commission is highest, not necessarily the best school for that child. So we take away that conflict, and ultimately, it isn’t really concerning us where that child goes.

Our main points of contact are that as long as he is happy or she is happy, and the parents are happy, and they stay there for as long as they want, and they’re happy and thrive, we’ve done our job, and we’ve taken away that conflict of interest. A very important point we find is a common recurring problem, that unfortunately we can’t always rectify, because it’s sometimes too late, that when you’ve got two children, or even if you’ve got one children, moving into the UK, start as far in advance as possible.

Now, I know we touched on the fact that all circumstances change, and that is part of life that you can’t really alter. But if you know that you’re moving at some point in the future, we always say try and engage with an advisor as soon as possible. Because it puts you in front of the queue, and you can get as much time, and gradually the closer towards entry time, the more stressful it becomes for us, and for the family, and importantly for the child. So, start as early as possible is my leaving part of advice.

Carlie: That’s it for today. If you want to continue the conversation about the UK school system, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our UK forum or facebook group. For more on educating children abroad, check out our episode with Rebecca Grappo, of RNG International Educational Consultants. If you like what we do please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.