Published in The 2014 Expatriate's Guide to Living in the UK
While there are a variety of educational options available in the UK, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for the children of expatriate professionals on assignment here. This section of the guide will describe these options and highlight some of the matters that should be considered by parents, relocation, or HR professionals working with these families.
Schools are required to verify that children have the right to (free) state education, and so showing the appropriate passports and visas are a pre-requisite for admission to any state school. This now also applies to independent schools, where some have registered with the UK Border Agency to be ‘sponsors’.
English State Schools
Compulsory education serves children ages 4-16, with an additional two years ending at age 18. Children must be in school during the year they turn 5, until they complete their education at 16. In England and Wales, state (publicly-funded) schools are organised by local education authorities (LEAs). In many authorities, particularly in greater London, many ‘good’ state schools are over-subscribed. Each spring LEAs publicise on their websites the timeline and deadlines for applications and allocation of places. Because of the popularity of some schools, most families who meet the criteria to be eligible to apply, tend to apply for places in more than one school, indicating the desired schools in order of preference on their application. One of the criteria is that a family must show proof of residency within the LEA, which presents a challenge for expats who understandably prefer not to commit to a property until they know where their child is going to school. The LEA has an obligation to provide a school place for qualifying residents, but it may not necessarily be at the school that is closest to the child’s home. Once the places are allocated, there are means for appealing the decision - procedures are also published on the LEA websites. For families arriving out of the registration season, they obviously can apply for places, but allocation will depend on where the vacancies exist.
Free Schools are a relatively new concept in England introduced by the government in 2011 to allow for more parental freedom of choice. These are state-funded schools that have opted out of Local Authority Control, but rather are governed by non-profit charitable trusts, and they are academically non-selective up to the age of 15, after that they may set criteria for admission. These may be managed by parents, teachers, charities or businesses. Although they are subject to the same inspections as other state and independent schools, the jury is still out as to the quality of these schools, which, according to press reports, can very significantly. Despite that, many of the free schools are also oversubscribed.
Faith Schools are long established with Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish affiliation, and Muslim ties. These schools are state schools but with an emphasis on creed of the faith in question, and although admission may give priority to family’s proven affiliation to that faith (for example proof of baptism), there is increasing pressure for these schools to become more inclusive of all.
Academies are another relatively new model of state-funded schools, again, independent of the local education authority. Introduced by the Government in 2000, these may be established by companies, charitable trusts, or philanthropists, and may have an emphasis on special areas such as Science and Maths, Technology, Business and Enterprise, the Arts, International Baccalaureate, etc. They manage their own admissions using their own admissions criteria that must be transparent. Academies are coeducational, and some have the entire range from 4-18, which is relatively unusual in the UK but may be of interest to expatriate families seeking one school for all their children.
The UK, and greater London in particular, has a good number of ‘international schools’. There is no agreed definition of what exactly makes a school ‘international’; and some of the following comments may characterise these schools:
• Schools that seek to attract and recruit international families to create an internationally-diverse student community, regardless of the curriculum they offer
• Schools that offer more internationally-styled curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate programmes, the International Primary Curriculum and International Middle Years Curriculum. Some schools offering the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (for students at age 16), which was originally intended for British schools abroad, but which some believe are more rigorous than the regular GCSEs, while others suggest they are better preparation for A-Levels (or the International Baccalaureate Diploma) which lead to university entry
• Schools that feature instruction in many mother tongue languages as part of the academic programme
• Schools that pro-actively aim to help prepare students for moving on to another country (and not just the UK) for continued schooling or for university entry.
In short, any school can describe itself as ‘international’ and it is up to the discerning parent to decipher what that means in each case!
Foreign National Schools and Bilingual Schools
In greater London there are schools that follow the national curriculum of other countries, most likely taught in that language, although some are aiming to be bilingual. Most of these schools, though not all, have some official affiliation with, and recognition from, the country of origin. These include French, German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, USA, and possibly others. These schools will either ensure that at the very least the students masters and maintains fluency in the language of the country, others will ensure official alignment to the home country educational programme to facilitate the transfer between the UK-based school and the home country school system.
Also emerging are schools that describe themselves as ‘bilingual’ schools. Although these schools may not deliver the curriculum of the country/ies associated with the language, they do aim to develop complete fluency in English and the language in question. There are now bilingual schools offering English and French, Danish and Italian (mentioned earlier), Spanish and soon to open Mandarin, in the UK. There are no standards as to what qualifies a school as ‘bilingual’ but most language experts would suggest that in an English-speaking country such as the UK, at least 50% of the school day should be in the other language for balanced bilingualism to be developed in a child.
The National Curriculum for England is divided into the following compulsory stages, each with subject content, skills and learning objectives taught, and assessment criteria set out by the national government. There are assessment tests at the end of each key stage to measure individual student progress, and with results from schools reported in ‘league tables’ that are published in the press.
Key Stage 1 – ages 5-7 (Years 1 and 2)
Key Stage 2 – ages 7-11 (Years 3, 4, 5 and 6)
The Eleven Plus exams are administered by some schools at the end of primary school, and are used for admission purposes to some independent schools, but also to Grammar Schools.
Grammar Schools are state schools that still exist in some local education authorities and are particularly popular in counties such as Kent and Buckinghamshire. Consequently, these schools are often over-subscribed.
Key Stage 3 – ages 11-14 (Years 7, 8 and 9)
Key Stage 4 – ages 14 – 16 (Years 10 and 11) also known as 5th form when the two-year GSCE examinations take place. The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is taken in a range of subjects and each subject ends with its own national examination on a prescribed day. The average number of GCSEs taken is 10, according to press reports, although in some ‘hot house’ schools, students may sit as many as 15. The GCSE is regarded as an official school-leaving qualification that can lead to vocational training or basic employment.
EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) ages infancy – 5 years (starting with childcare, nurseries, pre-schools, etc., to Reception)
AS and A-Levels – (Years 12-13) also known as 6th form when one/two year AS and A-Level examinations take place. These qualifications lead to university admission and improved employment. Four (more in some schools) subjects are taken in the first year, then 3 continued into the second. As expat professionals tend to be well educated themselves and highly aspirational with expectations that their children will be prepared for university, it is almost unheard of for the children of expats to finish their schooling at 16 at the end of GCSEs.
NVQ (National Vocation Qualifications*), B-TEC (work or industry-related qualifications).
British Independent Schools
The British private school sector is popular and, like many state schools, often over-subscribed making entry highly competitive. These are fee-paying schools and admission is normally selective. These schools are not required to adhere to the National Curriculum and may offer programmes that are aimed at preparing children for the next stage of schooling which is typically accessed through entrance examinations set by the individual schools or groups of schools. The challenge for expatriate families is that their children may not have been prepared to sit these examinations which can make the process stressful.
Just to complicate matters, the term ‘public school’ is used to describe a group of some of the more prestigious, long established independent schools in Britain (examples include Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, and others). Expats are urged not to confuse ‘public schools’ (private) with ‘state schools’ (state-funded).
Many of these schools tend to be single-sex schools. They will include the following:
Ages 2-4, normally co-educational
Ages 2 (or 3) to 7
Because these schools are often part of established preparatory Schools (see below), admission to these schools can be highly competitive
Ages 7 (sometimes 8) to 11 (girls) or 13 (boys)
As the name indicates, these schools prepare students for the next stage of education in independent senior ‘public’ schools, many of which will be boarding schools. Most preparatory schools culminate in exam preparation for the ‘Common Entrance’ Exams which secondary independent or ‘public’ schools require for admission. These schools are more often than not single-sex schools.
Age 11 (girls) or 13 (boys) to 19
These schools are often prestigious schools, many with historic legacies that make them highly sought after and competitive. Many of these schools are single-sex though there are a few coeducational schools of very high standing. Though many students join the school at the entry age of 11 or 13 where they are prepared for the GCSE Exams at age 16; some schools have another intake at age 16 in anticipation of the final two years of the programme (sixth form) when students begin the A-Level or IB Diploma curricula.
Admission to these schools is by examination; for entry into the final two years (sixth form) the student’s GCSE results are likely to be what determines admission.
The International Baccalaureate Curricula
Dating back to the 1960s, the International Baccalaureate programmes was originally a two-year diploma programme offered in the final years of secondary school to serve the needs of families moving internationally. Designed by a team of educationalists representing universities and ministries of education from different countries, it offers academic rigour and depth, but also breadth in that students choose a minimum of courses from six areas including two languages (first language and a second language), maths, science, humanities, and a sixth option. Three are taken at a higher level (hence, the ‘depth’), three at standard level. In addition, all students must take the Theory of Knowledge (a popular course exploring the basis of knowledge), complete 150 hours of creative, action and service, and write a 4000-word research essay. The IB leads to university entry worldwide. It is roughly equivalent to English A-Levels, though it is acknowledged to be more work. The IB Diploma has grown in stature in the UK and its IB graduates are increasingly sought after by UK universities. As much of the assessment of the IB Diploma is externally-marked by examiners worldwide, it has remained free of grade inflation that some suggest has affected A-Level examinations. It also offers flexibility to enable schools to draw on a local national perspective alongside an international perspective so that students may learn about the countries they live in while at the same time considering their home nationality or culture of heritage.
Following the popularity of the IB Diploma, in the 1990s the IB developed the IB Primary Years Programme for children ages 3-11 (or 12), and shortly thereafter, the IB Middle Years Programme for students aged 11-16, which also leads to the IBMYP Certificate. These programmes reflect many of the same attributes and characteristics as the original Diploma. They are inquiry-based, aimed at students with all sorts of learning experiences, are cross-curricular so that students can see the connections of knowledge and subjects (simple examples of this are, how history may influence art; how technology may influence developments in science). They are assessed by a variety of methods (not just traditional examination) and although the IB programmes are moderated by the IB organisation, all of the assessment is internal – no external examinations. The programmes highlight the importance of language learning, including mother tongue, and the opportunity for students to consider how the skills and knowledge they are gaining applies to their home countries and cultures. In more recent years, the IB has introduced the new IB Careers Certificate, a more experiential, hands-on practical programme offered as an alternative to the IB Diploma.
The IB Diploma programmes are re-underpinned by the IB Learner Profiles; characteristics and attributes that are regarded as essential to the ‘holistic’ education and to developing 21st century skills that lead to global citizenship.
The IB models are the same all over the world, offering a degree of educational continuity to families who move globally.
The International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC)
These two programmes designed by British-based Fieldwork Education and are growing in popularity as an alternative to the International Baccalaureate. The IPC for children aged 3-10 uses a thematic approach with specific learning goals for every area of the curriculum, with an emphasis on developing international-mindedness. The curriculum has been designed with three guiding questions in mind: What kind of world will our children live and work in?; What kinds of children are likely to succeed in the world?; and, What kinds of learning will our children need and how should they learn it? The IPC is available worldwide and in an increasing number of UK state schools. IMYC for students aged 11-14 is aligned to Keystage 3 and builds in the IPC. If the success of the IPC is anything to go by, it is likely that the IMYC will be found in more and more British state and independent schools.
Questions to consider when choosing a school for an expat child
• When choosing between local English (state or independent) schools, consider how your child may adapt to a different system; how well he or she will fit. Think about how long you will be living in the UK, where your next assignment may be, and how compatible the English school system will be when your child has to face that next transition
• Particularly for teens, think about likely goals for university and how well the schools you are considering will prepare your child for higher education, and how much the school will help you navigate the university admissions process to the university/ies of your choice
• If English is not your home language, how will the school manage this? Is there a programme available to support this, and if so at what cost? Or, will you need to arrange private tutoring?
• Also, if English is not your home language, consider how you will ensure that your child continues to develop literacy and academic proficiency in his or her mother tongue, particularly if he or she is likely to return to your home country for study or work. If the schools you are considering will not support it, think about how you will manage this independently through a Saturday school or private tutors
• Speak to colleagues to get a sense as to just how many school applications you should submit. These incur costs, but if the schools are known for waiting lists, you may need to apply to several. If you have more than one child, ask about the chances of all the children being accepted, or sibling admissions policies
• Avoid making any commitments about housing until you know your school options. If you have a look-see trip to plan your relocation, be sure to include the schools early on. No point looking at houses in areas that are impractical for the schools
• Carefully consider the implications of applying to separate schools for your children, for example, single sex schools for sons and daughters, or primary and secondary schools. Consider school hours (and pick up or bus schedules) and pay attention to school holiday schedules
• Read the admissions requirements carefully and submit all the documents required. Some schools require several components to the application and will not begin to process until all are submitted. Check to ensure your child’s current school has completed references, sent reports, etc., as the new school may not accept copies you provide and may not process the application until it is complete. Don’t ‘hide’ anything about your child’s academic or learning history. If the prospective school suspects something, this may delay the process
• If testing is involved and you are applying from abroad, ask whether your child can be tested in the familiar environment of the place you now live. This may require the assistance of the present school, an embassy or bonafide educational consultant. If an interview with your child is required, think about how and when you will be able to do that. Consider about how your child will present at an interview, particularly if travelling a long distance to do this. Many international schools accustomed to expatriate families who are relocating will not require interviews
• Have a back-up plan. You may not need to apply for more than one school at first, but if that does not work for whatever reason, be prepared. This is particularly important if those schools require documents from your present school; too often applications are delayed because key staff are on holiday and reports and references are not sent
• Be aware of the financial requirements to confirm acceptance of a place. Having secured an offer, you do not want to risk losing it because of the financial procedures or complications arising from international bank transfers. If payment of school fees are part of your compensation package, be sure you know who to contact for payment so that the payments are not delayed putting your child’s place in jeopardy
• Depending on your family’s circumstances it may be helpful to consider what level of support the school may have in place to help your family with the transition. Some schools now arrange ‘buddy families’ with children of the same ages/ language/cultural group. Even if these people do not become your best friends, it’s good to have at least one point of contact from the school community when you arrive. Be sure to note any orientation events or back to school nights and get those in your diary. Some families thinking that an Orientation event falling before the official first day of school is not all that essential, a decision they later regret
• If the whole business seems too complicated, consider engaging a qualified educational consultant to help.
Inspection and Accreditation
A brief word about quality assurance. All UK schools are required to undergo inspections, either through OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education) or alternatively, in the case of many independent schools, through the Independent School Inspectorate (ISI). There are one or two other smaller organisations who also do these inspections. Schools are required to have the most recent inspection report available on their school’s website, but if you cannot find it buried under the downloadable bus maps (some schools don’t make it easy to find!) then you can google OFSTED or ISI and locate school inspection reports on their websites. Most international schools also opt for one of the international accreditations through Council of International Schools (CIS); New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) – the US-based body that also accredits US public and independent schools, and universities such as Harvard and Yale in New England; and Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA) – also US-based. These reports are not on the website, but accreditation status means the school has had a thorough inspection.