Moving to the UK? Do your homework to find the right school for your child

28 January 2022

4 minute read

The UK has long been a popular relocation destination for wealthy individuals. And one of the primary motivations for high-net-worth families settling in Britain is the quality of its elite private schools.

But choosing the right school for your children can be one of the hardest decisions a parent has to make, especially when emigrating from a different country.

“First impressions of the UK education system are often mixed and met with confusion – however, it is globally recognised as first class and a major draw for families coming from abroad,” explains Punu Wasage, Relationship Director at Barclays International Banking.

“While the abundance of choice can also be overwhelming and stressful, particularly when you’re pre-occupied with your international move. Many of our UK resident clients speak to us about this regularly.”

While Barclays International Bank doesn’t advise on schooling, we know from experience there are key areas worth considering early on, and we’ve summarised them below.

The school system explained

The definitions of the types of school in the UK can sometimes be hard to pin down – with the terms often interchangeable.

  • Independent/private schools: All the fee-paying schools in the UK that are not state-run. Often known for their high academic achievement.
  • Public schools: Despite their name, these schools are usually the most exclusive and expensive to attend, and were often founded hundreds of years ago. They are also highly selective.
  • Boarding schools: These schools allow pupils to live on site during term time – going home only at holidays or weekends. Many public and private schools offer boarding options, usually alongside day schooling.
  • Prep schools and pre-prep: Private primary schools; pre-preps are for 3-7 year-olds, while prep schools run from aged 7 to either 11 or 13 years old – with the aim of preparing pupils for entry into the private secondary school system.
  • State schools: All primary and secondary schools funded by the state, offering education between the ages of 4 up to 18. Every child in the UK is entitled to a free place, and the schools follow the national curriculum (which private schools do not have to teach).

Not all schools are created equal

As every parent knows, each child has different needs and interests – so choosing a new school in a foreign country is not just a matter of location or reputation. Many UK schools have specific specialisms so a good place to start might be to consider whether your child would suit an academically rigorous environment, or one with strong sporting or creative offerings.

And if English isn’t a first language, or you’re likely to relocate frequently, then a UK-based international school may be a good option as they can offer international teaching formats and qualifications, potentially making the transition between schools easier. For later in life, it’s also good to know that UK universities recognise international school exam results – such as international GCSEs or the International Baccalaureate – just as readily as their British equivalents (GCSEs and A-levels).

Entrance exams

Many of the UK’s fee-paying schools expect your child to pass an entrance exam. While these assessments are quite informal for a 4-year-old, they become more demanding the higher up a school you go. Typically, the biggest intakes are at ages 4, 7, 11 and 13 – but if places become available, children can be admitted at any time. Each private school also sets its own admissions procedure – meaning it can be easier to get into some schools over others.    

“The good news is that there is more wiggle room in the system than one may think, with the right support,” says Alessandra Coppola, the Co-Founder of specialist educational consultancy Magus Education.

Importantly, these school-specific admission exams are undertaken independently of the national exams that UK-based students are expected to take. Formal exams are taken at the ages of 16 (GCSEs) and 18 (A-levels). You may wish to be mindful of changing your child’s school around this time.

Financial scholarships: Many UK private schools also offer a limited number of financial scholarships in recognition of a child’s exceptional abilities. There are a variety of awards available – from academia to creative arts and sports – and these scholarships are usually open to both current students, and those applying to join a school.

When’s the best time to join a new school?

The UK academic year runs from September to July. For prospective students, entrance exams are usually taken 6 to 9 months before a September start – with open days often taking place before this in the first term of the school year.

Given that the UK’s tax year starts in April, which is usually a practical start date for any UK residency – this can very easily put you out-of-sync with the UK’s term times when moving around this period. In this case, you should enquire about the school’s approach to mid-year entries.

One of life’s biggest decisions

It pays to do your homework, in an effort to narrow down your selections when looking to find the right school.

Ultimately, you want to find an environment where your children can thrive and feel supported through this important stage of their life. That might feel like it’s easier-said-than-done but by starting your search in the right way, you can increase your chances of getting it right – avoiding any issues down the line.

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