William Rees, former Head of Admissions at Eton College and now a consultant at My Tutor Club, writes the first in a series of articles on the UK education and boarding alternative to UAE schooling.
We know that primary education in the UAE is well established and generally good. We also know that some parents are uncertain about finding the secondary education that is in the best interests of their children, in spite of the burgeoning range of options as new schools are established to challenge the familiar names.
Boarding in the UK is a potential alternative in many parents’ minds (or conceivably a day school if grandparents or others are happy to be the term-time base), and it should be considered seriously.
The earlier the thinking and planning start the better, as an increasing number of leading 13+ schools require early registration and a pre-assessment two or even three years before entry (though places can still be found at good schools at a later stage). Most schools below the very top-level also have a substantial planned intake at 16+.
With a wide range of bursaries and scholarships available, over a third of boarding school students in the UK are on reduced fees (stringent financial checks are of course carried out by Bursars). Those with strong academic, sporting or cultural talents are of course of particular interest to schools.
Modern boarding is a dynamic and communicative partnership with parents which UK independent schools have brought close to perfection. It is worlds away from the negative and Dickensian stereotypes projected in the media and the bad experiences endured by some in the past, when the culture was profoundly different.
It is a kind, supportive, stimulating and creative environment, staffed by trained and dedicated professionals whose shared purpose is to bring the best out of all the students in their care within a harmonious community. It is also highly regulated in terms of child protection and subject to rigorous inspection.
It is also the best possible preparation for university life, inculcating a healthy degree of individual independence and appropriate competitiveness within a strong sense of community and teamwork, encouraging self-confidence without arrogance, building communication and listening skills, and providing high quality guidance on the university application process itself.
We know that parents can be concerned about the abrupt change at 18 from day school life in the UAE to residential life at university, and the transition is much smoother from a UK school.
Speaking of transitions, spending years 7 and 8 at a prep school provides the smoothest induction into 13+ boarding life, and provides great opportunities for personal expansion and leadership experience at that stage. Boarding is available at younger ages, but is less popular now and is not something I would recommend for families living far away. Many 11-year-olds, however, take to it like ducks to water, and indeed a number of girls’ senior schools also start boarding at 11.
Most schools are now successfully co-educational, but the single-sex option is still available for those who judge it right for their children (perhaps because girls commit themselves more fully to maths and science when boys aren’t there, perhaps because boys are more emotionally open and honest in arts subjects when girls are not there, perhaps because some children flourish educationally in the absence of distractions and relationship complications which can still be experienced in the holidays!).
For many teenagers boarding offers the best of both worlds, giving them a chance to develop educationally, expand their sporting and cultural talents and work through their adolescence in a structured and supportive environment, and many parents over the years have told me that they then experience the best of the relationship with their children in the holidays.
There are many sources of information about schools, and I will highlight the best resources next time. Beware of agents, who take fees from schools for placing students, and who are therefore not certain to be impartial and child-centred in their recommendations. There is no substitute for visiting schools yourselves on Open Days or by individual arrangement, and a sensible group to contact can be put together for a trip to the UK.
Knowledgeable and objective advice is key in finding the right school for the right child.
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William Rees, a former head of Admissions at Eton College, is now a consultant at My Tutor Club. He provides independent advice and guidance to parents on UK private school selection as well as interview practice for candidates. Mr Rees can be contacted through MyTutorClub.com.