British Boarding Schools: When is the Right Time?

British Boarding Schools: When is the Right Time?
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By Christopher Gyngell

For most expat families living and working in Dubai, education ranks highly in the list of concerns. ‘Is this the right school for my child?’; ‘Is this the right curriculum?’; ‘Are the schools in Dubai as good as schools back home?’. These are all very legitimate questions that need to be discussed, and answers to them found.

Each of these questions is also highly personal. There is no right or wrong answer – it is simply a question of evaluating the schools in line with you want for your children.

During the course of these conversations, parents may come to the conclusion that the future to their children’s education lies overseas.

This in itself can bring more headaches. Should we move back home, or should the children board?

Boarding schools can offer a neat solution, but evoke strong emotions for some.

Thoughts turn to strict housemasters, cold showers and a strong emphasis on discipline. Whilst discipline and respect for others are traits strongly impressed in a boarding education, I am happy to report that the plumbing issues have largely now been resolved!

Boarding schools have moved with the times; families are far more internationally mobile now than ever before, and pupils come from all over the world to study in the leading schools.

The pastoral care in boarding schools is first class. The schools are significantly better informed about how children deal with being away from home, and support networks are in place to make sure pupils across all age ranges feel integrated into the community of the school.

This said, the question remains, when is the right time to send my child?


Prep School

For parents looking into enrolling their children into boarding Prep schools (Age: 7-13), the reasons for doing so are more shaped by familial circumstance. Often parents will travel significantly for work or personal reasons, and it is felt that the school will provide a stable base for the children that would otherwise not be possible.

For foreign parents, sending children this early can help provide an immersive experience and help bridge the gap to more important exams later on. These schools specialize in helping pupils prepare for Common Entrance at 11+ for girls, and 13+ for boys. They have heritage in sending their pupils to the leading boarding schools in the country, to the extent that many become known as ‘feeder’ schools.

Knowing that children are well prepared to go onto senior school is seen as a big strength of these schools and explains their enduring popularity.



The most traditional entry points for children looking to go to boarding school are 11+ for girls, and 13+ for mixed schools, and boys’ schools.

By then it is accepted that children will be able to handle the emotional aspects of being away from home, and that they will be able to make the most of the educational opportunities available to them.

These schools will take pupils all the way through to 18 and their expected progression to university. British schools are unashamedly academically focused; they look to help their pupils gain the strongest sets of GCSE, A levels, or IB results possible, before sending them to the leading universities in the country or the United States.

Sending a child at 11 or 13+ is undoubtedly a large psychological jump for parents. It is the beginning of adolescence, and some pupils will not be ready. This said, the vast majority of children are ready by 13 - even those strongly emotionally attached to home.

Preparation for the move is key. As an educational consultancy advising families on how to access leading boarding schools, we stress the importance of having a long-term view with regard to education. It is important to have an eye on what is next, but also how to get there.

A pupil looking for entry into a UK boarding school at 13+ will need to apply around the time they are 11, whilst for many leading schools, a strict deadline of registration by ‘10 years 6 months at the latest’ applies.

This requires preparation on the part of parents and child. To pass pre-tests at 11 or 12, the child must meet the school’s expectation for academic knowledge, but the long admissions lead-time into the school allows children to become at ease with the decision taken by their parents.


Post 16

Entry into boarding schools at the final traditional entry point at 16+ is largely done with university applications in mind.

It also tends to be the age where the decision to attend a boarding school is taken in conjunction with the child themselves.

Schools in Dubai are starting to catch up with academic results, but they still fall some way behind their British peers with regard to the calibre of exit destinations that their pupils go on to.

Parents make the decision for boarding in order to guarantee a strong academic environment, but also to give their children access to stronger Careers and Universities guidance.

A report published by the Sutton Trust in July 2011 illustrated the stark difference and value that leading Independent schools can bring in this regard. It found that the leading Boarding school for Oxford and Cambridge admissions was Westminster School, with 44.4% of pupils over three years gaining entry.

This is staggering success, and a strong indictment of the teaching and support available to pupils.

Although Westminster is exceptional in its success, there are many good boarding schools, catering to a range of interests and academic abilities.

Not every pupil will want to choose an Ivy League school or Oxbridge – that said, they should not be disadvantaged due to a lack of application experience from their school. British boarding schools expose their pupils to a wide range of options and give good guidance on how to apply. This encouragement is invaluable.

From experience, the greatest successes for us come when families are sound in their decision-making and view long-term.

Stating that ‘I want my son/daughter to go to Oxford’ is a valid and worthy aim, but it is the culmination of years of work, not just study in the last year of school.

Boarding schools provide a fantastic combination of pastoral stability, academic rigour, and extra-curricular activities which help their pupils develop as individuals. They provide a solid foundation for future academic success, which poses another question: If the time is right, why not?

Also in the 'boarding schools' series:

The Advantage of Boarding School

Boarding Schools in the UK Plan Early

UK Academic Boarding Schools at a Glance

The Best Private Boarding Schools in the UK

How to Choose a UK Boarding School


This article was written by Christopher Gyngell ([email protected]), a consultant at Carfax Private Tutors, a company that offers individual tuition in all major academic subjects to families across Dubai. Note: Carfax will be running its Easter revision courses for GCSE pupils from Sunday 6th April to Thursday 17th April. Carfax's parent company specialises in placing pupils into top schools across the world.


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