The Expats Guide to UK State Boarding Schools

State boarding schools in the UK offer free education and affordable boarding to anyone with a UK passport. As well as many having an excellent academic reputation and some impressive facilities, they offer a broad programme of extra-curricular activities for a third of the cost of an average UK independent boarding school.
The Expats Guide to UK State Boarding Schools
By Carli Allan
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It's no secret that UK independent schools welcome international students from countries all around the world. But did you know that your child may also qualify for a UK state boarding education that will cost you just £10,000-19,000 a year – that's between AED 50,000-95,000.

State boarding schools in the UK can look and feel like an independent school that charges annual fees of £30,000 (AED 150,000) upwards. While most state boarding schools are non-selective, several top the league tables for GCSE and A Level results and have high numbers of students receiving offers to Oxbridge.

The good news is, there are around 40 state boarding schools across the UK, with places ranging from 50 up to 650. While competition for boarding (and day) places can be fierce at these schools, if you have a UK passport you qualify for admission. Note: If you are eligible to hold a full UK passport, or have the right of residence in the UK you can also apply. 

These schools are modelled on a UK independent boarding school and can offer many benefits of a private education without the cost. Largely focused on secondary education (it’s unusual to find boarding for students below Year 7 in any sector), UK state boarding schools offer students a very British education with a full boarding experience and wraparound care.

Click here for a table of UK state boarding schools, listed by location and annual fees.

Why choose a UK state boarding education?

Such a strong (and affordable) offering is understandably popular. Get a place, and your child could complete seven years of boarding school for less than £100,000. But cost is certainly not the only reason to choose a UK state boarding school – and nor should it be.

Boarding is reflected in many aspects of school life for both day students and boarders: there will be a longer school day than most state day schools, there’s a broad extra-curricular programme that runs across the evenings and at weekends, as well as in the afternoons; and students may attend compulsory Saturday school. Pastoral care is structured around the boarding houses, with students taking part in various house events and their wellbeing monitored by house parents and matrons.

In a 2014 survey for the UK's State Boarding Schools Association (SBSA), over 80% of parents choose state boarding schools because of high academic quality and the chance for children to fulfil their potential. One in three parents said state boarding schools offer value and help children go to a good university or find a good job.

It's an attractive option for British expats living in (or moving to/from) Hong Kong. UK boarding can help families manage the realities of working overseas while their child can stay with an established network of friends and family at 'home'. Sixth-form boarding can be an excellent stepping stone to university life in the UK (particularly if your child has spent most of their education in an international school).

Also, if you're a UK national and returning to the UK, then the flexi-boarding offered at some state schools gives you the freedom to focus on your career in the week, and spend time with your child when they return home at the weekend.

If you’re considering moving your child's education to the UK, here’s everything you need to know about getting a place at a state boarding school.

What is a UK state boarding school?

Most UK state boarding schools are secondary for Years 7-13 (11-18-year-olds), co-ed, and non-selective. There are some primary boarding schools, a small number of single sex schools, and some selective/grammar schools.

At a state boarding school, the education is free as the government funds the education as it would at any other state school in England. You pay for boarding (and day students may be charged a small annual fee for an extended day), which means paying around £4,000 a term for a full boarding experience.

What are my choices of UK state boarding schools?

There are around 40 state boarding schools in the UK, offering more than 5,000 places; these include one in Wales, two in Scotland, several in Northern Ireland and one in the Scilly Isles. Some offer full boarding from as young as seven years old; others offer flexi or weekly boarding or boarding for Sixth Formers only.

Only a few state boarding schools offer junior boarding. Royal Alexandra and Albert School is from Year 3 (age seven). In 2020, Wymondham College opened a prep school with boarding from Year 5 (age nine) in a purpose-built dormitory, Underwood Hall, that “has been specifically designed with a family atmosphere to meet the needs of younger boarders.”

The Royal School, Wolverhampton and Liverpool College are all-through schools, but they only offer boarding from Year 7.

Colchester Royal Grammar School, Beeches Cliff School, Lancaster Royal Grammar School and Haberdasher's Adams are all-boys (with girls in the Sixth Form); Reading School and The Royal Grammar School and Brymore Academy are all-boys’ schools.

Peter Symonds College and Richard Huish College are Sixth Form only.

The largest state boarding school is Wymondham College (650 boarders); both Royal Alexandra & Albert School in Surrey and The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Kent have around 500 boarders.

How much does a UK state boarding school cost?

Boarding fees range from £10,000-19,000 a year, which means an average termly cost of £4,000. These fees will typically cover every aspect of boarding life including meals and break-time/ evening snacks, evening activities and weekend excursions.

Who can apply for a place at a UK state boarding school?

Admission to state boarding schools in the UK is limited to children who are nationals of the UK and are eligible to hold a full UK passport, or those who have the right of residence in the UK. Since January 2021, they are no longer open to EU passport holders and nationals of other European countries.

Children can be living overseas when they apply, but they will need to provide a copy of their UK passport or right of residency in the UK. Families with British National (Overseas) status can apply for the new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa. If the visa application is successful, families who move to the UK can apply for their child to attend a UK state boarding school. All boarders from overseas must have a guardian in the UK when they arrive. In several state boarding schools, around 10-20% of boarders have an international background.

Students applying for a boarding place will be invited for a boarding interview, when the school will assess their suitability to board; places are offered shortly after the interview. This will typically take place in September and/or January in the academic year preceding entry.

If applying for a day or boarding place at a selective/grammar boarding school, such as Haberdasher's Adams, students will need to sit and pass an entrance exam set by each individual school. This will typically take place in September and/or January in the academic year preceding entry.

Day student places at non-selective state boarding schools are made through the Common Application Form (CAF) to the local authority, and students must apply in Year 6 for a Year 7 place. The deadline to submit the application is October 31 in the year preceding entry. There is often a high demand for day places at these schools, which are awarded according to the Local Authority criteria of looked-after children, siblings and distance from school. You’ll often need to be living less than two miles of the school to stand a chance of getting a place.

You will find out if you have been offered a place on National Offer Day, which is March 1 every year.

Do I need to live in the school’s catchment area in the UK?

In line with all state schools, day students do need to live in the catchment area of the school, but boarders do not.

How well do UK state boarding schools perform in GCSE/A Level results?

Several state boarding schools are high achieving and regularly outperform other state schools, with many topping academic league tables in the UK. 

The list includes some of the top schools for Oxbridge offers; for example, Colchester Royal Grammar School (38 offers in 2020) and Peter Symonds College (62 offers in 2020).

Which curriculum do UK state boarding schools follow?

In line with state day schools, all state boarding schools follow the National Curriculum for England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, and students take the same exams. Most students study GCSEs and A Levels, but some state boarding schools offer different pathways. For example, the IB is available at Hockerill Anglo-European College, you can study BTECs at schools including Steyning Grammar School Day and Boarding and Dallam School, and vocational courses at Richard Huish College.

Some schools offer specialist teaching. For example, Brymore Academy is an agricultural school with a 60-acre farm and blacksmithing forges and workshops, where all students study GCSE agriculture.

Click here to find out which UK state schools offer the IB? And find out which UK state schools get students into Oxbridge?

Are UK state boarding schools sponsored by independent schools?

Only a very few schools do have close links with some of the UK’s top independent schools. Wellington Academy is sponsored by the independent school Wellington College, and Holyport College is sponsored by Eton College, with students being able to use some of Eton’s facilities.

How are UK state boarding schools different from independent schools?

Most importantly, state boarding schools cannot and do not charge for education, as this cost is covered by the state. Class sizes may be larger than an independent school and more in line with state day schools, which can have anything from 22-29 students. They may have slightly shorter holidays than independent schools; many schools that offer Saturday morning lessons will have shorter terms than state day schools.

Are UK state boarding schools regulated and inspected?

The boarding facilities, pastoral care and the quality of teaching is inspected by Ofsted regularly, and there is an Ofsted boarding inspection every three years. These reports are can be viewed online.

What are the advantages of being a day student at a UK state boarding school?

In most state boarding schools, the majority of children are day students – but many of them enjoy an extended day alongside the boarders. Some schools, such Gordon’s School charge a compulsory ‘day boarding’ fee of several thousand pounds to all day students, which covers after-school activities. Others, such as Wymondham College, will offer free day places for students who attend only for normal school hours attendance, and charge a day ‘boarding fee’ for students who want to stay for breakfast, dinner, extra-curricular activities, and study support.

Day students can enjoy the benefits of boarding life while still sleeping in their own bed every night and without paying boarding fees. They get access to the specialist teaching, sport and arts facilities found at an independent school, a broad extra-curricular programme, and the opportunity to stay at school for an extended day to complete prep/homework.

What should I be looking for when choosing a UK state boarding school?

There are several key points to consider when deciding on the right school for your child:

  • If living in the UK, is the school close to home so that you can still attend sports matches, school plays, parents evening etc?
  • Do you want single sex or co-ed education for your child?
  • Are you looking for full or flexi boarding?
  • Does the school have exeat weekends when your child can return home? If you are living overseas, can your child remain on campus during these weekends?
  • Is there school on Saturday mornings? Is this focused on academic lessons, sport or other activities?
  • How many international students are boarding at the school?
  • Is the school based in a city or a more rural countryside location – and which would you prefer?
  • Is there an entrance exam and, if the school is selective, does it match your child’s academic abilities?

Next page: Where is my nearest UK state boarding school?

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