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Questions for international families applying to UK boarding schools

Are your family from outside the UK? But you crave the nurturing environment of the UK independent education system… We are sure you have many, many questions so this blog has been designed as the first point of contact for those questions.

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Answers to frequently asked questions when international families are applying to UK boarding schools.

What is a Pre-Boarding Preparation Course?

International applicants to UK based British boarding schools are required to have an adequate understanding of English to enable them to access all the elements of the UK school curriculum. It is usual practice for boarding schools which specialise in offering a supportive education for international children who do not speak English as their first language, to offer additional English language support in small group or one-to-one sessions. However, it is necessary for children to have some level of understanding before they start at the school, to ensure they are able to integrate and keep their head above water during lessons. The level of English understanding required increases the older the child. Children aged 8 or 9 attending a small prep school need less English preparation as prep schools, by their nature, are small and nurturing, so often offer the one-to-one or group teaching at a very basic understanding themselves. As children get older and are seeking entry to senior boarding schools, their initial grasp of English needs to be much greater. If children have a limited understanding of English it is advisable for them to attend a specialist language school prior to boarding school where they will follow an intensive programme of English linked specifically to learning vocabulary and grammar to allow access to the UK curriculum subjects. This also allows them to get used to the English food and culture and to not staying at home for the first time, in a small and nurturing environment, with specialist teachers who understand the requirements of children who live overseas and do not speak English as their first language. Courses at these schools’ range one term to one year. These courses are commonly referred to as pre-boarding preparation courses.

Where can I find school league tables to help me when choosing an independent school?

A league table of schools that may be of interest to Buckinghamshire parents can be found in our E-Consultancy Area of the website. For details of how to subscribe to this, visit the E-Consultancy page under the Service section of the website. Results in public examinations play an important part of evaluating the success of a school, however all parents should remember when considering potential schools for their children, that there is so much more to the educational programme of an independent school than simply their past examination results. League tables should therefore only be a small part of the long list of factors that you take into consideration when putting together your potential school short-list. Independent schools provide an education which is not just about examination results, it is also about:

  • Acquiring knowledge and learning how to apply it effectively within the world of work.

  • Offering individual support to every child so that they can attain their individual potential in a whole range of curriculum areas, at whatever level that may be.

  • Developing the ability to think for oneself, challenge and question.

  • Developing communication skills, confidence and independence.

  • Developing a sense of community and awareness of others.

  • Engaging in a whole range of diverse experiences to find new hobbies and interests which can be continued into adult life.

  • Identifying potential careers of interest, as well as being advised on the best education pathway towards achieving them.

  • Developing an awareness of how to lead a healthy lifestyle.

  • Developing employability skills including those needed for presentation, interview, time management, reliability, responsibility, decision making and leadership.

When reviewing the educational provision of the schools you are considering, ask yourself do they provide a holistic approach to education through all of all the above and how?

What does it mean when an independent senior school has a pre-test as part of its admissions process?

Public schools usually assess children for entry at age 13, via the Common Entrance or CE examination, which is taken at the child’s prep school in the June of Year 8. Some schools however have an additional assessment or pre-testing process to evaluate children before they go on to seek a place at the school through sitting Common Entrance. This is called the pre-test. Individual public schools differ in terms of timing and format for the pre-test so it is important to ask the individual school to which you are applying what their pre-test involves and when the process takes place so you can make sure that your child is well prepared. The Head of your prep school will also be able to advise you. It is most common for this pre-test process to take place during year 7 and it usually involves a visit to the senior school for an interview (with a Housemaster or Housemistress if it is a boarding school) and some testing in either the core subjects and/or verbal and non-verbal reasoning. The outcome of the pre-test will be that your child is offered a place conditional on achieving the required grades in the Common Entrance exam, a place on the waiting list again subject to Common Entrance results, or they will be declined the opportunity to sit Common Entrance for that particular school.

What is Common Entrance or the CE exam?

Common Entrance, often shortened to CE, is the collective name for the examinations taken at age 11 or 13 for entry into independent senior or public school. Examinations are taken by all children in English, Maths and Science. History, Geography, French, German, Spanish, Religious Studies, Greek or Latin are also offered. The number and range of subjects taken depends on the entry criteria for the chosen senior school and the capability of the candidate. For example, children who do not have English as their first language are often required to sit fewer subjects, but this is dependent on how long they have been studying in the UK prior to sitting the CE exams. The syllabus and question papers are set and monitored by the Independent Schools Examinations Board (ISEB) The exams are supervised by the prep schools and take place in November, January or most commonly June. The papers are marked by the parents’ chosen senior school and each senior school has an accepted CE pass mark, which they expect children to reach to gain entry. A report given by the Head of the child’s current school is also required. It is wise for parents to seek advice by the Head, to ensure that the senior schools to which parents are applying suit the interests and capabilities of their child. Resources for Common Entrance practice at home can be found on the Galore Park website which you can find by clicking here.

What is the process for making an application to Harrow?

Applications to Harrow School follow a process which has several stages as below:

Step one – is to visit Harrow. There are 12 Open mornings a year or you can arrange a private visit by contacting the admissions department

Step two – is to register your son, preferably before he reaches the age of 10

Step three – If a boy is registered with Harrow by the time he is aged 9 or 10, a reference will be requested by the Head of his current school. If this reference is a strong one, he will be invited to Harrow for interview with one of the Housemasters while he is in year 6. Following this interview, he may be offered ‘firm House interest’ prior to sitting the pre-test in year 7. This means that subject to his results in the pre-Selection test and CE, he may be offered a place in the House in which he was interviewed. Not being interviewed by a Housemaster during year 6 does not necessarily mean however that his application to Harrow will be un-successful.

Step four – During the autumn term of year 7 a boy will be invited to Harrow to sit the pre-Selection test. This comprises:

  • A computerised intelligence test (which includes, amongst other things, comprehension, mental arithmetic and spatial awareness)

  • A short composition (designed to assess spelling, grammar and vocabulary)

  • An interview with a House Master

  • An assessment of the reference received by the boy’s current school.

Step five – As a result of the pre-Selection test a boy will be offered one of the following:

  • A Guaranteed Place in the School and in a specific House (‘House Place’)

  • A Guaranteed Place in the School with a House to be decided at a later date

  • A Waiting List place

  • No offer of a place

The offer of a place in the school will be subject to a satisfactory performance in one of the following:

  • Common Entrance

  • The Harrow Test (in the case of schools which do not prepare boys for Common Entrance)

  • The Academic Scholarship exams

At this stage, parents of boys who have been offered a firm place at the school will be asked to pay a deposit. The deposit is refunded in full if the applicant fails the Common Entrance Examination or is advised by his Prep School to withdraw in the expectation that he will not reach the required standard.

Step six – At the end of year 8, most boys sit the Common Entrance examinations. The Common Entrance pass mark for Harrow is an average mark of at least 60%, including 55% in the core subjects of Mathematics and English. Boys who do well in the Academic Scholarship, taken earlier in Year 8 will not be required to sit the Common Entrance exams.

How do I apply to Eton College?

Applications to Eton College follow a process which has several stages as below:

Step one – is to register your son for Eton. In order to sit the pre assessment test boys must be registered by the age of 10 years 6 months.

Step two – is to visit Eton. Introductory tours can be arranged through the school admissions office. It is recommended that you visit the school when your son is about 10.

Step three – is to sit the pre assessment test. All boys sit the pre-assessment test during year 6 at age 11. This assessment consists of an online reasoning test, a report by the boy’s current Head and an interview. Following this pre assessment test boys may be

  • offered a conditional place at Eton, dependent on their achieving the required results in the Common Entrance (CE) exam taken at age 13, at the end of Year 8.

  • Offered a place on the waiting list in the event that some candidates who have been offered conditional places withdraw later.

  • Declined a place.

Step four – Once a conditional place has been offered boys and their parents are invited to meet with several Housemasters and as a result of these meetings, his place is secured in a particular House, by mutual agreement between the school and the parents. At this stage, the Housemaster will be looking to identify the contribution that the boy will make to school life, in addition to academic study and to satisfy himself that the boy will enjoy boarding at Eton and will be an asset to the House community.

Step five – Once a conditional offer and a place in a House has been confirmed, parents will be required to pay a deposit to secure the place (currently £1500)

How do I apply to Winchester College?

Applications to Winchester College follow a process which has several stages as below: Parents with sons in years 3 and 4 who have not already registered their son at Winchester are welcome to attend the Open Day which takes place in June.

Step one – involves deciding on a House. Parents who are considering Winchester College for their son are advised to make an individual visit to the school with their son to decide on their preferred House choice. Visits can be arranged by contacting the Housemasters of the Houses that interest you. In the first instance visiting two Houses on one day is advised, although it is possible to visit more later on, if you have not made a decision on a House after visiting two. Details of Houses and their Housemasters can be found on the Winchester College website. It is also advisable to seek advice on initial choice of houses by the Head of your son’s current school. Advice can also be sought through an informal discussion with the Winchester College registrar. During these visits parents and their son will meet with the Housemaster and have a tour of the House. One of the two Housemasters will also arrange for you to have a tour of the school.

Step two – Register your son. This can be done at any time after his eighth birthday. It is necessary to indicate your House choice on this form. Your form will then be passed to the Housemaster you have indicated, who then becomes the main point of contact for the entry process.

Step three – Sometime between January and May of Year 6 your son will be invited to Winchester College for interview with the Housemaster. He will also be required to sit a short-written test and a report will be requested by the Head of his current school. The written test consists of two ten-minute sections. One section relates to words, the other relates to numbers and codes in the form of verbal and numerical reasoning tests. During interview, the Housemaster will be looking to identify the contribution that the boy will make to school life, in addition to academic study and to satisfy himself that the boy will enjoy boarding at Winchester and will be an asset to the House and College community.

Step four – The outcome of this initial assessment process will be announced towards the end of May during year 6. There are several possible outcomes which consist of the following:

  • An offer of a place on the Housemaster’s list following the interview and assessment. This is a firm offer and is only conditional on success in the Entrance Examination taken in May at the end of Year 8.

  • No offer of a place on the Housemaster’s List. In this case the details of the boy are passed to the Headmaster and the Registrar who will do one of the following:

  1. Offer a place on the General List. This is a firm place at the school conditional on passing the Entrance Examination taken in May at the end of year 8. A place in a House will be confirmed at a later date.

Offer a place on the Reserve List. This is not a firm offer of a place at the school but a place may become available if other candidates withdraw. Boys can be moved by the Reserve List to the General List in this case or if their prep school indicates that they can demonstrate outstanding progress.

  1. Decline to offer a place

Step five – In May of year 8 boys sit the Entrance Examination. Winchester sets its own Entrance Examination, which is similar in form and identical in syllabus to Common Entrance. Boys take the examination at their current school.

What is an international school?

An international school is a school which offers a curriculum of study other than that of the country in which the school is located. For example, there are schools in the UK which offer the American system of education such as the ACS schools, and The American School in England (TASSIS). Marymount International School London is an example of a school which follows the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. Likewise, there are hundreds of International Schools all over the world which offer the British Curriculum, by way of GCSE, IGCSE and A levels. Some of these have close links with schools in the UK such as Harrow, Beijing, Shrewsbury, Bangkok and Haileybury, Kazakhstan. International schools largely offer education options for the children of parents who are engaged in international business so live overseas instead of their normal place of residence, as well diplomats who live around the world as placements dictate. Further details about individual international schools worldwide can be found at the following websites: The Council of British International Schools The Federation of British International Schools in Southeast Asia and Asia The Council of International Schools

What does HMC mean?

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference or HMC for short, represents the Heads of over 250 of the leading independent schools throughout the UK and overseas. Members meet regularly across the regions they represent and once at an annual Conference, to discuss, explore and share thoughts and ideas on maintaining the excellence in education, which their schools represent. HMC offers support to member Heads in the area of leadership and effective management, as well as lobbying on policy and providing a platform through which to discuss current issues within national and international education. You will find further details about HMC by clicking here.

What does ISC mean?

The Independent Schools’ Council or ISC for short is the umbrella body which represents over 1200 independent private schools, which between them educate about 500 000 children in both boarding and day schools. Its research division produces an annual report which is widely recognised as the leading source of up-to-date information regarding the independent school’s sector. It includes statistics on numbers of pupils within the independent school sector who are boarding, at day school, come originally overseas and the ratio of nationalities, data on school fees, scholarships and bursaries, plus much more. The ISC is the body through which lobbying of policy makers is carried out on behalf of private schools and it maintains regular communication with the schools it represents, to ensure they are up to date with the latest policy and practice within education. You will find further details about ISC by clicking here.

What does GSA mean?

The Girls’ Schools Association or GSA for short is the professional body which represents the Heads of leading private schools throughout the UK, which offer single sex education for girls. It exists to promote the benefits of single sex education for girls and to support its members in keeping abreast of current policy and practice within education. You will find further details about GSA by clicking here.

What does IAPS mean?

The Independent Association of Prep Schools or IAPS for short is the professional body which represents the Heads of the leading 600 day and boarding prep schools throughout the UK. Through regular communication with its members as well as an annual Conference, it promotes excellence in education across the sector. You will find further details about IAPS by clicking here.

Where do I get help to apply for a visa to study at a UK based British boarding school?

If you are not a British or EU national and are considering choosing to educate your child at a British boarding school in the UK, it is highly likely that you will need to apply for a Tier 4 (Child) student visa. This includes any time spent studying at a pre-boarding preparation course, where they may be studying intensive English, prior to starting their long-term study at a boarding school. The boarding school, to which you choose to send your child, must be registered as a sponsor and they will need to provide you with a CAS reference number for your application form. This represents proof that you have a valid confirmation of acceptance to study at that particular school. You will also need to have proof of sufficient funds to cover your child’s time spent in UK education and that you have the right care arrangements in place for your child, while they are studying. It is important to seek advice by a licensed visa adviser or by the boarding school to which you are applying. They should be able to assist you in preparing your application form and gathering the right documentary evidence to support your application. Further details can be found on the UKBA website: Quick Guide Can you apply? Child Students


All of these abbreviations mean the same thing- English language support for international students for whom English is not their first language. Schools usually offer one-to-one or group lessons to support international children in their studies, to ensure they are keeping up with their curriculum knowledge and understanding. Some schools include these lessons in their termly fees, but some charge extra fees, so make sure you ask about this when you visit potential schools. Ask when these lessons will take place. Your child may have to give up studying French or another language such as Spanish or Latin to attend these lessons, or they may take place after school or at the lunchtime.

What is the IGCSE examination?

Studied at schools worldwide over two years by age 14 to 16 (Years 10 and 11), the International General Certificate of Secondary Education or IGCSE, is an internationally recognised curriculum and qualification offered by The University of Cambridge Internal Examinations Board. The curriculum is designed to promote enquiry-based approaches to learning. It offers over 70 subjects which are assessed individually via a combination of coursework and both written and oral examinations. The courses, though studied in English, are designed to be internationally relevant and sensitive to different cultures

Now, that is a lot of information to digest so please remember to save this blog so you can refer back to it whenever you need. Studying abroad can be a terrifyingly exciting opportunity for students, and one that must be taken incredibly seriously. That is why it is crucial to take time to consider each and every option available to your family.

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