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Raising children in the UK: advice about the British schooling system from an expat parent

Updated 12 Jun 2012

Meghan Fenn is an American expat living in Britain and the author of Bringing Up Brits: Expat Parents Raising Cross-Cultural Kids in Britain. Here, she offers her take on the British schooling system and what to consider when raising your children as an expat in the United Kingdom.

If you are an expat parent living or planning on living in Britain, then the question ‘What about schools?’ will be at the forefront of your thinking and planning. One of the many challenges I’ve found being an expat parent to school-age children has been learning the British school system and the terminology and being able to help my children with their homework. In many ways, I’ve had to learn alongside them when it comes to their schooling.

For some expat parents, the decision of which type of school will need to be made. Basically, there are four main choices for schools in Britain: state schools, private or independent schools, international schools or boarding schools. State schools are free, government-run and, depending on the county you are living in, are generally broken down into reception and first school, middle school and high school (secondary). Private education runs on completely different term times to state school terms (more similar to the American school term) and can be very expensive for senior private schools (GBP 9–30,000 per year per child). Boarding schools are less common these days as many are also private day schools where the cost is slightly higher for boarders.

International schools are mainly located in the London area and may have specific admissions policies and requirements. The costs per year can range between 16,000 and 35,000 GBP, and there are also additional cost options for lunches and transportation. If your child is bilingual or multilingual, then an international school might be the ideal choice as there will be more emphasis on languages and English as an additional language in the curriculum than a private or state-run school. Equally, if you are planning to live in Britain for only a few years, then an international school might be the best choice because an international environment might help your child adjust both culturally and academically. International schools offer an International Baccalaureate (IB), which private and state-run schools do not. This is one of the benefits of an international school if you are planning to relocate to another country very soon after you’re in Britain. The ACS International Schools website states: Our International Baccalaureate and American curricula provide students with a high quality ‘portable’ education that will stand them in good stead whether they return home, move on to a new country, or stay in the UK.

Depending on your situation, an international school may or may not be affordable. And, of course, a lot depends on the age of your child, the types of schools they are attending or have previously attended, and how things went at those schools. Where you live will also be a factor, as most international schools are in and around London. You might look at private schools instead or in addition to. Some advantages of private schools are smaller classes and better exam results. However, the best state schools in Britain may actually rate exactly the same. State schools are generally considered to be very good – approximately 93 percent of schoolchildren attend state schools in England.

Jane Dodge, a British journalist and reporter, offers her story:

“I’m a product of state education and proud of it. Like the vast majority of children in the UK, from the age of 3 to 18, my schooling was paid for by the British government. State education is based on the idea that every child, whatever their background, is entitled to a good education. At the age of 11, I went to a comprehensive secondary school. Comprehensive schools serve children of all abilities. Many comprehensives are now called academies. It provided me with a great academic education, which enabled me to go on to university. But it also introduced me to children from a wide variety of backgrounds. In other words, my school community was a reflection of society as a whole, a real life experience. It greatly enhanced my education and convinced me of the need for inclusive, not selective schools. Both my children attend a state primary school and love it, and my son is very excited about starting a state secondary school in September.“

My own children are and always have been in state schools (apart from private pre-schools before the age of five). So far, my British husband and I have been happy with their schools, head teachers and teachers. We don’t really have a choice, as we simply cannot afford to put our children into private education. However, even if we could afford it, I don’t think I would choose that for my children. I was in private schools up until my second year in high school. I was bullied and made fun of throughout my years in private school. I hated school and didn’t have many friends in private school. All that changed when I went to a state-run high school. I made friends, I was happier, no one made fun of me, and I began to enjoy myself and my personality and strengths (art and writing) really started to shine through. It made a huge difference to me at the time and served me well for my university years. Granted, this all happened in the USA, so it might not be exactly the same here in Britain.

And similarly, it might not apply to international schools. However, I do believe that a child’s social experience in school, when it comes to making friends and feeling confident and secure in their environment, contributes greatly to their academic performance and personal development. At least, it definitely did in my case!

My advice is to do your research, ask questions, read admissions policies, request prospectuses from any school you are even remotely interested in, and visit the state schools in your catchment area (arrange a meeting with the head teacher: that’s what we did), talk to other parents in your area and also to your children. Each family situation is different and each child’s needs are different.

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