Securing a place at a top UK school

Relocate Global takes a look at what families making an inbound transition to the UK will need to consider when making a school application.

As top public schools report long waiting lists and overseas students look to a British education as a stepping-stone to a coveted university place, Rebecca Marriage investigates what families making an inbound transition to the UK will need to consider when making an application to a select fee-paying school.

Quality British Teaching

Independent reports suggest that more international students than ever before are attracted to the UK by the quality of its schooling and the route into a highly- respected higher education which that schooling can provide.The Independent Schools Council (ISC), the body representing the UK’s independent schools, reported in its 2015 census that there were just over 27,000 overseas pupils studying in more than 1,250 British private schools. That figure represents pupils whose parents remain in their country of residence; also attending private schools are nearly 17,000 pupils with foreign passports whose parents live in the UK.A British independent education has long been recognised as a passport to success, but, in its latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide study of 15-year-olds’ performance in mathematics, science and reading) rankings, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) gave its stamp of approval by rating UK private schools among the best in the world in preparing pupils to be successful in today’s globally-mobile society.

Registration and annual fees

Average fees for attendance at a British independent school went up by only 3.6 per cent last year. This was the lowest annual rise since 1994. However, fees are not inconsiderable, and they vary hugely across the regions and between schools. In 2015, the average termly fee was £10,123 for boarders and £4,398 for day pupils.Regional differences can be extreme. For example, average fees at a day school in Wales are just over £3,000 per term, compared with just over £5,000 per term in London. Public schools like Wellington College, in Berkshire, and Dulwich College, in South London, are some of the UK’s most sought-after schools for foreign and domestic students. As would be expected, their fee structure reflects the quality of education and opportunities available, with termly fees registering just above the average.Also worth considering are the registration, enrolment and overseas-pupil deposits that some schools require. Many of these are fully refundable on leaving the school. However, they are significant sums of money; an overseas deposit can be as much as £10,000 in some cases. Most schools will request a fee even before an application is made, to register the family’s interest in the school, but this is usually no more than a couple of hundred pounds.It will be helpful for professionals to be aware of some of the pitfalls for families when negotiating admission to fee-paying schools. Matthew Cook, managing director of Castle Consulting, which offers help to families looking to secure a place at a UK school, points out that, when parents accept a school place, they are very often agreeing to pay the first term’s fees, and could find themselves owing money to a school their child is not attending.“When it comes to accepting a place at a school, parents need to be mindful of responding in a timely manner and that a deposit is usually required,” says Mr Cook. “In accepting a place, you are entering into a legally binding contract and will be liable for fees whether your child attends the school or not. This can be problematic for families when a child is offered places at more than one school. It is also worth bearing in mind that there will be a notice period (usually one term) should you wish your child to leave the school.”

Timing of application and entry to UK schools

It should be noted that the timing of entry into some of the UK’s top public schools is structured around the completion of entrance tests and assessment days. For example, most pupils join Wellington College when they are 13+, in what is known as Year 9. However, the closing date for accepting registrations is at the end of December in Year 6. This period allows for pupils to sit an entrance test in Year 6 and to attend an assessment day at the start of Year 7.“Once we have confirmed registrations and details with families, we ask all candidates to sit the ISEB [Independent Schools Examinations Board] Common Pre-Test in the second half of the Lent Term of Year 6,” explains James Dahl, admissions director at Wellington College. “This usually takes place at the prep school, and a small number of candidates come to Wellington to do this. Overseas candidates can take the test at a British Council or an approved testing centre.”Successful pupils will then be asked to a September assessment day, which consists of a number of interpersonal activities, such as interviews, mock lessons and group tasks.

International Schools

There are many UK schools with a solid academic reputation that do not require such lengthy lead-in times, however. Based in the heart of London, and with a record average IB Diploma score of 35 points, the well-established International Community School (ICS) operates a year-round admissions cycle.“There are no application deadlines,” explains Tejal Patel, director of admissions, “and, space permitting, ICS can admit students year round. Applications can be made up to one year before the next academic year. Availability of places may be subject to the outcome of the school’s pre-registration process, which is completed at the start of the third term.“Our process of admissions is through an assessment of materials requested during the application stage, which includes prior school reports, teacher references and an applicant questionnaire. Visits to the school are recommended, but are not a compulsory part of the admissions process.”

Preparing for admission from overseas

For the many overseas students who will be facing an entrance test or a new academic programme of study, it will be worth making the necessary academic preparations to ensure a good chance of success.Some overseas students prepare for UK private-school entrance exams well in advance of taking the entrance assessments, and engage the help of a tutor in their home country. William Stadlen, managing director of Holland Park Education, a London-based tuition company and education consultancy, explains that its services are increasingly sought-after around the world.“Our team of professional teachers are in demand throughout the year,” says Mr Stadlen. “We add value by identifying the line of best fit for an individual child, and by plotting out a course for a family to sail seamlessly through the process of educating their children in the UK.”From its offices in London and Dubai, Holland Park has tutors available to visit families in their home countries and prepare them for the tests that may be required to gain entry into the UK’s top public schools.Where older students looking to enter a UK school are concerned, Matthew Cook advises that careful thought be given to academic preparation. “For students coming to study in the UK, especially those coming in their mid-to-late teens to study A Levels or the International Baccalaureate Diploma, English-language proficiency and proper academic preparation are vital.“A Levels, the International Baccalaureate Diploma, International A Levels and Pre-U courses are all challenging programmes, even for those who are fluent in English and have taken GCSEs, International GCSEs, the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, or similar courses.“It is important that students who may need to develop their English-language skills or certain academic areas begin this process as soon as they are aware that they are coming to the UK, in order to give themselves the best chance of gaining entry into their preferred schools, and in order to be successful in their chosen courses.”

Language requirements

Although support for pupils who do not speak English will be given in many schools in the UK, it is often a requirement that pupils are able to demonstrate a degree of competence in the English language.“Initially, it may be worthwhile looking for schools with dedicated English-language preparation programmes,” advises Matthew Cook, “and/or talking to schools about the support that they can realistically offer to students.”Even for pupils who have a limited grasp of the language, there is some flexibility. For example, the International School of London offers mother-tongue tuition in a range of languages, in addition to English-language support, and many students go on to gain an IB Bilingual Diploma.At Wellington College, all students for whom English is a second language are tested on arrival, and recommendations are made as to the most appropriate support. “Some students may have a slightly-reduced timetable, to allow them to take extra English-language lessons, and workshops are available for tuition, advice and voice coaching,” explains James Dahl. “EAL [English as an Additional Language] students are advised to read and speak English as often as possible, and to follow the news on the radio and in the newspapers.”With research revealing that more than 60 per cent of privately educated A Level students in the UK secured places at the most selective British universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, and London’s Imperial College and University College, the international appeal of a British private-school education is not hard to understand.The academic preparation, rigid timing and level of fees involved mean that such an education will not be for everyone. As with all relocation-related school moves – whether international or domestic, state-funded or fee-paying – families will need knowledgeable advice and help with planning their child’s education if they are to ensure a smooth transition.


Relocate Global’s new annual Guide to International Education & Schools provides a wealth of advice to anyone searching for a new school in the UK and in an international setting, and offers insights into what it takes to make the right school choice. 

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