The UK education system has never been a straightforward matter of sending your children to the nearest school to home. Even for British nationals, when it comes to the choice of which school is the right school, there’s no easy answer. So for expats alighting on our shores and facing questions such as state or private, day or boarding, UK curriculum or IB, the decision becomes that much more complex.
Types of school in the UK
The main divide in the UK school system is between state schools, which are funded by the government and free to attend, and independent schools, which charge fees. However, within those main categories there are naturally further distinctions to be considered, such as church schools, international schools and so on.
Here’s a quick overview:
- Independent or private schools – these are funded in the main from fees but also from donations and endowments. They generally have charitable status and as they are not funded by the government, they have more freedom in their choice of curriculum and methods of teaching. There are approximately 2,600 private schools in the UK, which cater for about 7% of children. Virtually all of the UK’s boarding schools fall within this category.
- Public schools – about 10% of private schools are known as public schools. These are the older, more exclusive and naturally more expensive schools, such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Marlborough. Waiting lists for these schools often start at birth and many aristocratic families have been attending the same public school for generations.
- State schools – these are the vast majority of schools in the UK and most British children are state educated. There are several different types of state school as the system has been changed and updated by successive governments, and as they are administered by local education authorities, there are also differences depending upon which part of the country you are in. State schools generally accept all children within their catchment area. There are also numerous faith schools, which may be Church of England, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or other, and some of these may require proof of religion for entry. In addition, a minority of state schools that are run and funded directly by the government – these are known as academies and City Technology Colleges.
- International schools – there are just under 30 international schools in the UK catering for expat children and these follow international curriculums, usually the International Baccalaureate or the Cambridge International Examinations. They are all fee paying schools.
Private versus state – why pay for what you can get for free?
In the UK, views about private education vary from seeing it as essential to success, or aspirational to snobby and elitist. It is, however, a sector
that is on the increase as more parents choose it for their children over the traditional state education offering. So what is it that makes people pay thousands of pounds over the course of many years for something that they could have for free?
The reason why professional and aspirational parents choose private education is usually because academic standards are generally higher. This is not necessarily always the case; some the UK’s top schools tend to be massively over-subscribed and house prices within their catchment areas are distorted by wealthy parents trying to buy their way into a better school. Rather than gamble with an elusive school place, most wealthy parents are happy to pay for the better results, better teaching and social cachet that private education offers. There is also plenty of choice, with boys, girls and mixed schools, boarding and day schools, and, of course, it covers the full age range from nursery school at 2½ up to completion at 18. There are very strict, academic schools, religious and choir schools, outward bound schools and ‘progressive’ schools such as Bedales.
Results certainly prove that children at private schools do better; Department of Education figures show that over 80% of privately educated children gain five or more GCSEs at grades A-C, compared with a national average of 49%. This is ascribed to better standards of teaching, smaller class sizes and better standards of behaviour. Private schools can also offer a wider range of extra-curricular activities, better classroom and sports facilities and better pastoral care and special needs support.
Many parents also pick private schools for the unquantifiable social advantage afforded by ‘old school tie’ – what we would now call networking, in which alumni of the great public schools give each other a leg up whenever they can. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in British politics; more than a third of current MPs went to private school, while at the last count eight government ministers went to Eton. And although this perceived elitism is heavily criticised in some quarters, there are plenty of parents who are keen to buy its advantages for their children.
School fees: so how much will it cost?
Fees for both boarding and day schools have risen sharply over the last decade, far outstripping growth in average earnings. This year alone, they have gone up by 4.5%, which translates to more than £500 more per child. The result of these heavy fee increases is that fewer and fewer middle class British children are benefiting from a private education; it is now seen by many as simply too expensive and only for people who are extremely wealthy. And although admissions have risen for the first time in three years, the majority of these extra pupils have come from overseas – private education is particularly popular with expats, as they are able to find private schools that offer an international curriculum rather than the UK curriculum that all state schools have to follow.
However, there are wide variations across the sector, both geographically and between schools in the same area. Private schools in London and the south east are generally substantially more expensive than schools further away from the capital. In addition, fees are higher at secondary school than at prep schools, reflecting the need for more and better teaching facilities and equipment. It also pays to remember that over and above the fees you will need to pay for uniforms, sports kit, outings, school lunches, music and drama classes and other extracurricular sundries. Some schools do, however, offer sibling discounts to soften the blow for families with multiple children. Furthermore, bursaries and scholarships can add valuable contributions to your fees bill, as many schools offer means tested awards to the poorest pupils. In the UK, school fees are not tax deductable.
If you are likely to enrol your child or children into a UK private school for a number of years, it can make sense to look at a specific school fee payment plan. These types of financial schemes will spread the fees over a longer period of time and will also make your payment of school fees more tax efficient. Combined school fee and pension plans can utilise tax relief to put towards fees, while trust funds set up in your children’s names can make use of your child’s pre-tax income allowance. Even if you are paying the fees out of your income, it might be wise to look at school fee payment protections insurance, to ensure the fees will continue to be paid even if you lose your income. However, if you are interested in such schemes, be sure to see an independent financial advisor who will be able to give you the right advice depending upon your own particular circumstances.
The average annual cost for sending a child to day school now stands at approximately £11,000, while the average annual cost for boarding school is a huge £24,700. Naturally there are wide variances within these average figures: for example, nursery schools charge about £1,000 per term (there are three terms in the UK school year), prep schools will charge about £8,000 per annum for day pupils or between £13,000 and £15,000 for boarders. Senior schools charge more: £11,000 plus for day pupils and £25,000 or more for boarders, with the top public schools charging over £30,000 a year. Multiply this over the number of years your child will be attending school and the result is truly staggering. However, when asked, most parents with children in private schools would say that it’s an investment in their children’s future and money well spent.
UK school qualifications
The UK National Curriculum is followed in nearly all UK state schools and many private schools, although they are not bound to follow it. There are two main sets of exams, GCSEs that are mainly sat in Year 11 (15/16 years old) and AS and A levels which are sat in Years 12 and 13 (16/17/18 years old). Many private schools and some state schools are now offering alternative qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate or the IGCSEs (Independent General Certificate of Secondary Education) set by Cambridge University. This is in response to a general belief that the GCSEs and A Levels have been ‘dumbed down’, and these alternative exams offer more academic rigor.
- GCSEs are available in a huge range of subjects, both academic and vocational, and are achieved through a mixture of examination, course work and practicals, depending on the subject. A number of subjects offer two tiers, with foundation and higher GCSEs – particularly maths, sciences and modern languages. Most pupils sit at least 7 GCSEs, while the higher achieving public and state schools will put their pupils in for as many as 11 or 12 GCSEs.
- AS and A levels are two-part courses taken over the two years spent in the 6th form. Most pupils will take three or four AS and A levels, usually one of which is in the subject they wish to go on to study at university. There is a wide range of subjects to choose from and particularly academic candidates can also take the Extended Project, which is similar to a dissertation and worth half an A level.
- International Baccalaureate Diploma – this internationally recognised curriculum allows sixth form students to study a wider range of subjects than the four a-levels generally on offer in UK schools. It leads to a single qualification and is now available in more than 100 schools in the UK. There is a compulsory core which includes academic learning, creativity, action and service, and an extended essay, with the addition of six further subjects selected from languages, science, maths, humanities and the arts. It is recognised by universities in more than 100 countries, so it makes a good choice for expat children who may not go on to attend university in the UK.
- University of Cambridge International Examinations – these comprise the IGCSEs, usually sat in Year 11, and the Cambridge Pre-U or AICE (Advance International Certificate of Education) in Year 13. The main difference is that the courses are linear rather than modular, unlike the other UK school qualifications, and are seen as more academically rigorous. They are well recognised by employers and universities around the world. Students that have the AICE may be awarded up to 45 hours of college credit by some US universities.
Still not sure…?
Sorting out your children’s education in your own country is tough enough. But when you bring them to live in a foreign country with a totally different education system to the one you are used to, it’s really hard to know what to do. The questions pile up:
- State or private?
- Would an international school best serve our needs?
- Where’s the nearest good private school to where we are going to be living?
- Will this school suit my child academically?
- How will the change affect the overall course of their education?
- Should we be looking to find somewhere that offers the IB or IGCSEs?
The answers to these questions will be different for every parent and child, and, to a large extent, also be governed by where exactly you will be living and what schools are available in your area (unless you are prepared to try boarding school). And all this comes on top of the other decisions that you are necessarily taking about uprooting and moving to a different country.
If you feel overwhelmed by the choices and don’t know where to start, you could probably do with some helpful advice from a relocation specialist. At Saunders 1865, our teams of experts combine local knowledge with first-hand experience to pinpoint the right area, the right property and the right schools that will tick all your boxes. We know London property inside out, we know how much you should expect to pay, what schools there are locally and the advantages and disadvantages of choosing different areas. We can bring expertise to all these factors and help to arrange smooth, efficient and stress-free relocations – here or to other parts of London and the UK. Our services include home finding assistance, school finding, lease negotiations, temporary accommodation, move management and immigration assistance. Don’t hesitate to contact us to find out how we can help you.