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A guide to English schools. Interview with Elena Adamova

6 July 2016

English schools - a guide. Interview with an expert in secondary education, director of UK Study Centre, Elena Adamova.

The following material was prepared with the law and business consulting firm Red Square London. A summary of the material can also be found on the company's website.

Almost every family relocating to the United Kingdom faces the matter of finding perfect schools for their children. What do we start from? Which school among hundreds to choose? How to obtain a place in that perfect school? These questions can cause frustration among not only expatriates but also even local parents. We have asked Elena Adamova, a founder and director of a London-based educational agency UK Study Centre, to provide her expert advice and share some of the most popular questions asked by parents.

Why England?

Whilst England cannot offer the sunniest weather, it is among the best destinations in the world for top quality education, favourable investment climate and friendliness of local people. Unsurprisingly it is considered for relocation by families from all over the world. One of the greatest advantages of the British education over some countries in Asia or post-Soviet region, for example, is that the entire teaching and learning process is very engaging. It stimulates development of individuality, creativity and leadership among children and encourages desire to learn more and more. Everyone can find a school in England that will be a perfect match to his child’s abilities, interests and ambitions but to achieve the best results, it is worth involving an expert who will help them navigate through so many options to choose from.

Why should we start preparing for entrance exams long in advance?

Internalisation and huge influx of students from abroad have substantially changed the British educational market over last 20 years. The competition for places in British schools has increased drastically and there are 10-12 candidates for one place in some London schools.

If to speak about some of very good schools in London, they start selecting pupils in advance, as early as when they are 3-4 years old. The school evaluates pupil’s ability to understand and express himself in English, communications skills, interaction with peers and interest in reading. When a child is 7 years old, he will need to sit written English, Maths and reasoning tests. This is the case with the most popular schools, not all schools indeed. It is always possible to find a school, especially outside of London, that will accept a child up to 10 years old without difficult entrance tests.

How different are top schools?

What distinguishes top schools is their high academic results and consequently strong competition for entrance. Selection of strong candidates guarantees top positions in the rankings for these schools. Highly qualified teachers, encouragement of students and competitive environment undoubtedly contribute to this success but the key lies in pupils’ great abilities. These students usually smoothly transition to the most prestigious British and American universities, and a large number of these students traditionally enrol at Oxford and Cambridge.

Top schools are a good choice for those children who are in top 5% in their class and, apart from possessing academic abilities, are diligent and hard working. In cases when children were able to enter such school with much help from tutors and do not like to study independently in general, they might be asked to find another school fairly soon. For this reason, we always advise to have a realistic evaluation of a child’s abilities and personal traits and select schools that will match their learning style.

How much does it cost?

Demand for British education, which we discussed earlier, has also had impact on school fees. Tuition fees for day schools in London vary from £10,000 to £20,000 per year. A year in a boarding school costs around £25,000-30,000. These fees do not reflect academic results of the school and depend mainly on location and infrastructure. Schools in London and suburbs are slightly more expensive than in other places in England.

How do we get into those top schools?

Undoubtedly, the earlier your child starts studying in an English school, the likelier he will finish it with good results, especially in humanitarian subjects. When a child is introduced to the British educational system at a later age, it is more and more difficult to enter a selective school that chooses pupils based on their academic performance and potential.

The most efficient route to a top school is starting with a good preparatory school that will take care of the child’s chances to pass entrance exams successfully until he is 11 or 13 years old. We advise to start at a prep school before the child turns 9 because many top schools start their selection when candidates are 11 years old.

If you still have time but live abroad and are not ready to send your child to England for long-term study yet, you can start with enrolling them on a summer term in an English school (n.b. this is different to a traditional summer language programme). Some schools willingly accept overseas students for 4 to 8 weeks for a term starting in mid-April and ending in early July. This allows children to immerse in an English-speaking environment, study not only English but other academic subjects too, and generally understand what studying in an English school is like.

Short-term summer studies in England should be supported by private lessons with strong English tutors. The tutors can usually teach online, face-to-face in your home in England, travel to your country or even accompany you to another destination for holiday. Good tutors not only prepare students for exams from an academic perspective but also motivate them and inspire for learning more independently.

What are alternatives to top schools?

Apart from highly selective schools with rigorous academic requirements, there are numerous excellent schools that do not focus entirely on academic performance and are willing to accommodate a wide range of abilities and interests. Entrance exams are still required but they are less challenging and selection is less competitive too. In general, pupil can enter a top university from every school, it does not have to be a selective school and much depends on his willingness to study and succeed.

How about state schools?

If you are resident in the UK, you can also consider state schools. They are free and if the child is younger than 11 years old, he can be accepted based on his proximity to the school or religious denomination if it is a faith school. If a primary school for children up to 11 years old has ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ grade by Ofsted, quality of education provided is typically very good. However, you should take into account that there might be up to 30 pupils in a class and many of them have diverse academic abilities. If studies in a state primary school are complemented by extra tuition by parents or tutors, chances to progress to a good school further are very high.

The choice of state schools for children older than 11 years is limited. Grammar schools are considered top quality but competition is very often higher than in a top private school. These schools are free but there might be as many as 20 candidates per place.

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