Moving to the UK: How to choose the right school for your child

13 January 2022

5 minute read

The UK has long been a favoured relocation destination for wealthy individuals looking to expand their business interests, or to raise their family in a more stable and safe environment.

As we covered in our recent article, the process and effort involved in relocating can seem daunting, especially when logistics and emotions take over.

According to Alexandra Hewazy, Head of UK resident non domiciled clients at Barclays Private Bank, the topic of schooling is a recurring one when clients are considering how to settle in the UK: “Without doubt, the reputation of UK schools is a major attraction,” she explains. “But the system can be complex, and finding the right educational environment for your children, while also juggling an international move, can be extremely stressful.”

While Barclays Private Bank doesn’t advise on schooling, we know from our experience that there are key areas worth considering early on. Having these in mind during your relocation planning, could start you on the path to finding the right school.

Please note: This article is written with fee-paying schools in mind. These are managed and run independently of the state school sector.

Not all UK schools are created equal 

As every parent knows, each child has different needs and interests, so choosing a new school in a foreign country is not just a matter of location or reputation.

Many UK schools have specific specialisms so a good place to start might be to consider whether your child would suit a highly academic environment, or one that has strong sports or creative facilities.

If English isn’t their first language, or you are likely to relocate frequently, then an international school might be a good option as these tend to offer international standards of teaching and qualifications which make it easier to transition between schools.

Or if coming to the UK is going to be a longer-term move, then the UK curriculum would be suitable. (Both options are appropriate when applying to UK universities later in life).

Entrance exams

It’s important very early on to understand the entry criteria for any schools that are on your radar. Many of the UK’s fee-paying schools will expect your child to pass an entrance assessment, and they can start from as early as 3 years-old.

Alessandra Coppola, the Co Founder of specialist educational consultancy Magus Education, paints the picture for us:

“When relocating, and looking to target outstanding senior schools, families shouldn’t forget to analyse which pre-prep and prep schools feed into them. The number of exams must be minimised, especially for children coming from different educational systems, so it’s important to consider the feeding paths available into senior schools. It’s worth taking a strategic approach to navigating the idiosyncratic and demanding 7+, 11+, 13+ assessments. The good news is that there is more wiggle room in the system that one may think, with the right support.”

Importantly, these school-specific admission exams are undertaken independently of the national exams that UK-based students are expected to take.

Formal exams are taken at the ages of 16 (GCSEs) and 18 (A-levels). You may wish to be mindful of changing your child’s school around this time, but if necessary, it might be worthwhile to look for schools that offer international GCSEs or the International Baccalaureate, to ensure more continuity of learning.

Should my child board?

Many private schools offer both boarding and day schooling options. Boarding – where your child essentially lives at the school during term time - can be an excellent solution for parents who travel frequently, as it can provide some stability and continuity for their children during term-time.

On the other hand, attending school by day can be more suitable for families who aren’t as reliant on a school’s pastoral care.

In each case, it’s also worth exploring how many international students your preferred schools have. It might be helpful for your child to be among others who have the shared experience of relocating, and can offer companionship in the evenings and at weekends.

When’s the best time to enter the UK education system?

The UK academic year runs from September to July, and school open days often take place during the first term of the year. If possible, try to visit a range of schools to gain a better understanding of whether they will suit your child.

The UK school year may not align with your child’s current educational system, or your planned relocation date, in which case you should enquire about the school’s approach to mid-year entries to make sure that your child would have sufficient support when making this change.

As we alluded to in our earlier article, it’s important to keep in mind that early April is a practical start date for any UK residency, given the UK’s tax year. An April relocation would therefore be out-of-sync with the UK’s term times so you might like to enquire about the school’s approach to mid-year entries.

One of life’s biggest decisions

Kate Shand, founder and CEO of Enjoy Education, acknowledges that finding the right school for your child is probably one of the most important decisions you will make as a parent. She says, “The right schooling can set your children up for life, so it’s worth giving this decision the time and priority it deserves when relocating, to avoid issues down the line.”

Ultimately, you want to find an environment where your child can thrive and feel supported through this important stage of their life. And if you have more than one child, then finding one school that suits them all – rather than having different children at different schools – brings a number of logistical benefits.

While the search for the right school might be time-consuming, the long-term rewards can make it all worthwhile. As the late Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

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