As the principal of two international schools — a senior and a middle school on the same site — I am well aware of the outstanding all-round contribution international students bring to the independent school sector. It never ceases to amaze me how confident and talented these young people are, be it academically, musically, artistically, dramatically or in a sporting capacity.
Having international students in any school is, without doubt, enriching and hugely rewarding, but I would question whether all schools have the students’ best interests at heart when enrolling them. This has little or nothing to do with their talents, but more to do with the financial benefits international students bring.
Without question, the majority of independent boarding schools in the UK are now heavily reliant on international students to remain afloat. This is because international students are generally full fee-paying boarders and therefore, in simple financial terms, one international boarder can easily bring the school four times the amount brought in by a British day student who receives a scholarship or bursary.
“The greatest challenge facing private schools now is ensuring international students return in sufficient numbers in September.”
Over the past 12 months or so, private schools have faced many challenges linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I congratulate them all on the phenomenal job they have done; they have been outstanding. Moving forwards though, I would hazard that the greatest challenge facing private schools now is ensuring international students return in sufficient numbers in September.
Although some independent boarding schools weathered the Covid storm well in terms of international student numbers, many saw a drop in their intake. Anecdotally, I have heard the figure of a 15 per cent decline in international students mentioned a number of times. This will undoubtedly have left a huge hole in the budget and so schools will be looking, quite understandably, to fill this gap in September 2021, but at what cost to the international students themselves?
Our first priority to any student must be to ensure their safety and wellbeing. No doubt, every school has all the right Child Protection and Safeguarding policies and procedures in place, but what do these actually mean to an international student who has never studied in the UK before and who has a very limited proficiency in English? What such a student needs is a school which has the time and resources to invest in them as an individual as well as many years of experience dealing with those needs.
“A poor grasp of the English language can also significantly impact a child’s ability to make friends.”
I am not a fan of the “sink or swim” approach to education because no child should be put in the position where they might sink. International students deserve better than this and so they need to have a more bespoke package of support when they first arrive. The extent of this package will be based on their age, their talents and their future targets/ambitions, but most importantly of all we need to consider their level of English.
Without adequate proficiency in the English language, students will struggle to access the curriculum, particularly if those teaching them are not appropriately trained in English as an Additional Language (EAL). Therefore, before enrolling any international student, the school must be confident it has the necessary staffing and resourcing in place to provide the highest quality education; it is the least our students deserve.
A poor grasp of the English language can also significantly impact a child’s ability to make friends. Have you ever tried cracking a joke in another language? It’s really no laughing matter! International parents often think that their child, even if they have a low level of English, will simply learn to adapt through osmosis, just by being around native speakers. This is sometimes the case, particularly if the child is quite young, but by secondary school age, without a decent level of English, it can be incredibly hard to express yourself and get across to your native English-speaking peers who you actually are.
To bridge this language gap here at Taunton School, we operate a triage system for international students who apply to join us. Those who have a high level of English when they arrive move straight into our senior and prep schools. Those who need extra help to improve their English skills and with settling into life in the UK will spend time in our international schools where the staff to student ratio is one to three and we provide wraparound pastoral care.
“If we don’t get it right, there is the real possibility of that child becoming lonely, unhappy, disengaged and confused.”
I believe this intensive kind of support is key to an international student staying the course at a British boarding school. Remember, many have never studied in the UK before. They don’t know our systems, our ethos, our peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, our routines, the House system, the strange sports we play and the unusual food we eat. Why should they?
However, without adequate language support and pastoral care, getting up to speed is a lengthy process. And if we don’t get it right, there is the real possibility of that child becoming lonely, unhappy, disengaged and confused. Ultimately, they may just choose to vote with their feet, and that’s in no-one’s interests. If that child was recruited through an agent, you are unlikely to receive any future recommendations from them, which could cost the school dear.
So, over the coming months, as the pressure increases to take on more international students to fill any shortfall in numbers, one has to question whether it is morally right to do so. For those students with low levels of English, I firmly believe that placing them in a mainstream British boarding school is often not the most appropriate first step. Schools have a duty to consider seriously what they are offering a child leaving home for the first time, struggling to master a language which is not their own. Are there more suitable options out there which will have a far more positive result on the academic and pastoral outcomes of the students whose families, after all, are entrusting their children to our care?