The sudden announcement of the UK’s lockdown back in March called for some hasty suitcase-packing for many of the quarter of a million international students who attend British boarding schools.

Some schools were able to keep open a boarding house or two to accommodate foreign nationals who preferred to remain in this country, but the vast majority jumped on the first flights home to their own particular corners of the world. There, they sat out the global pandemic studying online and alone, with some many thousands of miles away from their classmates.

The welcome news that UK schools were cleared to re-open for the start of the new academic year in September meant a rush to book seats on Britain-bound flights. Many internationally-based students were keen to get back to face-to-face lessons and fun with their schoolfriends in real life.

"Our aim was to ensure that our international students felt safe, secure and welcome."

"Our aim was to ensure that our international students felt safe, secure and welcome once they returned to school for the new academic year,” says Daniel Emmerson, director of global education at Felsted School in Essex, where 20 per cent of the 575 senior school students are overseas boarders.

Realising that schools across the country were facing exactly the same situation, Daniel set about devising a virtual International Returners’ Course, uniquely tailored to the experiences of 2020, that would be suitable for international students at Felsted but also at any school in the UK.

“We decided to provide an online programme for returners from overseas, in addition to co-curricular activities and a contained social programme,” explains Daniel. “The central aim was to engage the students in a way that allowed them to develop their understanding about what was happening around the world, while also allowing them to collaborate with and learn from other.”

"The online summer school demonstrated a capacity for cross-cultural collaboration that I didn’t think would be possible."

Although Felsted’s own students were the driving force, Daniel soon realised that the programme would be beneficial to students returning to any boarding school around the world. Having run one of the UK’s few online international summer schools this year – involving 670 young people from 40 countries - Felsted was well placed to organise a programme specific to international students returning to boarding schools around the world.

“Usually we welcome more than 500 young people to our campus for six weeks of the summer holidays and obviously that could not happen this year, but the two-week online summer school we ran instead was a great success and demonstrated a capacity for online learning and cross-cultural collaboration that I didn’t think would be possible,” says Daniel. Each day of the online summer school consisted of short and flexible online sessions following a choice of two pathways – English Language or Global Studies. Participants watched a pre-recorded video, read tailored articles relating to the subject and academic research, then took part in live discussions and learning with our experienced summer school team and guest speakers.

“We learnt a lot from the virtual summer school, particularly how to create an immersive online community, and how to encourage the students to engage fully with the subject material,” says Daniel. “We were then able to apply that knowledge to the virtual return to school programme and I’m sure that really helped to make it so successful.”

“The experience was awesome from the academic point of view as well as from the social point of view.”

The International Returners’ Course connected Felsted’s international students with those from nine other schools, including Dover College, Abbotsholme, Millfield and Dulwich College in the UK, as well as partner schools in Argentina, Ghana and Kazakhstan.

Together online over a two-week period before the start of the new term, the 120 participants studied topics such as international relations theory, environmental protection, public relations theory, cultural diversity and of course global crises and pandemics.There was also an English language programme centred on social media, which developed skills, techniques and knowledge. Online learning took place for two and a half hours each day, but students were also required to complete home study and preparation alongside.

Although some of the students suffered from internet connection issues, all of those who took part were of the opinion that they had made good use of their time in advance of the start of term.

“The experience was awesome from the academic point of view as well as from the social point of view,” said Chiara of El Mirador from Belvedere School. “It allowed me to meet people from all over the world and know more about their situation and their perspectives, and the format of the course was perfect. I really enjoyed the live conferences and every topic was interesting. Classes were extremely enriching and I truly learnt a lot.”

In the light of this success, Felsted is now in planning stages of a similar programme to run during the Christmas holidays.

“It is so valuable for young people from around the globe to connect with each other,” says Daniel. “Thanks to technology and adaptable teaching techniques, they can continue to develop their understanding of each other, the world and the times we live in.’