Changes are on the horizon for international recruitment into British boarding schools. Whatever happens longer term as a result of Covid-19, the market in the short term looks difficult. And yet demand for a British education is as high as ever. How has this demand been satisfied in the past and how will its supply change in the future?

British boarding schools have always had international boarders since the days of the Empire. Indeed, one of the drivers for their existence was to cater for the children of British parents working abroad and these children were quickly joined by children of other nationalities. Looking back 30 years, we see from the Independent Schools Council census figures that the percentage of international boarders was very much the same as it is now at 5.4 per cent of all boarders. So this is not a new phenomenon.

British education enjoyed, then as now, a reputation as the gold standard in academic rigour, focus on the whole person and excellent pastoral care. As the global middle class grew, parents who had not themselves been educated in the UK sought this for their children, some of whom did not have good enough English skills to be able to access the mainstream classroom.


Caroline Nixon, director of BAISIS

In the 1990s the phenomenon of the international study centre (ISC) began. These were stand-alone units attached to mainstream boarding schools, headed by principals who were pioneers in teaching not only English as an Additional Language but the whole range of academic subjects to students with limited English. Study centres were set up to prepare such students academically, pastorally and culturally for successful integration into a British boarding school. This was not only into the parent school but into many other schools which did not then have the capacity to prepare international students in this way.

It looked as if these ISCs would proliferate until every boarding school had one. However, parents and agents increasingly demanded higher levels of integration and more boarding schools began to cater for this demand by training up their own teachers and boarding staff with strategies to teach children within the mainstream classroom.

When I became principal of Taunton International Study Centre in 2003, I changed the offering to become far more integrated into the life of the main school and rebranded it as Taunton School International. Later most of the ISCs followed suit. Likewise when I became chairman of AISC (Association of International Study Centres) I rebranded it as BAISIS (British Association of Independent Schools with International Students) and opened membership to independent schools who were performing the same function of preparing international students for success in mainstream education, but perhaps using different formats from the study centre model.

"The market has changed but the needs of international students remain"

Moving with the times and recognising that form is not as important as function, the new criteria for membership allowed provision to be within mainstream schooling as long as it was of a high quality. The market has changed but the needs of international students remain. Numbers of international students in UK boarding schools are increasing and schools which do not have a long history of supporting international students are starting to recruit them. It’s therefore vital that teachers and pastoral staff receive excellent training to enable them to change their teaching styles, for example by being careful not to use inaccessible idioms or cultural references.

And boarding staff need help with acculturation techniques, recognising and dealing with culture shock and helping children of all nationalities to integrate and avoid cliques yet retain their own identity.

Of course, the most recent change in the internationalisation of British education is the massive boom in UK schools opening franchises abroad. Through my consultancy, I help schools to access these opportunities by explaining the different business models and choices of location to governing bodies and helping them to find suitable business partners.

Such partnerships are not only lucrative but enable teachers and students to engage in professionally and culturally enriching exchanges, giving an all-important global dimension without changing the ethos of the parent school. Parents continue to want their children to access the British education system. Our portable qualifications enable entry to universities in any country in the world and the chance to live in the global village that is the British boarding house today.

British schools remain in a strong position for the global future, whatever the challenges may be, but as always they will need to adjust and move with the times.