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Choosing the right British boarding school

It’s hard to imagine how a young boy could ever willingly leave his home on the idyllic Caribbean island of Mustique. Yet Louis Miguel Ona started at Port Regis prep school last year, and now happily makes the transatlantic journey to Dorset at the beginning of each term. He is one of more than 25,000 children who live overseas and attend boarding school in the UK.

‘The British education system still reigns supreme,’ says Janette Wallis, senior editor of The Good Schools Guide. ‘The number of overseas families sending their children to school in Britain is increasing rather than decreasing.’

But as boarding schools strive to appeal to the modern parent and adopt more flexible boarding arrangements, they risk becoming less appropriate for children living overseas. ‘Parents based abroad have to be more rigorous with their choice,’ says Miss Wallis. ‘You don’t want to send your child to a school that empties out at the weekend.’

Thankfully, there are still good prep schools and senior schools offering full boarding in the traditional sense, without flexi- or weekly deviations; Eton College and Wycombe Abbey for example, and the prep school Hanford in Dorset. But even schools with more flexible boarding arrangements should not be written off. ‘Not all of them are ghost towns at weekends; you just have to be selective,’ says Miss Wallis. ‘Choose a school that has a buzzy atmosphere on Sunday and good pastoral care.’ She recommends Millfield in Somerset, Malvern in Worcestershire and Sevenoaks in Kent for overseas parents who are looking for progressive schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB).

However, according to Miss Wallis, it’s a mistake to base your choice on the number of overseas students already attending the school. ‘If the school has more than 20% overseas students, it can feel like an international school.’ Equally, it’s not advisable to choose a school simply because it’s conveniently situated near an airport. ‘It’s more important to consider how close the school is to a relative or friend who can act as a guardian, as most schools will insist you appoint one,’ she says. Most crucial of all is for parents to visit schools themselves rather than relying on second-hand information.

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‘Don’t be swayed by impressive websites and glossy brochures. You could end up sending your child to a completely unsuitable school. The only way you’ll find out if it’s appropriate is to go there yourself.’

Top schools for children with parents based overseas

Eton College, Eton, Windsor, Berkshire, (01753 671249)
Pupils: 1,312
‘The Holy Grail for boys.’ Arguably Britain’s most prestigious boys’ boarding school; conveniently located for London airports

Wycombe Abbey, Abbey Way, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire (01494 520381)
Pupils: 571
A high-achieving independent school for girls aged from 11 to 18, often seen as thegirls’ equivalent to Eton

Downe House, Cold Ash, Thatcham, Berkshire (01635 200286)
Pupils: 572
A notch less terrifying than Wycombe Abbey (says The Good Schools Guide), with good pastoral care and lots going on at weekends. Well located, less than an hour away from Heathrow

Wellington College, Duke’s Ride, Crowthorne, Berkshire (01344 444013)
Pupils: 990
A thriving co-educational school not far from London and airports. Fast becoming the progressive school of choice and also offers the IB, but a disappointing proportion of pupils returns home at weekends

Rugby School, Lawrence Sheriff Street, Rugby, Warwickshire (01788 556274)
Pupils: 814

A traditional, but co-educational, full boarding school. A trek from airports, but there’s no mass exodus of pupils at weekends

Malvern College, College Road, Malvern, Worcestershire (01684 581500)
Pupils: 659
Co-educational boarding school for pupils aged from 13; one of the longest-running IB schools

Sevenoaks School, High Street, Sevenoaks, Kent (01732 455133)
Pupils: 1,017
Co-educational boarding school for pupils aged from 11, with a high proportion of boarders and excellent results. Only offers the IB; no A levels

Harrow School, 1, High Street, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex (020-8872 8007)
Pupils: 820
A prestigious boys’ boarding school, taking pupils aged from 13, well located for London and airports. Particularly renowned sixth form

Sherborne School, Abbey Road, Sherborne, Dorset, and Sherborne Girls, Bradford Road, Sherborne, Dorset
(01935 812249 (boys) 01935 818224 (girls)
Pupils: 600/406
A unique set-up: separate boys’ and girls’ full-boarding schools within walking distance of each other. A fair slog from London airports, but it offers the IB and has an international study centre for pupils with little English

Charterhouse, Godalming, Surrey (01483 291501)
Pupils: 743
A high-achieving independent boys’ boarding school, with girls in the sixth form. Close to London airports and soon to offer the IB

Tonbridge, High Street, Tonbridge, Kent (01732 365555)
Pupils: 784
One of very few fantastic boys-only boarding schools, says The Good Schools Guide. A small number of overseas pupils, and excellent results

Oundle, Peterborough, Northamptonshire (01832 277125)
Pupils: 1,118
A bit of a hike north, but worth it as this is the genuine full British co-educational boarding-school experience

Best prep schools

Port Regis Preparatory School, Motcombe Park, Shaftesbury, Dorset, (01747 857800)
Pupils: 321
A progressive co-educational prep school offering full boarding and better facilities than many senior schools

Cheam School, Headley, Newbury, Berkshire (01635 268242)
Pupils: 391
Popular commuter-belt school offering full boarding close to London and Heathrow

Dragon School, Bardwell Road, Oxford, Oxfordshire (01865 315405)
Pupils: 829
A large co-educational school, which sends a large number of pupils to Eton

Hanford School, Childe Okeford, Blandford Forum, Dorset (01258 860219)
Pupils: 105
A full-boarding girls’ school that feels like a family house, with ponies to ride and fruit and vegetables grown in the walled garden

Ludgrove, Wokingham, Berkshire, (0118-978 9881)
Pupils: 183
A full boarding boys’ preparatory school set in 130 acres of Berkshire countryside just off the M4; ideal for Heathrow airport

Sunningdale School, Sunningdale, Berkshire (01344 620159)
Pupils: 89
A boys-only boarding school near London, easily accessible from airports

Cottesmore, Pease Pottage, Crawley, West Sussex (01293 520648)
Pupils: 150
Co-educational, almost within sight of Gatwick. Excellent food and good academic record

The Elms, Colwall, Malvern, Worcester (01684 540344)
Pupils: 190
The oldest prep school in Britain on its original site. Co-educational, with its own farm

Ashdown House, Forest Row, East Sussex (01342 822574)
Pupils: 150
Co-educational prep school, popular with expatriates and Foreign Office families as it’s within easy reach of Gatwick

Maidwell Hall, Maidwell, Northamptonshire (01604 686234)
Pupils: 97
Co-educational boarding school with a lake for fishing. The local hunt meets at the schooland pupils regularly triumph at the National Prep School Clay Pigeon Championship

Windlesham House, Pulborough, West Sussex (01903 874700)
Pupils: 324
A co-educational prep school in huge grounds, offering tons of weekend activities


Homework for overseas parents

Full boarding Avoid schools that empty at weekends or have too many exeats Convenient locations Make sure it’s at least near a railway station. If you have a relative in the UK who can act as guardian, choose a school near them

Guardian The school is likely to insist that you appoint one. A relative is ideal, otherwise ask the school for suggestions Foreign students You don’t want it to feel like an international school. Make sure it’s popular with the British EFL (English as a foreign language) Lessons if your child will need them- and ask the school if it charges extra

Visit Always visit a school yourself before committing to send your child to it

Read The Good Schools Guide Advice – Service starts from £120 (020-7801 0191)

* This article appears in the spring edition of COUNTRY LIFE INTERNATIONAL, out on March 2 with COUNTRY LIFE magazine 

** Luxury overseas properties for sale