You’re on board with the idea of a boarding education – but what happens when you have to wave your child off for the first day of term? It can be a difficult decision to choose a full boarding education for your child, especially if you live overseas.
There are 65,000 students attending UK independent boarding schools, according to the Independent School Council (ISC) Survey 2021, and approximately 40% are overseas students whose parents live abroad. There are a further 5,000 students in UK state boarding schools. (Read more about UK state boarding schools.)
Many of their parents will, most certainly in the first few days and weeks, have worried about how their child is settling in, if they have made friends, and if they are happy. It is only natural for students to feel lonely and homesick at first, particularly in they live an eight-hour flight away. It’s how the school helps to settle your child into boarding life and create that ‘home away home’ environment that makes a difference.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com speaks to DLD College London, Gordonstoun, Mill Hill School and Taunton International School (pictured above) to find out how they prepare international students for life as a boarder in the UK.
Before you arrive…
Students can easily imagine their life in a boarding school as a role in a Harry Potter book. While Hogwarts has shown some of the benefits of attending a boarding school – the house system, the lifelong friendships, the increased independence – studying in a castle and casting spells is certainly not the reality.
For international students, the move to a UK school does not just involve moving away from their parents – the move to a new country can also mean learning a new language, tasting new food, and adjusting to the Great British weather! While it may not always be as magical as Hogwarts, it’s no less exciting!
The open day is certainly your first opportunity to experience the school and its boarding culture. Then, as you approach the first day of term, schools will take different steps to welcome your child while they may still be miles away, living overseas.
Rossall School has video testimonials with students talking in their own language about their experience at the school; Millfield School in Somerset has a dedicated Overseas Boarders’ Induction Day; Woodhouse Grove School in Yorkshire gives every international student an English speaking mentor to help ease them into life; and Stowe School encourages students to join its International Society and mix with others from other countries in a more social setting.
DLD College is a day and boarding school in central London with a large international student body; around 90% of its 200 students come from overseas. The school is experienced in bringing students in from abroad; there are in-country admissions teams in every continent, translated documents in several different languages, and staff on campus who speak a range of languages including Spanish, Russian, Persian and Arabic. To help students cope with a move to the UK, DLD sends its parents as much information as possible to digest before term starts.
As James Kidd, Vice Principal (Pastoral) at DLD College, says:
“We try to get as much of the admin out of the way before they come, so their arrival can largely focus on settling in and getting started.”
There are several opportunities for international students aged eight to 17 years old to join a summer school, where they can improve their written and spoken English language skills, whilst experiencing boarding life and getting used to living away from home, UK schools including Sherbourne International School, Sidcot School and Taunton International School offer international students pre-sessional courses before joining a GCSE, A Level or IB Diploma programme in the UK. There’s a five-week Introduction to British Boarding at Badminton School, and Rochester College offers an English & Art course that combines intensive language tuition with arts workshops in film-making and graphic design.
Taunton International School is a dedicated school for overseas students that is part of Taunton School in Somerset. It offers the best of both worlds – a standalone campus with boarding facilities where teachers focus on the specific needs of students with English as a second language, and all the benefits of sharing the facilities and mixing with the much wider community of Taunton School.
Adrian Hallworth, Principal of Taunton School International, says:
“At Taunton School, we offer a Pre-Sessional Course for international students from ages 14-17 that helps students prepare for life at boarding school. Students arrive either a week or two weeks before term dates and the course includes catch up courses, trips and bonding activities on our 56-acre campus.
“We also run Summer School courses for students from ages eight to 17 that run throughout the summer, which are also a great chance to get to know English boarding school life.”
The first weeks of term…
Induction programmes will vary from school to school, and some will invite new students onto campus during the summer term before they join the school to visit the boarding house and talk to current students. This may not always be possible for international students who will typically start a few days before the start of term so that they can have a cultural introduction; this can be an opportunity to set up a UK mobile phone, open a bank account etc.
International students will typically live alongside British students, encouraging students of all nationalities to share mealtimes, enjoy extra-curricular activities and day trips together, and compete side by side in house events.
Mill Hill School has four boarding houses, with a mixture of students from its main Mill Hill School campus and Mill Hill International School. Just under 200 students in Years 9-13 board here and there’s a large international community; 25% of boarding students are British. As well as inductions in the first week to help students settle in, there are opportunities to meet some teachers before arriving via Zoom.
Fergus Lury, International Recruitment Executive at Mill Hill School, says:
“Mill Hill International is completely geared to helping those who have not experienced or not been in the British education system for a while or at all. All teachers have additional training and great experience in working with international pupils.
“The boarding houses have a mixture of pupils from Mill Hill International and Mill Hill School, and the sports teams combine pupils from both, so there is integration there too.”
Gordonstoun has seven boarding houses spread out over its 200 acre woodland campus in Scotland; about 90% of its senior school students are full boarders. To help some of its students settle in, they head straight off on an expedition, and we’d expect nothing less from a school that rates outdoor education so highly. Head of Admissions Sabine Richards explains:
“This is a great bonding exercise as they help each other put up tents, light fires and cook supper with no distractions like mobile phones or social media. Even those students who don’t go on expedition straight away will be fully immersed in a busy schedule.
“House staff will make sure that they form firm friendships within their House and there are also lots of opportunities to make friends from other Houses, whether that is by playing in a Scottish pipe band or by volunteering in our Coastguard or Fire Service, or by taking part in sport or drama.”
Around a third of Gordonstoun students come from overseas, and the school allocates places in its houses very carefully to “make sure there is a good international balance”.
“Our international students may have a familiar face from their own country in the same house with them but there will also be a good mix of international students with no one nationality dominating. That means everyone is immersed in the English language in the same way,” adds Mrs Richards.
Taunton School has eight boarding houses accommodating around 400 boarders from over 40 different countries, each with its own Housemaster or Housemistress (HM) as well as an Assistant Housemaster/mistress (AHM), supported by Graduate Resident Assistants (GRAs), tutors, matrons and a domestic team. Principal of Taunton School International Adrian Hallworth says:
“When students arrive on campus to start boarding during term-time, they are met with warmth from the house staff and take part in induction week activities within their house and the whole boarding community, which include fun games, weekend trips and ice breaker activities.”
DLD College has 15 floors of boarding accommodation located above its London-based school offering students all the advantages of “learning and living under one roof”. DLD’s James Kidd, Vice Principal (Pastoral), says that it always considers nationalities when looking at rooming – “not too many of the same, but not avoiding them altogether, so they have someone who speaks their language, but also get to know other people”.
New boarders are mixed with students from same country/speak the same language to “help them settle and have an instant bond, and then help them to focus on English, knowing one of their new friends did it a year before”.
At DLD, new students are also buddied up with a mentor to show them everything from how to connect to Wifi to understanding daily routines and safety measures. Students are housed in huddles and cared for by huddle houseparents who are their “boarding mum or dad”. The boarding induction programme includes talks from the local police about staying in London and a real-life Monopoly challenge to help students find their way around the city; and there is a sleep programme to help students with their sleeping patterns
Top tips for first-time boarders
Who better to ask for advice, than the students themselves! International boarders at Taunton, including Shynar from Kazakhstan, Camil from France, Gabi from the US, Bryan from Switzerland and Costanza from Italy, encourage boarders to make friends with someone who doesn’t speak your language (and then speak English to them), while also staying in contact with friends back home.
The students add:
“Realise that the British weather isn’t great. You always need to carry an umbrella or raincoat; you never know when you’ll get caught out! Learn how to tie a tie (yes, both boys and girls!). Everyone wears ties, and they’re harder than you would think!
“Get yourself a clock or a watch (not a Smart one!). You won’t always have your phone on you, and ‘time flies when you’re having fun!’ Don’t run out of it! And don’t worry about trying to fit in. Eventually you will realise everyone finds their place in the house and becomes a part of the diverse whole.”
DLD encourages new students to have things with them to remind them of home and to make their room personal; try new foods (its aptly-named Global Kitchen serves a full English breakfast followed by a menu of international dishes); and throw yourself into something new.
DLD’s James Kidd, Vice Principal (Pastoral) adds: “Keep in touch with parents. They miss you and just want to know you’re OK, so let them know all is well and they will be happy. Also, talk to the Houseparents as they are here to help, and are “on the ground” so can help quickly.”
Gordonstoun’s Sabine Richards reassures its students that they will be so busy, they won’t have time to miss home. As a school which has barbecue areas and/or fire pits, as well as trampolines or mountain bike trails, outside each house there is every opportunity for its students to stay active. Mrs Richards adds:
“Have a go: do things you’ve never done before. This will open up a world of opportunities. We had a rugby player who discovered a love of dance and a student who was afraid of the water before he found that he loved sailing!
“Remember, you are not the first! Thousands of children have done this before you and boarding schools are very good at dealing with nervous children!”
Mill Hill School encourages students to take time to settle in and adjust, join in and try something you’ve never done before, and not be afraid to ask questions of staff and other students. Mill Hill’s Fergus Lury adds: “Make the most of every opportunity provided – push yourself out of your comfort zone – you never know what you might discover!”
And finally… what items to pack in your suitcase
Apart from school uniform and sports kit, what do you pack? Here’s what Mill Hill School, DLD College and Taunton School recommend your child brings with them.
- Something fun that reminds you of home
- Photos of family and friends
- Things to decorate and personalise your bedroom with, including photos, posters and colourful bunting
- Alarm clock
- Toiletries and bedding to make you feel at home straight away
- Mouthguard and shin pads
- Chargers and adaptors – especially if coming from overseas
- Laptop or iPad etc for quiet times
And, if there’s still space, Sabine Richards at Gordonstoun recommends you add the following to your packing list.
“Our students recommend an extension cable, your own mug and more socks that you think you’ll need! If you have any favourite spices or sauces from your own country you might want to bring those (depending on customs restrictions), not least to let your new friends taste them!
“Remember to bring clothes for the UK climate which can be warm, rainy and cold all in one day. Finally, check how much wardrobe space you’ll have. It may not accommodate an entire designer wardrobe – and you probably won’t need that anyway!”