Boarding school

We take a look at the options for parents in the Middle East sending their kids to boarding school…


Bringing up children in an expat community like Dubai’s can be fantastic: they can meet people from all over the world, spend their weekends at the beach, and experience levels of luxury few of us even dreamed of when we were young. Unfortunately, this can come at a cost.

‘I recently met a little boy who was nine and just starting his fifth school,’ says education consultant Sara Sparling. Of course, moving around can help kids to develop independence and confidence, but when families are relocating as frequently as this, it can take a hefty toll on the child’s academic progress. ‘Teachers are often transient in Dubai as well,’ Sparling points out. ‘And when you get to crucial points like GCSEs, continuity is vital.’

For children whose parents’ jobs necessitate frequent globetrotting, boarding school can be the perfect solution offering stability in their education – and lives. Sparling works for Sue Anderson Consultants, which provides a free service for parents who want to place their children in a UK boarding school, but don’t know where to start. Sparling and Anderson use their encyclopaedic knowledge of British schools (between them they have visited over 350) to provide a shortlist of suitable institutions; the family then narrows the options down further, visits two or three, and decides which one to apply to.

If your perception of British boarding schools contains a sprinkle of Enid Blyton high jinks, a splash of Harry Potter wizadry and an entire cupful of jolly hockey sticks, think again. ‘Many of these schools are like five-star hotels now; some even offer private en-suite bedrooms. It was a change that needed to happen; the accommodation used to be in real need of upgrading,’ Anderson says.

She should know: she worked in a boarding school for 18 years herself, and later went on to put her own four children through boarding schools. ‘When I was living in Canada and my nine-year-old daughter left, I cried every day for a term,’ she remembers. ‘I understand how it feels for my clients – it’s a difficult decision, but at the end of the day you have to do what’s best for your child.’ Sparling, meanwhile, has children who have attended boarding schools as day students, and her teenage daughter will be commencing her boarding life in September. ‘It wasn’t my idea; she wants to do it!’ she laughs.

This wealth of shared experience means that the consultants are well aware that different children need different types of schools. ‘If a child is highly academic, we can place them appropriately; if a they’re a bit of a plodder, an all-rounder, then we’ll find them a smaller, more nurturing environment,’ Anderson says. The consultants have also developed something of a sixth sense when it comes to understanding clients’ tastes and how strict or traditional (the two are almost interchangeable) a parent wants their child’s prospective school to be.

Anderson explains, ‘We have one place where the students don’t wear a uniform and they call the teachers by their Christian names – I call that relaxed. But some people come to me saying “We want discipline for our child,” and I know that a school like that wouldn’t work for them.’ She adds that children who’ve lived in a city like Dubai for most of their lives – ‘international kids’, as she calls them – would be unsuited to a highly traditional environment, while others can thrive in these types of establishments.

When determining the level of discipline the desired school should have, Anderson tends to ask parents the question, ‘If your child had to walk past Starbucks on their way from maths to chemistry, would you trust him – let’s face it, it’s usually boys – not to go in and skip his lesson?’

Speaking of international kids, it’s not just British expats who are choosing UK-based boarding schools: Anderson says that nowadays, establishments all over Britain are ‘brilliantly tuned to the overseas child’, and Sparling adds that most schools aim for at least 10 per cent of their student body to be of non-British parentage, partly because this reflects the increasingly multicultural workplaces children will encounter later. Religion is also something the two are careful to ask about: ‘You name it, we can serve the purpose, from Catholic to Quaker schools,’ says Anderson.

With such a huge number of establishments to choose from, knowing what to prioritise can be a little overwhelming. As well as obvious considerations regarding proximity to extended family or airports, it’s worth thinking about what your child likes to do in his or her free time. British boarding schools offer a huge range of state-of-the-art options: golf courses, equestrian centres, farms, Olympic-standard sporting facilities and theatres. Oh, and you might want to consider the schools’ academic records too, although they’re generally good across the board in the UK private sector. ‘Because of rigorous inspection, high standards are maintained and, as a result, the quality of a British schooling is renowned all over the world,’ Sparling says.

Naturally, all this comes at a cost: fees can be anything between GBP15,000-28,000 (currently around Dhs78,000-125,000) a year. Ironically, though, this can actually be a wiser investment than coughing up for education here in Dubai: the strength of the pound is such that it will cost you much less in dirhams than before, and people being paid in sterling don’t lose out when converting their salary into local currency.

Regardless of this, many parents put off sending their children to boarding school until they’ve reached secondary age (11 and above), partly because Dubai’s primary schools tend to be better-established and higher-performing than their secondary counterparts. Doing this for sixth form is a particularly attractive option: if you’ve got teenagers who’ve been expats most of their lives and they’re planning to go to university abroad, boarding school at this age can be an excellent way of preparing them for flying the nest. Furthermore, staff will be much more knowledgeable about the university application process, from writing personal statements to fathoming the UCAS system (UCAS is the organisation that handles all university applications in the UK).

One of the most common concerns for parents is whether their children will be properly looked after in the nurturing sense – but fear not, assure the consultants; not only can kids keep in touch via school email addresses and mobile phones, but the days of dragon-like old matrons are long gone. ‘Children are looked after by “house parents” nowadays. Some have their own kids living there, some even have dogs,’ Sparling explains. ‘The houses also do family-oriented activities – they’ll have barbecues or get pizzas in on a Saturday night.’ I say that it sounds a bit like being at university, but am quickly assured that all this fun stuff happens within a supervised, secure environment – and the kids’ laundry gets done for them too, the lucky blighters.

So, you (or Sue Anderson Consultants) have found a few schools that tick all your wish-list boxes. What next? The most vital part of the entire process is undoubtedly visiting the schools during term time, says Sparling. ‘So much of it is about the people that you meet, and just getting a feel for the place,’ she explains. Once you and your child have decided on a school, the process is relatively straightforward – you just register, fill in the application form and wait to hear if you’ve been successful. Depending on the school, children may have to go for an interview or sit a test (which can be done in Dubai), but other than that it’s painless: ‘It’s not like here, where you have to copy loads of documents and tell them your grandmother’s foot size,’ Sparling says.

After your child’s place has been confirmed, the fun can really start: it’s natural for them to be nervous, and the best way to allay their fears is to set up a ‘sleepover’, where they can meet their future classmates and discover that it’s not that scary after all. Many schools also organise an induction weekend in the summer term, which is the same concept but all the new kids are there at the same time. ‘It makes them so much more relaxed about it all,’ Anderson says. ‘We had one girl who was 11 and she was shown around the school by two girls who were in her year. She wrote us a letter afterwards saying “I can’t wait to go and meet up with my new friends again.” It’s just wonderful.’

Single sex or co-ed?

When it comes to selecting a boarding school, choosing between co-ed or single sex can be a make-or-break decision. Of course, every child is different, but in this case, age-old stereotypes are generally true: all-girls’ schools consistently excel and are fantastic for shy teens who become a quivering wreck at the thought of having to speak up in a class full of boisterous young men. However, confident girls will thrive in a mixed, competitive environment, as will boys of a similar disposition. There are actually very few all-male schools nowadays, because of a drive in the ’80s to civilise unruly young chaps by bringing in supposedly better-behaved females. Those that do remain would be suitable for boys who are easily distracted by the opposite sex – but, let’s face it, that’s most of them.
If you think boarding school could be an option for your child, contact Sue Anderson Consultants on +44 (0)1474 815 450 or call Sam Plumbridge, their Middle East rep, on 050 850 8414 to find out more.

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