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UK: Appetite for HE spurs boom in younger year boarders

With their sights set on the UK’s higher education system, parents new to the world’s middle class are sending their children overseas earlier in an attempt to secure access to elite universities. A survey by The Parthenon Group shows that teen learners at UK boarding schools are up over the last two to three years.

Many agents and providers agreed that arriving earlier provides a “softer landing”, giving students a chance to integrate and adjust to the UK schools system

Around a quarter of the schools polled said they had seen an increase in market share among younger year learners (below sixth form).

“As the market becomes more sophisticated, parents are trying to find a way of accessing education earlier”

Surveying 300 key stakeholders including agents, parents and schools, the global strategy consultancy found that overall, the number of 13 year old pupils agents are sending to the UK has increased by 23% in the last two to three years; while 14-15 year olds were up by 24% and 16 year olds were up by 16%.

Presenting the research findings at the Cambridge Education Group (CEG)’s Directors’ Briefing in London this month, Matthew Robb, Managing Director of Parthenon’s Education Practice, said that parents are now “much more intentional about when they send their children to the UK”.

“As the market becomes more sophisticated, parents are trying to find a way of accessing education earlier,” he explained.

The opportunity for better A Level preparation was the main reason for teen enrolments gaining share, thanks to growing awareness that the exams give overseas students better access to elite universities, but that having no prior experience of the UK education system “leaves quite a lot of work to be done”, Robb said.

Many agents and providers attending the event agreed that arriving earlier provides a “softer landing”, giving students a chance to integrate and adjust to the UK schools system before sitting important exams such as the pre-university A Levels.

Caroline Nixon of Taunton School said that in many cases, “the earlier the better” for pupils to enrol because “they integrate, their language is better and they do better in the long run”.

Other motivators to send students to boarding schools were an increasing awareness of study abroad opportunities, a desire to improve English language skills and opportunities to join older siblings.

Commenting on the overall rise of borading school enrolments, Robb added that middle class growth makes wealth “probably the most important driving factor” for the boom in numbers despite the global recession. However, he predicted a slowdown in the coming years in line with a slowdown of growth in booming economies such as China.

Some stakeholders noted that faltering economies can also provide opportunity, and William Wilcox, partner at Which Boarding School agency in the UK, said that he had seen a “surge” in incoming student numbers from Spain and Italy.

Quality of education and a desire to improve English language skills have also contributed to overall growth in the sector, along with an increased supply of provision, particularly internationally focussed schools.

“The rise in demand for high quality education will always outstrip the supply of high quality seats in the source country”

The survey also revealed that in-country provision is on the rise, but Robb quelled concerns saying the rate of growth in demand ensures students will continue to look to overseas education.

“The rise in demand for high quality education will always outstrip the supply of high quality seats in the source country,” he said.

Satisfaction among international pupils’ parents is unusually high compared to among the domestic market, with around 70% describing themselves as “very satisfied” with their child’s boarding school experience the research shows.

However, there was some dissatisfaction about integration and English language support.

The biggest complaint was about a lack of international food options available, which, Robb explained, is part of offering an “internationally appropriate experience” – something that is integral to student retention, even though it does not usually feature highly on the list of criteria for selecting schools.

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