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5 steps to prepare expats for UK private school applications

Updated 19 Oct 2023

Duncan Quirk, Founder and Director of Top School Guide, shares a step-by-step walkthrough for expat parents looking to make private school applications in the UK. 


For parents who are relocating to the UK and can afford the high fees (ranging from GBP 15,000 to GBP 30,000 annually) for day places, private or ‘independent’ schools offer convenience and quality, which far surpasses even the best state schools.

Unlike with state schools, parents can apply for private school places from overseas before having their UK residential address confirmed. Unlike state schools’ ‘one size fits all’ system, private schools offer parents and students incredibly diverse choices in curriculum, facilities, and environment.

The benefits of a private education are plentiful and well-known. The main challenge to expat families lies in identifying the best schools and navigating your way through the application process. Here’s how to do it!

Step 1: Map out the basics

Remember that British independent schools give you a choice. So, start by mapping out your requirements as follows:

  • Start date and entrance point

September is the start of the academic year, and your child will be applying for the appropriate “year group” for their age as of the 1st of September. For the English curriculum, use the “minus four formula” where, for example, a child who is 11 as of the 1st of September will be entering Year 7 (i.e. age 11 minus 4 = year 7.)

Make sure you know which year group your child will be applying for.

  • Duration of stay

The length of your intended stay in the UK can significantly influence which type of independent school you target. At the most basic level, those planning a long stay should consider adopting the English curriculum, as this will provide the largest number of schools to choose from. Those coming for a short stay are probably better off opting for the more internationally transferable International Baccalaureate curriculum, which is more commonly – though not exclusively – found in international schools. 

Having a clear idea of your child’s short- and long-term education plan will help identify which curriculum and schools will fit your needs. 

  • Location

Opting for private schools means you can prioritise your school choice over and ahead of location. Whilst most parents will say “the school comes first”, the reality is that every family has its particular thresholds – mostly concerning proximity to work, transport, extended family and friends, and familiar communities or food stores. Some families simply favour bright city lights over the quiet cosiness of the suburbs.

Outlining your and your family’s future lifestyle requirements and redlines will help narrow down some suitable locations to investigate.  

  • Other requirements

Families who are planning to stay for a long time should make additional considerations. You’ll need to consider the academic level of your target schools as, while some schools may enrol students of any ability, many are selective on current academic performance.

You can also contemplate whether you prefer single-sex or co-education, religious or non-religious, traditional or progressive ethos schools and whether you’ll require specific provisions for boarding, sports, music, arts facilities, learning support, or other needs.

Overall, you will need to be flexible, but being specific about what you want makes both getting started and future decisions easier.  

Step 2: Make a long list

You can use your criteria above to start finding schools which best match what you are looking for. You can get Googling, use online independent school finder tools, or even engage a professional consultant at this stage.

Browsing and making a long list of potential schools will help you get a clearer picture of how the land lies and will, in turn, help you refine your requirements.

Step 3: Pick up the phone

There’s no way around this. Unless you have someone doing it for you, you will need to get on the phone and speak to the schools’ admissions offices. The first thing you’ll need to ask each school is the availability of places in your child’s year group.

Unfortunately, many schools have lengthy application processes, and most relocating families do not have the luxury of such a notice period. Don’t be surprised to hear that the schools topping the exam league tables do not have the capacity to consider additional applicants.

For any schools that do have available places, make sure you ask more questions about your wants and needs and be prepared to answer questions about your child and family. Most admissions staff are friendly and helpful, so have a good, honest chat with them about your child and the school’s mutual suitability.

If you think the school is worth pursuing, ensure you come away with details of the next steps.

Step 4: Complete the registration process

The next steps usually involve sharing the past two years of your child’s school reports, with the aim of registering for entrance assessments, interviews or both where applicable. Make sure you know what lies ahead so you can help your child prepare.

Getting access to level-appropriate entrance papers and knowing more about what kind of questions could be asked in interviews goes a long way. For most children, becoming familiar with and confident about what lies ahead is enough to help them give a good account of themselves.

If you are unable to visit immediately, most British private schools will allow your child to sit entrance assessments in their current school overseas or at a British Council office. Interviews can be conducted over Zoom or Teams.

Step 5: Visit schools and the surrounding areas

All being well, you should successfully receive offers from two or three carefully selected schools. Make sure you then visit each school and understand how they match your family’s requirements and values. It’s a great idea to bring your child wherever possible and to check out the surrounding neighbourhood and available properties at the same time.

The process of applying to a British independent school can seem daunting at first. But, by following the steps above, you can filter down your options and make your child’s move to a British independent school an exciting and enjoyable opportunity.

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