School Britannia: British boarding schools in the spotlight
At the British Boarding Schools Fair, held last Saturday at the Excelsior Hotel, hopeful students and parents got an inside look at what life at a UK boarding school might look like, and how to get there.
For many children, the idea of going to boarding school in Britain is a real-life fairy tale: the world of Harry Potter brought to life inside beautiful, imposing stone buildings sitting regally among rolling green hills. For their parents, the vision is often one of a world-class education which will prepare their children for a lifetime of success.
At the British Boarding Schools Fair, these hopeful parents and children got to interact with representatives from the schools and other organisations that might make their collective dreams come true.
Organised by Britannia StudyLink and sponsored by Ascent Prep and Optimus Properties, the fair brought several of the UK’s top boarding schools together in one space. Attendees learned about the schools themselves and listened to professional advice and tips on how to prepare for the interview process.
Why do British boarding schools hold such an attraction for Hong Kong students? Samuel Chan, founder and managing director of Britannia StudyLink, feels that the key difference between a British and a Hong Kong education is that British schools are “not just looking for grades and results in certain subjects, they want students to thrive in other areas – the arts, sports and socially”. This is a powerful motivator for those seeking an alternative to a local education system that is often seen as being results-driven.
British boarding schools, continues Chan, are not necessarily looking for “the most academic students – they want potential, they want a student to be well-rounded”. Ultimately, they want to “differentiate the well-brained from the well-trained”. This differentiation often happens during the intake process, with an assessment test, normally consisting of English, mathematics and reasoning, followed by a personal interview for those who are selected.
But which school to pick? With more than 20 schools, consultancies and tutorial colleges exhibiting at the fair, parents and students were spoiled for choice. One piece of advice restated often was the importance of choosing wisely.
According to Niall Browne, a former Housemaster at Uppingham School and Gordonstoun Schools, “Choosing a school is like choosing a house. When you go house hunting, people will give you ideas about where you should live“.
While such advice is helpful, it can sometimes be misleading. Browne feels that parents “must find the right school for your child. In Hong Kong, so many other people have been to school in the UK, so you get lots of well-meaning advice: ‘My son went to this school, it’s brilliant you should look at that school’. Remember it was a brilliant school for their child – your child might be completely different.”
This notion was echoed by Caroline Drewett, director of Anglo Academy, a company offering British boarding school residential courses at Harrow International School. According to Drewett, “Choosing a boarding school is about choosing a philosophy. There is no ‘perfect’ school – each one has its own ethos.” Parents need to understand a school’s philosophy and understand the strengths and weaknesses of their child to ensure a school is the right fit.
Experts at the fair had abundant advice for parents and students who have decided on a school and are seeking to apply. For Simon Whitaker, a tutor at Ascent Prep Education Centre, whose mission is to help their students succeed at the best British boarding schools and universities, mentally preparing for the interview – and everything that follows – is most important.
With British schools emphasising debate and discussion rather than passive learning, students need to think for themselves and develop “the kinds of skills necessary for debate in the classroom and for presenting [their] way of thinking in front of other students.” Whitaker believes as a student, you “need to think critically about your own ideas and be ready to have someone do that to you. At Ascent Prep, we don’t only teach critical thinking as a separate subject – it’s integrated into all our classes.”
Browne highlighted how centres such as Ascent Prep help prepare students for life at a British school, giving them ”core skills so that when they land at those schools, they’re able to hit the ground running, rather than [being] a rabbit in the headlights.”
As for how to prepare for the interview itself, “The schools want the child to be interested and interesting”, said Browne. “Everyone can cram and do well in an entrance exam – but they want more than that. Everyone can pretend to be interested, but you can’t pretend to be interesting.”
“Prepare, and show yourself off in the best light, but keep a balance – don’t overdo it because you’re making yourself boring and isolating yourself from all the other things in the world that schools want you to do”, he concluded.