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UK BOARDING SCHOOLS TOP OF THE CLASS FOR PUPILS IN GULF
▶ Demand for places has grown during pandemic as parents look to ensure children receive full-time, in-person education, writes Alice Haine in London
When Rakan left Dubai to study at British boarding school Sevenoaks in Kent, southeast England, at the start of the academic year, he discovered a new passion for rugby and enjoyed the freedom that came with sharing a dormitory.
While boarding is still a new experience for the BritishSaudi citizen, who is in Year 9, he says the move has given him more independence.
“There are so many opportunities to try something new. I found I liked rugby a lot and boarding has been a great experience,” Rakan, 13, tells a seminar hosted by the Independent Schools Show before its British Boarding Schools Show in Dubai, which begins tomorrow.
About 15,000 children from the UAE travel overseas for their education every year, the ISS says, with the number rising by up to 4 per cent a year.
The UK remains one of the most sought-after locations for boarding school pupils from the Emirates, partly because it is also a popular destination for Emiratis at degree level.
UAE citizens account for about 30 per cent of the student body, the ISS says.
This is not expected to drop despite the Covid-19 pandemic forcing many boarding school pupils to study remotely. Some pupils from Dubai even flew home and attended lessons online from the UAE.
But Guy Schady-Beckett, director of Next Step Education, which organises the British Boarding Schools Show in Dubai, said the pandemic had less of an effect on demand than schools feared.
“Recruitment is up for almost all British schools, with some more full than they’ve ever been with a general uptick in international families choosing UK education,” he says.
“On the whole, British boarding schools had a very good pandemic with good online learning, so it didn’t cause a business crisis like people expected it to.”
Mr Schady-Beckett expects more than 500 parents to attend the British Boarding Schools Show at the Sheraton Hotel in Mall of the Emirates.
It will be the first time the event has been held since March 2019, with last year’s event cancelled owing to the pandemic.
More than 35 British schools will be represented, with each school paying about £5,000 ($6,680) to exhibit at the event, which is expected to secure them between two and five potential pupils, Mr SchadyBeckett says.
“The value of it for a school can actually be enormous if it picks up a family and then their siblings come, as well as their friends or cousins. Millions of pounds’ worth of business is often done at the show,” he says.
A British boarding school education still holds an allure for people in the UAE and wider Gulf region, because it offers children benefits such as smaller class sizes and an array of extra-curricular and sports activities.
Education experts say demand for school places from families in the Gulf increased sharply during the pandemic because parents wanted their children to receive a full-time, face-to-face education.
David Wellesley Wesley, founder of the British Boarding Schools Show, says that over the past 18 months parents effectively became teachers as they dealt with online learning and gained an insight into exactly how their children learn.
“This has posed the question as to what the future template of schooling looks like and how educational institutions can embrace technology, flexibility and bring individualised programmes into the classroom,” he says.
Rakan says he relishes the experience of sharing a dormitory with three other boys because it means he can now hang out with his friends all the time.
“We do our homework together and pretty much everything,” he says.
Meanwhile, his former classmate in Dubai, Conrad, says he enjoys the extra space at Sevenoaks and the wide variety of activities.
“It’s very, very different here, with lots of extra-curricular activities and the facilities are a lot better,” he says.
“Here you’re outside more and can do more sports.”
Mr Schady-Beckett says he has noticed soaring demand for schools in the country that have plenty of outdoor space.
“Families have just been locked up together and they recognise the value of outside space,” he says.
Screen time is another concern for parents and some prefer boarding schools that restrict the amount of time pupils can spend on devices, he says.
However, sending a child to boarding school in the UK is not cheap. The average annual fee for independent schools is now £15,190 for day pupils and £36,000 for boarders, the Independent School Council’s latest annual census has found.
Fees at British private schools increased by 1.1 per cent this year, much lower than the 4.1 per cent increase in 2020 before the pandemic began, because falling household incomes, international travel bans and school closures made it difficult for institutions to justify fee increases.
Mr Schady-Beckett says the investment is worth it because these days boarding schools offer much more than rugby and cricket.
“They also have enormous orchestras, big theatres and amazing art facilities to cater to a wide range of hobbies. Boarding schools are very good at valuing stuff around the curriculum,” he says.
“So they finish supper and then go climb the climbing wall, or take part in the school band, and you’re playing with your mates – it’s all on tap.
“And you’re being educated with very interesting students from all over the world, as well as British students.”
Parents in the UAE who are interested in sending their children to a UK boarding school should ideally start the process when their child is aged 9 or 10 for a 13-plus entry, Mr Schady-Beckett says.
“But a lot of schools will work to shorter timelines, particularly if parents don’t know the system, or they’ve had certain changes to their situation,” he says.
It is still possible for pupils to start in September next year if time is made for school tours and entry tests.
More than 530,000 pupils attend private schools in the UK and almost 8,000 British citizens living abroad send their children to boarding schools in the country.
For Harry, whose parents work for the UK Foreign Office, going to St Edmund’s School Canterbury when he was 11 allowed him to get to know the country his parents are from but in which he had never lived.
His family lived in China when he first attended the school and they have since moved to Kuwait. He flies to the Gulf to see them every halfterm and on school holidays.
“Because my parents work for the Foreign Office, we are always moving, so going to a boarding school gave me that stability with my education,” says Harry, now 17.
Having his older brother at the school helped him to adapt to his new life.
He says attending a smaller school is also comforting, because he knows everyone.
“Most holidays, I head out to Kuwait but sometimes they’ll come to the UK,” says Harry, who has applied to study economics at university in Cambridge, Bath, York and Leeds.
Conrad also flies back to Dubai at half-term and on school holidays. His mother sometimes flies over on the occasions that full boarders are permitted to leave the school for an entire weekend.
Education is one of the main drivers of property sales in the UK, particularly in London, says Stuart Leslie, international sales and marketing director at property developer Barratt London.
“About 30 per cent of our inquiries are related to education. For parents looking to send their kids to schools costing £30,000 a year, they will have a bolthole in the UK, an apartment rather than a home, that they can pop over to and see the kids from time to time.
“The rest of the time it’s rented out, so it is more of an investment.”
The Middle East makes up about 23 per cent of Barratt International’s business and over the past two months there has been an increase in activity driven by flights reopening between the region and the UK.
Mr Leslie, who recently travelled to Dubai for business, says several wealthy people he met at an event for family offices in the emirate had a child either in university or at school in the UK.
“They were all focused on sending their next generation to the UK, but also in investing in the UK because they’d been educated there and they knew the property market,” he says.
“UK boarding school is really a great springboard into some of the top universities in the UK, or indeed over to the US.”
Getting their children into a leading university is the main ambition for many parents, Mr Schady-Beckett says.
“They’ve probably had that sort of education themselves and would like the same for their children,” he says.
While 35 per cent of the parents who attend the British Boarding Schools Show will be from the UK, the rest will comprise families from regions such as the Middle East.
“One of the main reasons they attend is because it is a very good way into the system if you didn’t attend a boarding school yourself,” Mr Schady-Beckett says.
For Kinesha, 13, an Indonesian who lived in Dubai and now goes to Sevenoaks, the opportunity has broadened her horizons.
“I want to go to a university in the US mostly because I want to try a different setting and I think going to Sevenoaks is going to really help with that,” she says.
Boarding schools have enormous orchestras and big theatres ... they are very good at valuing stuff around the curriculum
Next Step Education