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Top tips for settling into a UK boarding school from abroad

By Talk Education
02 February 2022

British boarding schools are widely considered to be some of the best in the world. They’re packed with shiny facilities, offer extraordinary co-curricular opportunities, have brilliant teachers to help your child fulfil their academic potential and pastoral care is second to none. Little wonder, then, that there are currently almost 25,000 non-British pupils (with parents living overseas) attending independent schools in the UK.

Settling into a brand new school can be overwhelming, but what if you’re moving from abroad at the same time? There are new friends to be made, new foods to try, new weather to get to grips with and a totally new culture to navigate. If you’re thinking about applying to a British boarding school from overseas, or if you’ve already bagged a place and you’re gearing up for the big move, here’s what to expect and how to make the settling-in process as smooth as possible.

First things first: make sure your child is being looked after by a trusted guardian

Almost all British boarding schools require overseas pupils to have a guardian in the UK. Guardians play an important role in a pupil’s educational journey in the UK: they act as the first port of call in case of emergencies, liaise with the school over pastoral matters, help with travel arrangements and create a home-from-home during exeats and school holidays.

Some families ask a family friend to act as a guardian for their child, but more often than not, parents turn to a guardianship agency. We asked international guardianship accreditation agency AEGIS to explain how they work with schools to help match pupils with the most trusted agencies out there, and tell us the most important things a family should be looking out for when choosing a guardianship agency for their son or daughter:

Get ahead before you arrive

With any luck, you’ll have already visited your new school in person and had a proper nose around the campus well ahead of your first day. Spend the days and weeks before your arrival absorbing the joining information and welcome packs provided by the school, and take a good look at their Instagram or Twitter pages. ‘You can learn a huge amount about boarding life by following our social media, and it’s good for answering the most important question too: what’s the food like? See for yourself!’ says Shirley Mitchell, head of boarding at DLD College London.

If you’re heading to a big city like London, it’s worth finding out what’s happening in the area too. ‘We encourage students to check out any theatre shows, live events and museum exhibitions that they may wish to explore when they get here,’ adds Mrs Mitchell. ‘It helps to have something to look forward to.’

Packing tips

Ahead of your arrival, you’ll be sent a uniform and kit list. Some items will be compulsory, but if you can’t get hold of everything, don’t panic. ‘Read the joining information carefully to make sure you bring the right clothing and equipment, but if you forget something we can lend you spare items,’ says Sabine Richards, head of admissions at Gordonstoun School in Scotland. ‘And remember to bring clothes for the UK climate, which can be warm, rainy and cold all in one day.’

Don’t overpack. You won’t have as much storage space in your dorm or bedroom as you’re used to at home, and you’ll be in school uniform from Monday to Friday. Most boarders change into their own clothes in the evenings after lessons are over. ‘Your room may not accommodate an entire designer wardrobe – and you probably won’t need it anyway,’ says Mrs Richards. And crucially, make sure you name tape or label all of your belongings – you’ll be living in a house with lots of others, so it’s easy for clothes to get lost.

Make sure you bring some personal items to decorate your dorm and remind you of home. You might want to pack your own duvet cover, posters, photos or fun touches such as bunting. Some items can help break the ice and strike up conversations with fellow pupils. ‘If you have any favourite spices or sauces from your own country (depending on customs restrictions), you might want to bring those, not least to let your new friends taste them,’ says Mrs Richards. ‘Don’t forget a travel adaptor!’ adds Mrs Mitchell.

The practicalities

Moving away from home means you’ll need to become a little more independent and take on more responsibilities. International students are often invited to arrive a few days before the start of term, so there’s plenty of time to sort out practicalities.

It’s unlikely you will ever be asked for payments for expenses and optional extras directly (these are usually added to the bill for your parents or guardian), but make sure you bring a small amount of pocket money to spend in the tuck shop or during weekend trips into town. Houseparents usually look after the money for younger students, which helps with budgeting and security.

For older students, it’s a good idea to open a UK bank account. This means that you won’t need to keep large sums of money on your person and can withdraw it at a suitable time.

Staying in touch

When you’re living abroad, staying in touch with home becomes more important than ever. It is worth setting up a UK mobile phone so you can easily communicate with friends and family. Each school has its own rules about phones and electronic devices, so check before you arrive. To avoid disruption in lessons, pupils are usually only allowed to use their phones during set times of the day.

Most schools provide pupils with their own email address, which you can use to contact home. There will usually be plenty of computers available to use Skype or Zoom, and some prep schools still uphold the rather lovely tradition of weekly letter writing. It’s easy to get swept up in all the exciting things happening at school – but do take the time to check in with home every now and then.

Settling in and dealing with homesickness

It’s completely normal to miss home, and while some pupils take to boarding like a duck to water, others need a little time to get the hang of it. The good news is there’ll be a large team on hand to help you settle in. ‘Tell someone if you are not happy or if things are not going well,’ says Mrs Richards. ‘You will have a dedicated houseparent ready to help you with every single part of settling into boarding life,’ adds Mrs Mitchell. ‘They can answer any questions you have, however big or small. In fact, we challenge you to think of a question they haven’t heard before!’

Boarding houseparents and staff have years of experience of looking after pupils, and they’ll always be your first port of call if you have any concerns. ‘A primary focus of ours within the pastoral team at Stonyhurst College is to create a ‘home away from home’. Our pastoral ethos from a boarding perspective is holistic, and we take great pride in managing all aspects of our boarding pupils’ affairs’ says Marcus Jackson, a housemaster at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. 

A matron will help with laundry, minor health niggles and more; house staff are there to tackle any pastoral issues; and  academic tutors will keep an eye on your academic progress. New students are also often buddied up with an older pupil, who will act as a valuable role model and be able to answer any questions.  

If you’re struggling with homesickness, our advice is to get stuck in with as much as you can. Say yes to as much as possible and do things you’ve never done before. Get outside and kick a football around with your new housemates; join a club or society; or have a go at whipping up your favourite dish for your friends in the house kitchen. ‘This will open up a world of opportunities,’ says Mrs Richards. ‘We had a rugby player who discovered a love of dance and a student who was afraid of the water before he found that he loved sailing. You’ll be so busy that you won’t have time to miss home. You will make friends for life very quickly.’

What happens at evenings and weekends?

It’s safe to say there won’t be many dull moments. ‘On most days, the school will offer between 30 to 60 extracurricular activities, and within our first few weeks of arriving at school, boarders are treated to cinema trips, shopping expeditions, paintball sessions, karaoke nights and house quiz evenings,’ says Fraser Drewar, another houseparent at Stonyhurst College.

Weekends are just as jam-packed. Some schools have lessons on Saturday mornings; others offer enrichment programmes and dedicate afternoons to sports matches and events. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for some well-deserved downtime too, and Sundays tend to take on an altogether slower rhythm, with late breakfasts and the chance to catch up on schoolwork. Older pupils are often allowed to leave the campus at certain times, popping into town for shopping or for a coffee or a pizza. You might even be invited to spend the weekend with a friend who lives nearby – always say yes. It’s a great opportunity to get to grips with British culture.

Some schools offer something a little more unique. At Gordonstoun, outdoor education is a hugely important part of the curriculum, and students head out on expeditions almost straight away. ‘This is a great bonding exercise as they help each other put up tents, light fires and cook supper, with no distractions like mobile phones or social media,’ says Mrs Richards.

And some final words of advice…

‘Do your best to make the most of all the activities, knowledge and experiences that are available to you. Doing so will enable you to create memories that stay with you throughout your lifetime,’ says Mr Drewar.

Settling into a UK boarding school can be a daunting time, but once you get into the swing of things, you’re likely to have some of the best years of your life. Good luck – and, most importantly, have fun!