Written exclusively for Expat Network by Nicky Adams
British boarding schools have been preparing young people for bright futures for at least five centuries. But over the last few decades there has been a real shift in the way they educate modern youngsters to meet the challenges the future will throw at them. Opening their doors to students from Portugal and other countries around the world has transformed these traditional places of learning into contemporary, multi-cultural environments where young people are taught not just how to pass examinations, but to develop strength of character and personal qualities, alongside an understanding of the world and their place in it. There can be no better preparation for a 21st century global citizen.
Indeed, this is the key to an education that is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and – for most of the 28,000 students from around the world who currently attend boarding schools in the UK – 34 weeks of the year. However, leaving their home countries to go to school in Britain can be a daunting prospect for youngsters who are not UK resident. A high proportion of overseas students at British schools are from ex-pat families, most commonly based in Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar and Hong Kong. Rest assured – students whose homes are not in the UK are made very welcome and careful consideration goes into making sure that every new student, whether from half-way round the world or just up the road, settles quickly and gets the best out of his or her British boarding school education.
17-year-old James Cotterill is typical of the growing number of ex-pat British students who study at English boarding schools.
‘My family moved permanently from the UK to Portugal when my father retired,’ he explains. ‘I had started my school career at the age of four at Felsted School, a co-educational boarding and day school in rural North Essex, about an hour from London by car. When my dad’s job relocated to the Far East, the family moved with him and I spent a couple of years at school there, and then when he took retirement I attended an international school close to my parents’ new home in the Algarve.’
Although James enjoyed being a student at school in Portugal, when he turned 11, his parents took the decision to send him to boarding school in the UK.
‘My dad in particular was very keen that, as well as having access to a high-quality education, I should have lots of opportunities to develop my interests outside the classroom,’ says James. ‘He himself is a keen musician and sportsman so he knows how important it is to have a balanced life and to discover activities that you enjoy.’
Having been happy as a young pupil at Felsted and with extended family still living nearby, James re-joined Felsted as a full boarder.
‘We had always travelled as a family, so it was quite easy for us to adapt,’ he says. ‘Felsted is just 15 minutes’ drive from Stansted airport so popping back to Portugal for weekends and holidays is just like a bus journey. But really I don’t feel the need to go home every exeat – I am very comfortable at school, which is important. My parents fly over to Felsted fairly regularly for concerts, social and sporting events and my mother in particular enjoys keeping up with what’s going on at school using social media, so they feel very much involved in my schooling.’
The school boarding house is a real home-from-home for James and students from all around the world, as well as British-based students who enjoy the boarding experience.
‘My housemaster is really supportive and I know I can turn to any member of staff for help and advice,’ says James. ‘I also have great friends of all nationalities and it is fascinating to learn about their cultures and understand their approaches. The outlook is very global.’
James makes the most of the co-curricular opportunities Felsted offers. A Music Scholar, he takes part in concerts with the school orchestra and ensembles in its purpose-built Music School and also plays football and rugby.
‘I’m lucky to have access to all the great facilities for sport and the arts at Felsted,’ says James. ‘Also being near to cities such as Cambridge and London and having the connections of a well-known school is really helpful. It’s my ambition to go into a career in finance or law in the City of London and I’ve been able to take part in work experience sessions there which have been very inspiring. I even spent a few weeks working on a foreign exchange desk in Hong Kong thanks to an introduction from a former Felsted student.’
Opening students’ eyes to the possibilities the world has to offer is a stated aim at Felsted and other British boarding schools.
‘With my knowledge of Spanish as well as Portuguese I would love to work and live in South America,’ says James. ‘Any employer I work for must have an international dimension. I feel that being at boarding school in the UK has developed my communication skills as well as my understanding of people of a wide range of cultures, which I think is really what is needed in the international workplace of the future.’