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【The Standard】Asia’s view on top UK schools

UK chitchat


Every year, families in Asia interested in UK education are presented with agents’ lists of so-called top schools in the UK.These lists may seem like a sensible way to choose a good school but they often create problems for parents and families.

They create confusion by treating different types of school as though they are all the same and can lead to poorly placed, unhappy pupils and school hopping.

Choosing the right school is about more than just compiling lists. It’s about understanding the character of every school, knowing what makes it unique then matching it to the personality of the student.

Here, I want to demystify the scene by explaining some of the major differences between apparently similar schools that achieve top positions on these lists, and by unpacking some key terms.


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Firstly, the termpublic school itself can be confusing. Anyone who enjoys both British and American pop music, TV series or films may be confused because in American English, a fee-charging school is called aprivate school whilst a government school is called apublic school.

In British English, a fee-charging school is often referred to as either apublic school or aprivate school.

The reason for the UK’s two labels comes from the centuries-long history of these schools, many of which were originally charitable organizations that went on to take boys fromthe public, anywhere in the country, rather than just the local area. By the 19th and early 20th century, some of these had grown in reputation and their names were synonymous with success, wealth and power. Often, however, these reputations had rather more to do with social status than with the quality of teaching or the facilities.

Today, we can look at the whole range of fee-charging schools in the UK from a more modern perspective. We can assess them all on their own merits, on their teaching, their facilities, their university application process and the happiness of their pupils.

It’s helpful to recognize the history of such big names as Eton, Harrow and Winchester whilst also separating their top fees and traditional high social status from the all-round package they offer a student in the 21st century.

For a prospective parent in China, it’s useful to understand that some schools in the UK are primarilyday schools that have always had limited boarding or have expanded over the last few decades to offer boarding facilities. This is opposed to schools that have always been primarilyboarding schools.

This difference shows itself in both the scheduling (school on Saturday and sport fixture in the afternoon versus a five-day school week) and the level of integration for international students.

For example, Abingdon School in Oxfordshire is a very good school with a history of over 750 years. However, it has only three boarding houses. Harrow School, in contrast, has 12.

At Uppingham School, a student from Hong Kong is likely to be put in a dormitory to mix with British students. In contrast, at Bromsgrove School, one of my favorite schools in the UK, there is more likelihood of Hongkongers sticking with their own kind – one of the school house is located outside the campus (converted from a hotel) and is highly sought after by Hong Kong pupils.

Another key difference often not covered in top lists is location and the effect of the local population and natural surroundings on the experience.

Shrewsbury School is on the banks of the River Severn. It’s no surprise then that its sailing club is the envy of even Oxford and Cambridge. Bromsgrove School is in the Midlands and as such it has a very meritocratic ethos and is unconcerned with creating an elitist image or atmosphere.

Meanwhile, in London, many private schools, such as Whitgift School, are ethnically diverse due to the diversity of the population of London. The result is a multi-cultural experience. In contrast, some areas of the UK will be far more conservative and the schools will, to some extent, reflect this.

That doesn’t mean some schools are better than others. The examples are simply to illustrate that every school is different. Top school lists tend to overlook these subtle differences.