UK Boarding Schools: What Do They Want? THE MYSTERY UNVEILED.


Your kids are out of diapers. They’re in primary school, and some heading towards middle school?

If you are like me, you have toiled with the idea of boarding school, schooling overseas, or even just curious, since every wannabe-tigermum is so  in tune with the educationally competent path of their off spring.

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When my kids where in utero I played Bach, Menuhin, watched the NBA, ogled at Beckham in hopes that my children would be musical prodigies, tall and darned good-looking (minus the tats, they’re not really for me).  Once they were born I just assumed that they would get early acceptance to Cambridge without a worry on my mind…. BRAKE!!!!

Needless to say, my children aren’t fond of piano, struggle with the violin, have not surpassed the height percentile of their age, and (thankfully) aren’t blonde and blue-eyed. However, I know that the Dean of Admissions of Cambridge is holding on to their acceptance letters until they are at least ten-years-old, right?

It’s okay, you can laugh out loud too, even I giggled as I wrote that!

Reality truly bites you right in the @ss doesn’t it.  It doesn’t matter how much support, legacy, funds or power you have, the biggest Achilles heel of all parents is our children. Nothing is black and white and the best we can do is give them “options”, prepare them to face challenges, successes, disappointments in life, and for the moment the most important, the school interviews!

So if you’ve toyed with the idea of boarding school, the following will hopefully offer some insight, to the whys, what, when and hows…


by Eleanor Smallwood, managing director British Tutors

I know that choosing the right boarding school for your child is a hard enough decision, but once made you are still only half way there. The power balance now shifts to the school as they decide if your child has what they are looking for. With the best British boarding schools being oversubscribed with international students, this raises the questions what do the schools want and are HK children prepared?

Parents often  ask how they can get their children ready for the entrance tests and for actually starting school in the UK. The process can be a little overwhelming, but don’t worry! I’ll try to demystify it here. I’ll also share some tips and advice we’ve gathered from housemasters and interviewers at the top schools, as well as insights from both successful and initially unsuccessful applicants whose results we have helped turn around.

With an interview and entrance exams to face, there are two big hurdles to jump. To add to the stress, kids in HK are often playing catch up with their British counterparts as they aren’t following the curriculum the exams are based on. They also know very little about what boarding school life is actually like and what will be expected from them.

All schools are ultimately looking for one thing: students who will contribute to school life, both with their academic and extracurricular achievements and by showing a spark and genuine enthusiasm. Giving your child a positive exposure to boarding will help make this something they really want and so allow them to shine.

Hurdle 1: The Interview

The purpose of the interview is for the school to see whether the student is lively, interested and motivated in ways which back up their academics. The interview for most top schools consists of a conversation with a teacher or housemaster lasting approximately 40 minutes. It may be a general chat about academic and extracurricular interests, or for the more demanding schools it could include interpretation of unseen poetry, mental arithmetic or current affairs. Favourite books will almost certainly come up. What is important is for the interviewee to show a genuine enthusiasm and that they can form reasoned opinions.

Hurdle 2: The Exams

Your child will also have to sit a number of exam papers based on the British curriculum. At 11+ (for entry in year 7) they will be tested on English, maths and science, sometimes with verbal and non-verbal reasoning papers as well. At 13+ (for entry in year 9) the core subjects are typically joined by other electives. Even if your kid is achieving great results at school, you will need to make sure that this will translate to these exams. They may not have covered some of the topics before and the exam papers may have a different format and expectations to those they are used to. English is usually the area of weakness we see in our students. HK schools tend not to be so strong in the humanities and students will need their analysis and writing skills stretched.

Starting Boarding School

After getting into their chosen school, the transition to boarding is also something students need to prepare for. Adapting to new school life can be difficult, both academically and pastorally. You may want to get in touch with your child’s tutor or houseparents before arriving to answer any questions and help the settling in process. Independence and initiative are important skills schools look for and will be vital in practice for boarding life.

Teaching methods may differ from what students are used to. They need to expect to tackle homework on their own as well group tasks, research and enquiry projects. HK students in particular need to be prepared to ask questions and express opinions – something we often see reticence in! It also helps if they have a base understating of subjects such as French, Latin and British History so they are not at disadvantage to their peers. We often help with introductions to these subjects, along with offering a mentoring role by someone who has been to boarding school themselves and knows the best way to fit in.

Tips for Success

• Firstly, and most importantly, make sure you have chosen a school where you think your child will integrate well and so be able to excel. Just because a school sits at the top of a league table doesn’t necessarily mean it is right for your child. Interviewers will recognise this.

• Make sure your child sits practice entrance papers and is able to get consistently strong results.

• They will need to be able to think of the spot, both in exam and interview. We see unsuccessful applicants who aren’t used to forming their own opinions, so we work hard with our students to encourage discussion, analysis and debate.

• The best academic preparation is not short-term, but a long-term approach, especially in English. We help many students from a young age follow an English programme similar to that taught in top UK prep schools.

• Ahead of the interview your child should learn as much as they can about the school they are applying for and have a number of answers ready about why they want to attend. They should also prepare questions to ask such as “What sports facilities do you have?”, “How much homework should I expect?” or “How often can we use the library?”.

• Make sure they have read and can talk about several serious pieces of literature – not just rely on fantasy or popular culture. Several suggestions: Poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Michael Morpurgo books or even Shakespeare for children!

• Keep them up to date with current affairs and encourage mind expanding excursions to museums, galleries and, better still, to places that expand their knowledge of British history and culture.

Interviewees should avoid any mention of computer games – a pet hate of housemasters!

• One Winchester interviewer said he is always keen on all-rounders. Whilst academic interests must come first, he is wary of anyone who doesn’t offer anything outside of the classroom.

• Schools look for genuine interests and will assess candidates’ ability to talk in a fluent and informed manner about a subject. They will be able to spot whether a student is truly inspired or being pushed into hobbies by their parents.

• Finally, the school will only see what your child shows them. They must practise presenting their strengths and if they have a special talent, make sure it is showcased to its best. Practice talking about their favourite hobby for five minutes or perhaps they could bring along a favourite essay or story, painting or photograph to talk about. I know HK kids are a brilliant bunch, they just need to be sure to show it!

About the author:  

Eleanor and Olivia

Eleanor (left)  runs British Tutors with co-founder Olivia Hungerford (right)

Eleanor graduated from The University of Edinburgh with a First Class Masters degree in Psychology. She has taken courses in developmental and educational psychology and studied learning difficulties in children. She has also worked as a writer and journalist for international publications and published academic papers. Eleanor received A grades in all her school examinations, and for many years tutored pupils in both London and Hong Kong to receive similar results. She now works with the team of tutors to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

Based in Hong Kong, Olivia runs British Tutors alongside  Eleanor Smallwood. Together they train and manage their team of tutors in the very best methods of private tuition. Olivia graduated from Oxford University with a 2:1 degree in English Literature and Language. She is a highly experienced private tutor herself, having taught a range of ages and abilities throughout her tutoring career. Her specialisms include academic assessments and 11+ and 13+ school entrance. She has homeschooled a number of children, devised curricula for all ages and levels and has worked as a tutor for Oxbridge applications with a 100% success rate.

Consider  British Summer Academy as the perfect taster of the best of British school life combined with the academic challenge that entrance tests require. This is a unique two-week summer school programme in the UK which is the perfect introduction to boarding school life. It combines challenging academic work with fun and exciting activities to prepare students academically and enthuse them for the interviews.

Contact  for more information for 2013 applications.

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