Apply at a young age for a British education

"Foreign-born national, little English, age 15: family desires British public school education." These details are unfortunate staples of many inquiries received by Truman & Knightley, a leading London agency specializing in the placement of overseas children in independent British schools. R. C. Mitchell of the agency points out that although many senior independent schools (the public schools) are quite willing to accept overseas students, age 15 is too late -- admission generally is on or before the 14th birthday.

"just last week someone rang to say he was making inquiries on behalf of some German friends who were unhappy with their son's school," Mr. Mitchell recalls. "I knew, I knew, what age he was -- 15."

The German family is not alone in wishing for a British education for their son. Competency in English as the international medium of communication is considered so vital that hundreds of families all over Europe and in third-world countries also wish to send their sons and daughters to British schools. Hundreds of requests are received each year by Truman & Knightley, and another agency, Gabbitas-Thring, deals with 6,000 to 8,000 annual inquiries. A special agency of ISIS (Independent Schools Information Service) has been established to assist parents in placing overseas children in British schools.

Tim Devlin, director of the service, says that schools are more receptive than ever before to overseas students, believing them to be an enriching component of the student body. He cautions, however, that the "name" schools often have waiting lists; his service seeks to make known the many excellent schools that may be unfamiliar to foreign parents.

One problem is that few people outside Britain understand its trilevel educational system and the relevant ages for each type of school. Primary education is from 5 to 11 for most girls and some boys, and from 5 to 13 for most boys.

Preparatory schools generally take children from 8 to 13, giving a firm grounding in the syllabus required for public school entry, principally English, mathematics, science, French, history, geography, and Scripture, with Latin as a desirable extra. Senior schools, both private and state (maintained) then prepare pupils for the General Certificate of Education at what is called "Ordinary" level ("O" levels), taken at 16.

Many girls' public schools, however, admit at 10. Students then proceed to a two-year Advanced ("A" level) examination course, required for tertiary education, including university and technical colleges. It is exceedingly difficult to find places in the public schools for students over the age of 14, for entry at 15 simply does not allow time for the "O" level examination preparation, particularly if the student is not fluent in English.

"O" levels are given in more than 50 subjects, from astronomy and archeology to surveying and zoology, but certain basic ones must be offered. A minimum of five passes is required for university entrance, but many students take exams in 8 or 10 subjects.

Ninety-five percent of the British school population attends state schools; the rest attend those in the independent sector. In 1979 about 5 percent of all children in private schools in Britain were the children of parents of foreign nationality, or a total of 13,731, according to ISIS statistics. Of this number , 10,643 were at public schools and 3,088 were at preparatory schools. The area breakdown was: Asia east of Iran, 3,944; Africa, 2,267; Europe, 2,250; Iran, 1, 479; US, 1,328; Middle East, 1,151; Canada, 437; and Australia, 436.

These figures do not include the children of British nationals living abroad Demand for independent schools from overseas parents has increased tenfold over the past few years.

What options are available for non-English-speaking children? If the parents have lived in Britain for longer than three months they are entitled to attend the state schools, some of which have special instruction in English for foreigners. Not all state schools are of equal quality, however, and those considered the best may be oversubscribed, particularly in London. Independent day schools in the London area are also likely to have waiting lists, leaving an independent boarding school as the next choice. ISIS assists in placing a child in day or boarding schools. An initial inquiry fee of $50 is payable, along with a final placement charge of $300.

Truman & Knightley, Gabbitas-Thring, and the other educational agencies do not charge parents, but receive their income from schools registered with them; many are educational trusts, and their excess funds are spent assisting children to complete their education in independent schools if hardship threatens having to leave.

Truman & Knightley recently asked a number of traditional preparatory schools about their policy on non-English-speaking children. A few responded with a definite no; a few said yes, they were welcome at any age. The majority replied that they would admit such children but preferred that they be no older than 11.

For students over 14, there are wide options aside from the public schools. They may attend language-coaching establishments or special schools of English. Those between 16 and 18 may attend sixth-form colleges offering tuition for "A" level examinations.

The English School, Loughborough, Leicestershire, is one institution that offers study programs for students 18 and over. The minimum stay is three weeks , and students are billeted with host families or assigned to self-catering hostels.

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