An open letter to overseas parents
I very much hope the contents of this letter reaches you in some form or other. If you cannot speak English you are my particular target audience: we will have to rely on services like Google translate to get my message across.
I have felt for some time that overseas parents, particularly those unable to speak English, are fed mixed, confusing and occasionally downright dishonest messages about the British education system. This letter, I hope, will go some way to better informing parents about to invest significant sums of money on educating their children in the UK. There are several points I wish to make:
- Be honest with yourselves and your child about their level of competence in English. If they are not close to fluent they will struggle significantly with UK public examinations. Both GCSEs and A-levels are designed for native speakers. Non-native speakers will invariably underachieve unless they have a very good grasp of English BEFORE they begin. The Common European Framework for Reference is a useful starting point. As a guide if pupils are not at B1 or above on starting GCSEs (B2 for A-levels in my view) then they should not be starting conventional schooling in the UK. Look to a specialist language school first.
- Many of you, quite rightly, choose to take the advice of an educational agent in your own country to advise you on gaining entry to the UK system. Many, if not most, agents are superb. Remember, though, however diligent your agent, that they are running a business. Unfortunately the profit motive can and does cloud people's judgment. Shop around, do your homework. Make sure that the agent you employ is thoroughly transparent about how their commission works; make sure you are wise to the incentives such commission sets up.
- Following on from the above, note that it is almost never a good idea to move a child half-way through an academic course. I have, over the years, encountered several instances of pupils moving schools mid-course. In each case the pupils were perfectly happy and progressing well. The only apparent reason for their move was ill-conceived advice from an agent (motivated by another starting commission?). The consequences were disastrous. Don't do it.
- Be realistic. A surprising number of overseas parents seem to think that sending their children to the UK for the final portion of their school education is a panacea. It's true, sometimes children exceed all expectations, and all good schools operate on the assumption that effort and hardwork, coupled with inspirational teaching will work wonders. But on balance if your child was not near the top of their cohort back at home nor will they be in the UK. You cannot expect a child somewhat lacking in motivation and talent to sail into Oxford or Cambridge on the strength of a two (or even four) year stint at a British school. Great teaching will do a lot, sometimes it will work miracles, but more often than not (quite rightly) children end up getting the results their effort and intellect deserves.
- Do everything you can to encourage your child to get involved in non-academic activities too whilst they are in the UK. By indulging in 'normal' activities alongside their school work their English will improve immeasurably faster than it would otherwise. There is a tendency amongst some overseas parents to see all such activities as an unnecessary distraction from 'real' work - they are not.
- Make sure you choose a school for your child where there aren't too many children from your home country. In some schools the community of overseas pupils from one particular country is so large as to remove almost all the advantages of the school being set in the UK. Good schools catering to the international market will take pupils from a wide range of countries, speaking a wide range of languages, such that the only common tongue is English. Ask difficult questions to find out whether this is indeed the case before signing on the dotted line.
- Take an active interest in your child's 'reports' when they emerge. Most UK schools will issue a set of reports on your child at least once a term. Pester your agent to translate these for you (it's part of their job!) and read them carefully. Chat them through with your child when he or she returns home - they are an important link between you and the school. Pay particular attention to test results and mock examination scores - these provide an early indication of how things are going. Poor scores occur for a reason, follow them up with your child and ask your agent to follow them up with the teachers. If you possibly can try to attend parent-teacher meetings or otherwise visit the school at least once every academic year so that you can put a face to the names you have heard your child mention.
If you follow these simple steps you'll avoid the worst of the pitfalls for overseas parents and, I hope, find that your investment pays off handsomely.