Why British boarding schools are still a big attraction for Gulf pupils

Covid-19 fails to dampen region's appetite for UK private education despite average annual fees topping £36,000

Fettes College in Edinburgh is among 36 private schools set to feature at the British Boarding Schools Dubai event this month. Getty Images

When Rakan moved from Dubai to study at British boarding school Sevenoaks in Kent at the start of the academic year, he discovered a new passion for rugby and enjoyed the freedom that came with sharing a dormitory.

While boarding is a new experience for the British-Saudi year-nine student, he says the move “was a great idea” because of the “independence” it has given him.

“There are so many opportunities to try something new. I found I liked rugby a lot and boarding has been a great experience,” Rakan, 13, told a seminar hosted by the Independent Schools Show before its British Boarding Schools Show in Dubai this month.

Rakan is among the 15,000 children in the UAE that are sent overseas for their education every year, ISS says, with the number rising by up to 4 per cent a year.

The UK remains one of the most sought-after locations for boarding school pupils from the Emirates, partly because the country is also the top destination for Emiratis at degree level, accounting for about 30 per cent of the student body, ISS said.

This is not set to diminish despite the Covid-19 pandemic forcing many boarding school pupils to study remotely when schools were shut during the health crisis, with some Dubai pupils even flying home and attending lessons online from the UAE.

However, Guy Schady-Beckett, director at Next Step Education, which organises the British Boarding School Show in Dubai, said the pandemic has had less of an effect on demand than schools feared.

There has been a general uptick in international families choosing UK education
Guy Schady-Beckett, Next Step Education

“Recruitment is up for almost all British schools with some more full than they've ever been with a general uptick in international families choosing UK education,” he said.

"On the whole, British boarding schools had a very good pandemic with good online learning, so it didn't cause a business crisis like people expected it to.”

Boarding schools offer smaller classes and include all extracurricular activities

Mr Schady-Beckett is expecting more than 500 parents to head to the British Boarding Schools Show at the Sheraton Hotel in Mall of the Emirates on November 26 and 27 – the first time the event will take place since March 2019 after last year’s event was cancelled due to the pandemic.

More than 35 British schools will show their offerings, with each school paying about £5,000 to exhibit at the event, which is expected to secure them between two and five potential students, said Mr Schady-Beckett.

“The value of it for a school can actually be enormous if it picks up a family and then their siblings come as well as their friends or cousins. Millions of pounds worth of business is often done at the show,” he said.

While the UAE offers a range of schools for parents to choose from, a British boarding school education still holds an allure for residents living in the UAE and wider Gulf region, because it offers children smaller class sizes, better facilities and an array of extracurricular and sports activities on campus.

Education experts said demand for school places from families in the Gulf actually rose significantly during the pandemic, as parents wanted their children to receive a full-time, face-to-face education – as some UAE schools still offer a combination of home and school learning.

David Wellesley Wesley, founder of The British Boarding Schools Show, said during the past 18 months, parents effectively became teachers as they grappled with online learning for the first time, in turn understanding exactly how their children learn.

“This has posed the question as to what the future template of schooling looks like and how educational institutions can embrace technology, flexibility and bring individualised programmes into the classroom,” he said.

Lancing College in West Sussex. Country schools with vast outdoor space have soared in popularity since the pandemic started. Getty Images

Country schools with acres of outdoor space are highly sought after since the coronavirus outbreak

For Rakan from Dubai, the shift to a life where he now shares a dormitory with three other boys is something he relishes because he can now hang out with his friends all the time.

“We do our homework together and pretty much everything,” he said.

Meanwhile, his former Dubai classmate, Conrad, who has also joined Sevenoaks, enjoys the extra space the campus offers as well as the wider range of activities.

“It's very, very different here with lots of extracurricular activities and the facilities are a lot better. In Dubai it’s a lot more closed, you’re in a building whereas here you’re outside more and can do more sports.”

Soaring demand for country schools with acres of outdoor space is a post-pandemic trend Mr Schady-Beckett has certainly noticed.

“Families have just been locked up together and they recognise the value of outside space,” he said.

Screen time is another issue with parents preferring boarding schools that restrict the amount of time pupils can spend on devices, he said.

LONDON - SEPTEMBER 15:  Students from Harrow school cross the road betwen classes on September 15, 2006 in London, England. Police were called last night, to an address in Peterborough Rd, near Harrow School, Harrow-on-the Hill to reports of a man injured. Officers attended the scene and discovered a man with stab wounds inside the premises. A 25-year-old woman who had been fatally stabbed was also found there. She was pronounced dead at the scene.  (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

School fees are expensive but offer plenty of extras

However, sending a child to boarding school in the UK does not come cheap.

The average annual fee for independent schools now sits at £15,190 ($20,445) for day pupils and £36,000 for boarders, the Independent School Council’s latest annual census found.

Fees at British private schools increased 1.1 per cent in 2021, much lower than the 4.1 per cent increase in 2020 before the pandemic started, as falling household incomes, international travel bans and school closures made it difficult for institutions to justify fee increases.

Mr Schady-Beckett said the investment is worth it as boarding schools of today offer much more than rugby and cricket.

“They also have enormous orchestras, big theatres and amazing art facilities to cater to a wide range of hobbies. Boarding schools are very good at valuing stuff around the curriculum," he said.

“So they finish supper and then go climb the climbing wall, or take part in the school band, and you're playing with your mates - it's all on tap. And you're being educated with very interesting students from all over the world, as well as British students."

UAE parents must look early to secure a place

UAE parents considering sending their children to a UK boarding school for secondary school should ideally start the process when their child is 9 or 10 for a 13-plus entry, Mr Schady-Beckett said

“But a lot of schools will work to shorter timelines, particularly if parents don't know the system, or they've had certain changes to their situation," he said, with September 2022 still an option if parents make time for school tours and entry tests.

More than 530,000 pupils attend private schools in the UK, and almost 8,000 British expatriates send their children to UK boarding schools.

For Harry, whose parents work for the Foreign Office, going to St. Edmund’s School Canterbury in Year 7 when he was 11 allowed him to get to know the country he is from but in which he had never lived.

While his family were living in China when he first attended, they are now based in Kuwait, allowing him, like most Gulf children, to fly home every half-term and school holidays.

“Because my parents work for the Foreign Office, we are always moving so going to a boarding school gave me that stability with my education,” said Harry, now 17.

Having his older brother already at the school helped him to adapt to his new life at the school, which also has other students from the Gulf, and attending a smaller school is also “comforting”, he said, because he knows everyone.

“Most holidays, I head out to Kuwait but sometimes they'll come to the UK,” said Harry, who has applied to study economics at university in Cambridge, as well as Bath, York and Leeds.

Conrad also flies home at half-term and holidays and when full boarders are allowed to leave the campus for an entire weekend his mother sometimes flies over.

A number of students from the UAE attend Marlborough College in Wiltshire. Alamy Stock Photo

Education a key driver for UK property sales

Education is one of the main drivers of property sales in the UK, particularly in London, said Stuart Leslie, international sales and marketing director at property developer Barratt London.

“About 30 per cent of our inquiries are related to education. For parents looking send their kids to schools costing £30,000 a year, they will have a bolthole in the UK, an apartment rather than a home, that they can pop over and see the kids from time to time,” he said.

“The rest of the time it’s rented out, so it is more of an investment."

The Middle East has made up about 23 per cent of Barratt International’s business and over the past two months there as been a significant increase in activity driven by flights reopening between the region and the UK in the summer.

Mr Leslie, who recently travelled to Dubai for business, said a number of wealthy people he met at a recent event for family offices in the emirate had a child either in university or at school in the UK.

“They were all focused on sending their next generation to the UK but also in investing in the UK because they'd been educated there and they knew the property market here," he said.

“UK boarding school is really a great springboard into some of the top universities in the UK, or indeed over to the US."

This is the ultimate ambition for many parents, said Mr Schady-Beckett – to get their children into a top university.

"They've probably had that sort of education themselves and would like the same for their children and while there a huge number of independent schools in Dubai, they're not really at the same level [in terms of] university success rates of Dubai schools," he said.

While 35 per cent of the parents attending the British Boarding School Show in Dubai will be British, the rest will comprise Middle Eastern families as well as some from India and other locations.

"One of the main reasons they attend is because it is a very good way into the system if you didn't attend a boarding school yourself," said Mr Schady-Beckett.

For Kinesha, 13, an Indonesian in Dubai, who now goes to Sevenoaks, the opportunity has broadened her horizons.

"I want to go to a university in the US mostly because I want to try a different setting," she said. "And I think going to Sevenoaks is going to really help with that, because it's much more established than my old school in Dubai."

Updated: November 24, 2021, 10:14 AM