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Step-by-step guide on how to map out your child's education when relocating to the UK

Duncan Quirk, Director of Marketing and Senior Consultant for Education Advisers Ltd explains that there’s a lot to consider when moving your family to the UK: career, taxes, housing, healthcare, visas, lifestyle, packing enough sunscreen… the list goes on.

For most parents, their child’s education is an immediate concern. Panicked thoughts ensue: How do I navigate the UK schooling system? How can I maintain, or even upgrade, the quality of my child’s education? Do I find a home first, or a school?

Where do I start?

State or private schools?

A good starting point is to understand the differences between state maintained (i.e free, government-funded schools) and private (a.k.a “public”, “independent”, fee-paying schools.) For newcomers, it can be particularly confusing; each stage of education has a different name in the state and private sectors. Furthermore, the transition points can come at different ages.

Confused yet? This table is a useful reference

Most families will be familiar with the obvious advantages of private schools over state schools: Smaller class sizes, specialist teachers, more extensive facilities and extra-curricular opportunities, better exam results and university progression, and a more hands-on approach to personal development.

However, most relocating families are not aware of the almost polar-opposite processes required to apply to either state or private schools.

Sue Myrie is Director of award-winning relocation company, Citrus Relocation, and is well-versed in helping relocating families secure places at state schools. She explains, “When applying to state schools, relocating families first need to understand that schooling and housing decisions must be made in tandem. With London being so vast, we first help families narrow down their focus, before looking at 3 or 4 specific areas which will fit their overall needs as a family.”

The link between housing and schooling is a notorious subject in the UK. To briefly explain, homes fall into school “catchment areas”, and pupil places are allocated by an area’s Local Education Authority (LEA.) Homes falling within the catchment areas of OFSTED-rated (Office for Standards in Education) “outstanding” schools sell for huge premiums, often £100k+ over the standard sale prices within Greater London.

On the process of applying to state schools, Myrie explains, “It’s very much about playing it by ear. Once we narrow down location, we contact the LEA (Local Education Authority) to check availability of school places in that catchment area. Each LEA works a bit differently but timings are always crucial as you can’t ‘hold’ state school places.”

Timing is indeed critical, as the property purchase or tenancy must be completed before a child can attend the local state school. Myrie concludes “We have always managed to get places in schools rated as “Good” by OFSTED, but never “Outstanding” as these schools are so heavily oversubscribed. The main restriction with relocating to a state school is that there is very little choice – you can only take what is available. If parents can afford it, I always advise they go down the private school route.”

Considerations and obstacles

We believe choice is always one of the key motivating factors for parents who choose private schools. Whereas state schools are restricted by government targets and guidelines, private schools have the freedom and finances to forge their own niche for their pupils, and select pupils (and families) they consider most suitable.

London is arguably the world’s top city for providing range of choice and quality in private education. However, too much choice can be overwhelming and relocating families usually have enough to deal with already.

In our work advising families on private school choice, Education Advisers always advises parents to first put their child’s needs at the centre of their thinking, and we offer a number of free to download guides on finding the right school. We help parents identify their child’s academic potential, and passions, and then find schools to match.

But relocating families also need to think about the family’s wider lifestyle and future plans. Are you committed city-dwellers, or would fresh air and leafy village greens be worth a 30-60 minute commute each way? Will both parents be working and therefore require after-school care/clubs for your child? Would it even be worth considering your child boards during the week and returns to the family home on Friday afternoons? Are you planning to stay long-term and commit to the British education system, or are you likely to move again and require an internationally transferrable curriculum?

The Kumar family contacted Education Advisers in February 2018. With the kids having spent all their lives in Singapore, Mr Anuj Kumar’s role for a well-known Swiss bank was better suited to being located in London. Without suitable school admissions, they would not have been able to move as a family.

“My son was just finishing his first year of iGCSEs, so the timing was a real challenge for him,” explains Mr Kumar. “My daughter is a few years younger and it soon became clear we would have to look for a separate school for her. We didn’t have much time to spare, and also needed to find a family home, in a good neighbourhood, with easy access to central London for my work. There was certainly a lot to consider, and little time to do so.”

Identify and apply

Once you have a focus on the type of school you need, and the kind of location you’re looking for, you can begin to investigate specific schools. You’ll need to refer to the previous table to understand which year group your child will be applying for and the first (and sometimes biggest) challenge is to identify the availability of places for that point of entry.

Whereas applications to state schools need to be aligned with confirmation of residence and are therefore left till late in the day, private schools require families to register well in advance. Some of the big name, elite senior schools require students to register as long as 4 years ahead of enrolment, and will have up to 10 applicants for every space. Whilst this is fairly extreme, the majority of popular London private schools require students to register 1-2 years in advance.

Most relocating families do not have the luxury of such advance notice, but there is no need to panic or become disheartened. London is a transient city and even the best schools will have places become available from time to time. Once you have identified what you are looking for, it is a matter of finding the best fit amongst the available options. Of course this involves a lot of groundwork, but there are always solutions to be found, and often gems to be uncovered.

A whirlwind 6 months after first speaking with them, the Kumars arrived to a new rental property in Buckhurst Hill, an affluent North London suburb on the Underground’s Central Line. “The neighbours were very welcoming and helpful, and my commute to Liverpool Street is just 25 minutes,” Mr Kumar smiles. “The kids have their own commutes in different directions, but we are settling in and getting to spend more time together as a family than we did back in Singapore.”

“My son has settled in well at (Brentwood) School, and they have been really accommodating in helping him continue his GCSEs. A few of the subject exam boards are different so they have provided him with extra support to fill in the gaps. They don’t offer GCSE Economics but have helped him continue this by providing him with support sessions with the Head of their IB Economics department. My son seems more determined and focussed on his future than ever before, and my younger daughter has increased her efforts in a more competitive school. She’s made lots of friends and is really happy.”

As for his children’s social transition, Mr Kumar explains, “It was initially tough for the kids but they have adjusted really well. Life in Singapore was easier, with domestic help and such a safe environment, but they are clearly benefitting from exposure to a new culture and environment. They are becoming more aware, independent and street smart. Overall it is looking like a really beneficial experience for us as a family.”

Relocating your child’s education to London can seem a daunting process and, for the uninitiated, can often prove to be a quite stressful learning process. It is best not to underestimate the complexity involved and you should avoid thinking that things will just fall into place.

However, relocating to London also opens up a fantastic opportunity to upgrade your child’s education. As with any life-changing move, you will need to formulate your strategy, be positive, and seize the initiative. Get it right and your child’s growth and happiness will make it worth the effort.

5 considerations when relocating your child’s education to London

  1. Will you go down the state or private route? The application processes for each are wildly different, and frustratingly non-standardised across the board
  2. Think of your child’s needs – academic, extra-curricular and social. If you have the luxury of choice, focus on schools which fit your child.
  3. Location, lifestyle and logistics: Are you a city family, or could you commute for a family home in the leafy suburbs?
  4. Timelines and entry points. Understand these and how they affect availability of places. Will your child need to change school again in future?
  5. Manage applications: Make sure registrations, entry assessments, and visits are aligned to maximise your options.