International study centres: kick-starting UK education
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International study centres: kick-starting UK education

Study centres offer a welcoming and supportive environment for students looking to maximise their chances of success in the UK education system.

According to the latest figures from the Independent Schools Council, 39% of boarders in UK boarding schools are international students. This percentage has increased rapidly over the last few years (36% in 2012 and 31% in 2008) and looks set to carry on increasing as more schools open their doors to international students.

BAISISThe level of academic and pastoral support offered to international students varies from school to school. However, membership of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students (BAISIS) indicates a school that is making a particular effort to help international students to integrate and fulfil their academic potential. BAISIS is a group of 45 British independent schools and colleges, which exists as an organisation to share best practice in academic and pastoral provision for international students. BAISIS provides networking opportunities and training for teachers, boarding staff and managers dealing with these children.

International study centres

Some, but not all, BAISIS members have international study centres (ISCs) or international schools attached to them. These centres form a stepping stone into the British school system by providing intensive English language tuition, lessons in other academic subjects and supportive pastoral care aimed at helping a student to settle in quickly. In the classroom, teachers have additional training in linguistic awareness as well as the usual training in their specific subject. They typically teach smaller groups than are found in their parent schools and pay greater attention to subject definitions and vocabulary than a mainstream teacher might.

In the boarding house, meanwhile, sympathy is balanced with a greater and more overt clarity of instruction than is usually found within a mainstream boarding school, and there is a greater understanding of the particular needs of international boarders. In this way, international students can make quicker academic and linguistic progress and settle in more easily than might be the case in a mainstream school. The aim, however, is nearly always a successful transfer into a UK boarding school, whether the parent school of the study centre or another.

Academic programmes offered

Many study centres will focus on a one-year GCSE programme to enable students to move on into a UK school or college to study A-levels or the International Baccalaureate. Others will take younger students, either as well as or instead of these older students. Some study centres offer the chance for international students to be integrated from the start with their British peers (in extracurricular and weekend activities, sport and music, for example), while others keep international students apart from the students in their parent schools until their integration course is finished.

Instead of a separate one-year GCSE programme, some schools offer a three-year sixth form. Students on this programme will generally be expected to stay at the same school whereas a one-year GCSE programme offers the flexibility to move on into another school or sixth-form college.

Who would benefit from time at a study centre?

All international students starting at a British boarding school would benefit from the expert tuition, support and facilities offered by an ISC or similar course. However, there are certain students who really need to go to a school with some kind of international centre. These are students who:

  • have weak English – either spoken or written, or both (it is important to understand that the UK education system tests by written examination and expects a certain standard of ‘academic English’, which is not the same thing as competence in spoken or ‘general English’)
  • have not already been in the British educational system abroad
  • have not lived away from home before
  • wish to get into one of the more selective British boarding schools
  • are shy
  • are aged 15 on 1 September of the year in which they join the British school system. This means they would be joining Year 11, halfway through the usual two-year GCSE programme, and most good schools will not accept them at this point.

A tailored learning environment

Study centres have been especially designed for the particular needs of international students. Special attention is given to learning academic English in all subject lessons. The curriculum is also tailored to what will await the student in a mainstream classroom.

Because classes are small, typically ten students per class, the teacher is able to assess each individual’s knowledge and then ‘fill the gaps’ so that by the end of the student’s time at the study centre they know all that they would be expected to know if they had been in the British education system all their lives. This is important, even in the academic subjects that the pupil has already studied, because different subjects are taught in different ways and in a different order in different education systems. So each student may find some things easy, having covered them before, and other things difficult because they have not yet been covered at home. Even when a topic has been learned before, it is still necessary to learn the subject-specific vocabulary to enable the pupil to show, in written English, their knowledge.

Students in such small classes, with this kind of individualised attention and working in English all the time, will usually make astonishing progress, which would take far longer if they had started immediately at a mainstream school. Integration into the culture and ethos of a British boarding school is also far less challenging when undertaken in a small centre. However, students in a study centre linked to a boarding school will still have the opportunity to use the facilities of a large and well-equipped school as well as being cared for in a small place – the best of both worlds in that important, yet daunting, first year.

Which schools have study centres?

Most, though not all, international study centres are linked with long-established traditional British boarding schools. In 1997, BAISIS was formed by Sherborne School, Taunton School, Bedford School and Rossall School, which had all opened international study centres to prepare international students better for the challenges of British education. Each of these centres had a different ‘flavour’, either as a reflection of their parent schools or because they offered different levels of integration with British students or because they focused on specific age groups or examination preparation. In recent years, BAISIS has opened its doors to other schools that have different types of pre-sessional courses or support mechanisms in place for newly arrived international students (a full list of BAISIS members can be found at But the common element is a high quality of provision and care for the academic and pastoral support of students, without which membership will not be granted.

Moving on

For most students, a study centre is a stepping stone to a British boarding school or college. Nearly as soon as they arrive, students are thinking about where they want to go on to. This is usually the decision of the student and his or her parents, very often assisted by the advice of an educational agent. Sometimes students go on to the boarding school that has set up the centre, but this is not always the case. In many instances, students have to take difficult entrance exams; sometimes, though, a school will make decisions based on the recommendations of a study centre or a student’s predicted GCSE grades. Many study centres will offer advice or guidance as to which schools are suitable for individual children to apply to.

The study centre will then prepare the student so that they have a better chance of passing the entrance examination or interview.

Outstanding results

To go onto an A-level or IB programme, a good school or college will demand at least five GCSE passes at grades A* to C. Many study centres achieve outstanding results, with students gaining far better GCSE results than the national average, despite the fact that they are only there for a year rather than the normal two years spent on the GCSE curriculum and are studying in a language that is not their own.

The best start to boarding

By the time a student leaves a study centre and joins a mainstream UK school, they should have a much better level of spoken and written English, an understanding of all the concepts in their chosen academic subjects that would be expected of a British student and the ability to express that understanding on paper and in English. They will be able to take a full part in the larger classes of British students they will join. They will also be familiar with the culture of a British boarding school and able to settle into the boarding house at their next school and participate in all sorts of games and extracurricular activities with enjoyment and confidence. They will be prepared and ready for success at school and beyond, and in the end that is what all of us, parents and teachers alike, want for our children.

Caroline Nixon was Principal of Taunton School International from 2003 – 2014 and is now International Recruitment Director of Taunton School.  She has been Chairman of BAISIS since 2009 and has delivered talks and seminars on international education, including advising international students on how to choose a suitable school, at exhibitions and conferences all over the world.