Boarding: A unique type of education

Written by BESSA founder, Stephanie Cheah, for the Tatler Education magazine, this article highlights the benefits of a British education for an Asian audience and how children can develop and flourish in a unique manner unlike anything in Asia.

Over four million students across the world choose a British-based curriculum.  Nearly 450,000 pupils are holding visas to study in the UK, including over 15,000 Malaysians in this mix.  With a 143% increase of international students in the UK since 2019, these phenomenal statistics beg the question:  If not for the prestige, why else is the UK still the world’s top education destination?

We are witnessing an undeniable shift of economic and geopolitical power to the East, and in particular, China.  This brings great opportunity to Asia, but for now, intellectual power remains firmly embedded in the West.  Oxford, Cambridge, London, Boston, New York and Paris: these are stand as the major intellectual centres and home to the world’s leading academic institutions.  The universities in the UK have a rich history of providing a world-class education to their students and continue to be the basis for higher education standards in other countries.  They are recognised worldwide for having creative and challenging environments, high standards and every graduate knows that their degree will be accepted and respected, no matter which country they end up living or working in.  The variety of degree courses in different disciplines is extensive, ranging from purely academic studies to vocational and professional pathways, providing a solid foundation and springboard to a successful future.

Although most international students arrive in the UK for higher education, more parents are seeing the upside of tapping into the benefits of a UK system earlier on.  British boarding schools (also called “public schools” in the 18th Century as they prepared their pupils for public service) take in students as young as 11 years old and provide a unique learning environment.  With centuries of experience under their belt, these schools have tried and tested an approach and pedagogy for generations of pupils.  Of course, every school has its own ethos and philosophy, specific academic courses and co-curricular offerings.  It’s impossible to use a broad brush.  My role and duty as an education consultant is to assist families to sift through choices and pinpoint the best fit school for their children.  That said, the reasons for British boarding are compelling and attract families from all over the world.

Parents in Malaysia have high expectations in terms of their child’s academic performance.  Boarding schools offer small class sizes – at Eton College, the average teacher to pupil ratio is 8:1 – taught by highly qualified staff armed and plenty of classroom experience.  An Eton boy told me that of his seven final year teachers “five had PhDs and DPhils, or both”. They were “all incredibly passionate, going the extra step and giving extension material so we can learn beyond the curriculum”.

The examinable academic curriculum is the core of every school’s offering, but there is also an interest in developing life skills: the ability to research, communicate, problem-solve and think both critically and creatively.  Harrow School’s “super-curriculum” is taken by every student and encompasses elective classes, lectures, debate and other activities.  The International Baccalaureate is also well taught in UK boarding schools.  At Sevenoaks School, where the IB has been taught since 1978, the average grade of its 200+ annual graduates is consistently one of the highest globally.  Academic success comes naturally to teenagers who find themselves living and breathing education together with their friends in this stimulating environment.

British boarding schools now boast some of the best facilities and up-to-date equipment available to students.  Massive investment in the sector in recent years has seen new science labs, sports centres and performing arts theatres being built across campuses together with modernised housing accommodation.  The hardware is well-matched with a rich co-curricular life in a vast range of activities – from beach volleyball to board games and coding to choir – and starting a new club if it does not already exist.  In the Sixth Form, students are able to tap experienced university counsellors and preparation programmes.  A Singaporean parent observed that UK schools have expertise in applying not just to the UK, but also to the US Ivy League and top universities elsewhere in the world.  She said that “Inspecting the Leavers’ Destinations list is a sure way to gauge a school’s higher education support system”!

The sense of camaraderie amongst boarding school pupils sows lifelong friendships and an extensive global alumni network.  This unique bond and shared experience is simply “a by-product of having attended Harrow School”, as alumnus Tunku Abang Faisal Amir puts it.  A British boarding education is not just about the prestige, but “in the humblest way, it sets you up for the future with the belief that you can achieve just about anything”.