Choosing the best boarding school for your child

Posted on 6th Nov 2018 in Choosing a school, International Baccalaureate, Boarding

It feels like an enormous decision. Your child is getting ready for the next stage of their educational journey. They’ve got a promising future ahead of them, as well as challenges they need to overcome. As a parent, it’s hard not to feel that this entire unwritten adventure hinges on every decision you make. Particularly when you’re choosing a school that will become their home for at least the next couple of years. So how do you find the right school for your child? Here's some advice, courtesy of United World Colleges (UWC), which runs 17 schools across four continents.

In the end, it all comes down to research, and communication. Take the time to find the place that feels most like their natural “home”. The place that gives them the freedom to be the person they are, and the person they could be.

Is your child ready for boarding school? Is boarding school right for your child right now?

Chances are you’ll know the answer to that better than anyone else. After all, you’ve been there for them all their life. But it’s something you need to ask yourself honestly, and discuss with them heart-to-heart. Because – while thriving at boarding school isn’t a sign that one child is somehow 'better' than another – it’s undeniable that it can be a challenging experience that isn’t the best fit for everyone.

Take the time to research and think things over, and find your own way to the answers you need. But here are some questions that might help:

Who wants this: Your child, or you?

You’re here to guide your child, to support them, and to teach them important lessons. But sometimes they need to choose their own path. It’s all too easy to set your heart on a certain type of education for your child, particularly if you have fond memories or high regard for a certain approach to learning. But what worked for you might not suit them.

It’s never a bad thing to communicate as a family. But ultimately this needs to be your child’s decision. Because if they want to be there, it will give them that extra spark to push through any challenges they face, and to really grow.

What’s the attraction of boarding school?

A boarding school can be an excellent environment for your child to gain independence, make lasting friendships, and become a confident adult. If your child has specific ambitions, there are a wide variety of different schools that can cater for that.

However, it’s possible to rush into a poor fit for reasons that may not be education-related, such as a desire for a new environment, or the promise that a school will 'transform' your child in some way. Make sure you approach your child’s education with your eyes open, and pick the school that fits their personality and needs rather than the one that promises 'miracle cures'.

What sort of character is your child?

While students are allowed to maintain regular contact with family during term time, boarding life will involve them spending time away. If your child is prone to homesickness or feels uneasy away from family, this may be a jarring experience for them.

However, that’s not to say that boarding school is only suitable for brash and fiercely independent children. The structure, activities, and close friendship groups that often come with boarding schools could help your child build their confidence, expand their horizons, and become more sociable. But if you’re concerned that your child might not adapt well to this environment, there’s no shame in finding a better option, or delaying your application.

Are YOU ready?

So you’ve found the perfect school. The school that feels like it was created to support your child’s interests and ambitions. And yet ... you still feel nervous, guilty, or emotional at the thought of them going. That’s all perfectly natural, even if you’re confident you’ve made the right decision. Your child has been with your for years, and you’ll miss them. And even though you know in your heart that you’re giving them the space to spread their wings and discover their own world, there’s also that twinge of guilt about whether you’ve 'sent them away'.

Of course, it’s easy to tell someone not to feel guilty, or sad. But it is possible to make those feelings more bearable. Try to agree regular communication with your child. Keep yourself occupied. Meeting the house parents and staff can go a long way toward reassuring your that they’re being well cared-for. But remember to give your child the space to make the most of this potentially life-changing experience.

Finding the right boarding school

Every school has its own character and focus. So while some are obviously better than others, there isn’t really one school that suits all students. Some may respond better to a structured, rigorous school life. Others may thrive in a more liberal environment which exposes them to different interests and perspectives.

Here are a few factors that might influence your decision:

What are the school’s mission and values?

A school with a particular mission can provide your child with expert specialist guidance and support. For example, UWC schools were founded on the belief that education can help to unite citizens and cultures for peace and sustainability, and inspire them to change the world. That vision is a part of everything, from the diverse student community to the activities and projects that raise their confidence and show them how much is possible.

There are other schools out there that follow different visions. Several schools are designed primarily to get your child into college, and therefore adopt a rigorous but often narrower focus on academics. Military schools believe in a strong focus on discipline, while religious schools will couple your child’s education with spiritual teaching and activities.

What are the facilities and activities like?

A school isn’t just a selection of classrooms. Great schools nurture your child’s interests, whether they’re artistic, sporting, or charitable. One of the exciting things about these institutions is that they may draw out a talent or passion your child might not have considered before.

Of course, that’s not even considering the activities that go beyond the everyday. Does the school empower them to organise trips to exciting places in the local area, or further away? Do they get to dream up projects that will inspire them, and teach them responsibility, teamwork and leadership?

Where is it?

Your child won’t be living under your own roof anymore. But that doesn’t mean that location isn’t an important consideration.

Separation from family may be taxing for some children, so you may want them to be in the same country to reduce the sense of isolation. Alternatively, your child may crave new experiences and different cultures, in which case you may be confident enough to let them board on a different continent entirely.

Environment is also a key factor. If your child is more at home in the country, they may not wish to go to school right in the centre of a hectic city (and vice versa). UWC schools range from a campus on the edge of a lake in Changshu in China to a park-like school ten minutes bike ride from Maastricht in The Netherlands.

What do you think of the atmosphere on campus?

Often, you get a feeling from a place. You’ve read the prospectus. Got the sales pitch. Researched the academic statistics. But what really matters is how it feels when you’re there. Some schools seem to have a strict, tense atmosphere in which students seem blank-faced or on-edge. Others appear to be more welcoming and lively, full of smiles and relaxed children.

When you’re visiting a school, pay attention to the students as well as the staff. Get advice from alumni and current school parents. Get a feel for whether it feels inviting, or somehow restrictive. Does it feel like your child belongs here?

Can you afford it?

Some of the world’s best schools come at a heavy cost. Fees for a high-quality boarding school can be very expensive, and it is worth budgeting for what is reasonable for you. Many schools offer scholarships for strong students, so you should also research what is available. UWC was founded on the belief that talented and driven learners should not have their opportunities restricted by their circumstances. Around 70% of our students at IB Diploma level have received full or part scholarships. This means that the student community is truly diverse, both in terms of birthplace and socio-economic background.

What is its approach to learning?

There are very different ways to teach a child. And as a parent, you will have a good idea what works for your child. Finding a school that has an approach that matches your own is a crucial part of your search.

Will students be asked to devour textbooks whole, or will they be invited to question and learn through doing?

For instance, at UWC teachers focus on empathy and experience as a key part of your child’s development. UWC students explore the IB Diploma, a rigorous programme that encourages broader thinking and a more holistic approach to education.

They will learn as part of a diverse community that will expose them to different perspectives and values, and encourage them to question (or better justify) ingrained beliefs. Through projects and community action, they will also learn that it is possible to have an impact, and how far their efforts can go.

Does the school have a global mindset?

Your child will grow up in a world where the next opportunity could come from anywhere. They may go on to study or work anywhere in the world, and share their neighbourhoods with people from many different backgrounds and cultures. Many parents value a school experience that helps them forge friendships with fellow students from all over the world, teach them the value of languages, and inspire them to become caring, compassionate global citizens.

School communities can vary. Some international schools may not be as diverse as expected, as they may be designed to offer families who are working abroad the chance to study the curriculum of their home country. At UWC, we select students from 155 different countries, with a vast array of backgrounds and experiences. Your child will find themselves with a circle of friends from all over the world, a broader mind, and a more compassionate character.

What support is available to your child?

When you visit a quality boarding school, you’ll find a place that understands the importance of your child’s wellbeing. You’ll often find counsellors and other support services on campus, and staff that are open to communicating with you when your child is facing challenges.

However, you will want to know that your child is safe and supported in the right way. As part of your research and your visit, be sure to ask about how the school nurtures each student’s wellbeing, and what services and assistance are available if they are having a hard time.

UWC schools pride themselves in creating a welcoming atmosphere for students. As a result, it’s important to be honest about any medical or emotional requirements your child may have, so schools can accommodate them wherever possible.

Boarding school life: What is it like?

When you’re making a decision as big as your child’s education, it pays to do your research. And nowadays there’s a lot of information out there, from rankings to research papers on the effects of boarding and day education.

Sometimes, however, the thing that really makes the difference is the old-fashioned recommendation.

Many alumni and parents admit that their choice of school was – at least in part – influenced by a tip from a friend, teacher, or neighbour. And – as important as it is to thoroughly check a school’s mission, values, facilities and practices – you can’t understate the value of advice from someone who’s been there and experienced it.

The 'International' Experience

'International' can mean different things at different schools. For example, some schools can be very popular with expats working in the country in question. If a school in the Middle East offers the English National Curriculum, it can attract a large number of British families.

These international schools can be attractive if you’re looking for a 'home away from home', or looking to minimise disruption for children who already find themselves far away from home and friends.

Alternatively, many young people find themselves seeking out precisely this kind of 'disruption'. They may feel like spreading their wings, finding out more about the world, or chasing dreams that they feel aren’t nurtured by their current school or surroundings.

By interacting with people from different situations, students learn to communicate and be more open-minded. This can be invaluable in the modern world, in which employees and leaders of the future need to be adaptable, resilient, understanding global citizens.

This isn’t just about understanding different cultures. It’s also about being able to appreciate and accommodate other people’s needs and perspectives. At UWC schools, students sometimes find themselves sharing dorm accommodation with people with other priorities or evening rituals.

Care and wellbeing

Whether problems are academic, emotional or social, all UWC schools have a strong focus on support and pastoral care. For example, at UWC Robert Bosch College students have regular meetings with a personal tutor, and are also supervised by a residential 'house tutor' who can offer guidance and assistance. Your child will be able to contact school psychologists, school counsellors and a school nurse, and a 'Peer Support' programme was launched in 2016 that trained selected students to coach and counsel their peers.

UWC Atlantic in Wales has a 'wellbeing programme', which aims to equip students with adult life skills through presentations and discussions in the first and second terms of the first year. Topics include time management, emotional wellbeing, finding help, respectful relationships and consent, mental health and the use of social media.

Making a difference – outside the classroom

As more and more students achieve excellent grades, universities and employers are looking for extra factors when they pick the students they want. This is where the IB – and the UWC experience – excels.

It’s worth bearing in mind that 'top marks' doesn’t necessarily guarantee a place at every university anymore. Selectors are now also looking for evidence of extra-curricular activities, of community involvement, and of situations in which your child has demonstrated problem-solving skills, leadership, resilience or teamwork.

The 'right' curriculum

One of the biggest factors in your choice of school will probably end up being the curriculum on offer. After all, the heart of many schools is the classroom.

However, it’s natural to feel confused by the choices on offer. Even in countries with a recognised 'national' curriculum, some schools have opted to provide other curricula with a more “international” flavour. Some schools have switched between curricula, and there seem to be arguments for each.

The right choice for your child may not be the right choice for another. So here are some things to be aware of:

What is the reputation of the curriculum? Is it respected by the universities (or careers) that your child is interested in?

If your child is likely to move to another country before the end of their education, is that curriculum offered in other locations?

Is your child more suited to teacher-led study or self-directed learning? Do they want to be mentored or taught?

Does your child want a deeper focus on specific subjects, or do they want a broader range of skills?

Is your child interested in community activity, creative and sporting activity, or do they just want to concentrate on their studies?

UWC was integral to the founding of the International Baccalaureate back in 1968, and the IB Diploma is still taught in our schools today. Leading universities respect the IB Diploma because it trains students in a wide range of disciplines, while developing their critical thinking, time management, leadership and teamwork skills. It’s a perfect match for a family of schools that believes in the importance of education in bringing communities together and inspiring students to make an impact on the world.

What is the IB Diploma?

Some pre-university qualifications encourage students to focus on a narrow set of subjects. The IB Diploma challenges them to study a broader range, and also invites them to explore the value of community service, creativity and activity.

IB Diploma students start with a 'core', which is made up of:

  • Theory of Knowledge – Students debate the nature of knowledge and consider different perspectives
  • Extended essay – Students research and write a 4,000-word paper on a subject of their choice
  • Creativity, Activity and Service – Students complete a range of challenges, and explore how they can impact on communities for the better

They will also choose a subject from the following six groups:

  • Studies in Language and Literature
  • Language Acquisition
  • Individuals and Societies
  • Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • The Arts

They study three or four of these six subjects at Higher Level, and the rest at Standard Level. They have the option to replace your Arts subject with an extra Sciences, Individuals and Societies, or Languages course.

The maximum score for an IB Diploma student is 45. This is achieved by getting a maximum score of seven in all six subjects, and an additional three marks on the Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay components. To find out more about the IB Diploma, go to Profiles of schools featured in the IB World Schools Yearbook can be found at

The IB Diploma can work against students with a specific skillset, as a low mark in one subject group can drag the overall final mark down. But many parents (and universities) appreciate the way that the IB Diploma develops adaptable and critical students with a wide range of knowledge. It also inspires them to undertake projects in the wider community that will boost their confidence and organisational skills.

Selecting the right boarding school can be full of perplexing options, and tough choices. And even when you’ve picked one together, it can have its challenging moments. So ... where is your child’s heart guiding them?