With school fees for the best boarding schools in the UK now standing at around £34,000 per year it is worth considering some alternatives.
One option is to try to gain a place at a UK State Boarding School but places at the more academic such as Cranbrook in Kent are very difficult to come by and the criteria for selection will not leave many places for pupils coming in from overseas.
A more viable option is to consider the Irish Boarding Schools. There has been a long tradition of boarding in Ireland, most aimed at the local population, but this has declined over time and today a smaller number of the older more established schools remain.
Both schools are relatively small in comparison to UK schools (fewer than 300 pupils) but both are genuinely academic and offer a full boarding package. St Columba’s offers full boarding for €22,000 and Glenstal’s fees are just over €17,000. In comparison to the best UK schools this represents huge value for money; cutting the cost by well over 50% in comparison to, for instance, Rugby or Wellington. And the education gained at these schools must not be seen as second best. They educate the cream of Irish society and both are well versed in getting their pupils into the top universities in Ireland, the UK and overseas.
In many ways they offer even better access to universities than their equivalents in the UK in that they can offer the added attraction of Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, etc. alongside the UCAS route to the top UK institutions.
In terms of access to university the North of Ireland offers exactly the same. The education system is more familiar; GCSE and A Levels rather than the Irish Leaving Certificate but boarding in the northern province is limited to a similarly small number of schools. For a co-ed Grammar School experience one of the very best is The Royal School Armagh where staff have established a very sophisticated academic tracking system which is embedded in the academic and pastoral system. The boarding facilities and accommodation are as good as anywhere in England with limited numbers of overseas pupils.
For girls only, Victoria College (www.victoriacollege.org.uk) is probably the top option. Victoria has an ambitious academic feel and its results are impressive. Campbell College (www.campbellcollege.co.uk) is a big traditional boys’ school with almost as much emphasis on sport as on academic matters. It is more forgiving in terms of entry requirements and has recently built a brand new 6th form boarding house with all the modern conveniences of a University Hall of Residence. Rockport School (www.rockportschool.com) in Holywood near Belfast has a strong Prep Department and educates boys and girls up to GCSE level. Many then transfer to UK boarding schools for the 6th form. They also prepare pupils for Common Entrance at age 13.
The fee structure in Northern Ireland is different to the South with EU pupils typically paying just £10,500 per year and non-EU ranging from £14,000 at Armagh Royal to £17,500 at Campbell and Victoria, and £20,500 at Rockport. Once again this represents incredible value for money.
Senior school education in all of the schools mentioned starts at age 11 but entry is possible at 13 and at 16. The Republic of Ireland has the added attraction of a Transition Year which acts as an introductory year to the 6th form but without the added pressure of the full Leaving Certificate curriculum. It offers overseas pupils that all-important time to bed in and get used to the different environment. This is not possible in most UK schools where pupils have to dive straight into the A Level curriculum.
Most parents will be familiar with the A Level programme with its emphasis on three or four subjects. The Leaving Certificate is more broadly based, rather like the IB and subjects such as Mathematics and English are compulsory. It is recognised as a valid entry route for all UK universities and indeed for the US.
The biggest obstacle to parents is lack of familiarity with the schools. These are not the big names that people remember but the Irish education system has long been recognised as being very impressive and familiarity can be improved by a week-long visit to the Emerald Isle. Access is easy with airports in Belfast, Dublin, and Shannon in the West.
Fairfield Education is well placed to advise on these schools with a permanent presence in Ireland and with two Irish-educated consultants. Ongoing advice and support is possible while the pupils are at school, and all travel and accommodation can be included in their service. Director, Rory Reilly was educated at Trinity College Dublin and Kingston University London, and acted as Registrar for Admissions at the King’s School Canterbury for over ten years. He now manages a team of highly qualified and experienced educational consultants advising parents on the best route through to the best boarding schools in the UK, Ireland and Switzerland.