The Russian Dilemma

Assimilation and Integration into UK Schools

“The Russian Dilemma”


This is the text of a talk given to predominantly Russian families in London in June 2015

Like most of you I too am an outsider.  I was not brought up in this English Public School system.  I was born and educated in Ireland.  I studied at Trinity College in Dublin and lived there for a number of years before moving to London to initially follow a rowing career.  This led on to a teaching career and I moved into the English Public School system in 1980.

As a result of my background I feel I have always been able to view this education system from a rather different perspective and I think this has given me an advantage when dealing with families from different parts of the world.  I recognise that there are different education systems and that there are different ways of bringing up children.  I also recognise and understand that feeling of complete bewilderment when it comes to understanding just how these schools work.  For me, moving to work in an English boarding school was like stepping onto the other side of the moon.  Understanding the traditions, the ways of behaving, and the hierarchy all took time.  I was frequently confused but more often I was struck by the dedication of the staff, the ambition of the pupils and above all, that belief in a truly holistic education where pupils’ opinions were valued and where the individual mattered more than the system.

Then for ten years, up to last September, I worked as the Registrar for Admissions at The King’s School Canterbury, and one of the very interesting changes that took place during that time was the appearance of Russian, Ukranian and Kazakh families in my office for the first time. 

British schools had no experience of Russian pupils, and Russian families had no experience of Public Schools.  This led to the development of what I have often referred to as “The Russian Dilemma ”“The Russian Dilemma”

There are a number of different aspects to this.

UK Schools

Firstly the schools themselves had no idea as to how to engage with these Russian  families.  As with all change the schools were rather hesitant about admitting these new pupils and when they did they paid very little attention to the difficulties these pupils faced in settling into a totally different culture.  As a result a significant number of pupils did not manage to integrate properly and many did not last for more than a year.  The schools were often unwilling, or perhaps unable to engage with the families, to try to establish just who they were or what their background was.  Even if the children did manage to make a success of their schooling the parents often felt excluded.

Number of Applications

The second aspect of the “Dilemma”  has been the huge surge in applications from Russia and the CIS.  In 2007 there were just 800 Russian pupils in Independent Schools in the UK, by 2014 there were over 8,500. In my final year as Registrar 11% of all my future registrations were from Russia.  The problem is that many of the Agents working for Russian families are not trusted by the schools; they have no real understanding of the selection procedures and as a result they apply to lots of different schools.  This has led to this huge jump in registrations which in turn has led to an unofficial “quota” system.  What this means is that the application system to some of these schools is neither fair nor logical.  One boy that we placed in a top boarding school earlier this year had been turned down by schools that didn't even make it into the top 200 on the league tables.  I had another family tell me that they applied to seven different schools, were turned down by three but had been offered a place in the school which was the highest in the league tables.  They could not understand what was going on.  So, families are applying to too many schools, schools are getting to the point where they have too many applications and the process needs to change.  One Registrar that I know solved the problem by just hitting the delete button!

Parental Understanding

A third aspect to this problem is that you as parents don’t know enough about what you are getting into.  You may not have come across the situation where you cannot simply book a place in your preferred school.  Recently a family visiting Oundle School realised what they were dealing with only when the Registrar for Admissions asked the girl “Why should we take you when we have four applicants for each place?”  The top schools can pick and choose who they like, not just who will pass the exams but who will contribute most to the wider school community.  

Many parents, quite naturally, think that they are choosing the school, others think that it is the children that are being assessed but very few realise that they too are being judged.  Schools want families to be involved with the school, to be truly interested in their children’s education and to believe that education is important for its own sake and not as a badge to wear or to highlight on a CV.

So how do we solve the problem?

Preparation is the key

The Right Advice

As parents you need to learn more, understand more and get the right advice.  You must also focus on your children and move away from the “prestige” element of choosing a school.  We have all heard of Harrow or Eton but, despite the undoubted quality of each school, neither would be right for my son, or indeed my daughter.  What parents often fail to understand is that a league table of schools is not a comparison of similar institutions.  Benenden School is hugely different to Wycombe Abbey; Sevenoaks is a very different school to Tonbridge, and Uppingham may be a better school for your boy than Harrow.  If you get the right advice you will be guided towards schools that will be the correct fit for your child.  I have recently been advising two East European pupils; one is going to Canford School and the other to Wellington.  Both schools are the “right” school; one is not better than the other but they are different from one another!  What we offer, we hope, is the right advice.

Academic Preparation

Academic preparation is important too.  The entry examinations for most schools focus on English and Mathematics.  Generally speaking Russian pupils do well in Maths but their level of English can let them down both at interview and in the examination papers.  This is an area that needs to be worked on over a period of time and appropriate tutoring can be a huge help.  All of the top schools operative a competitive entry system - some are simply more competitive than others.  In order to be considered for entry your child must already be above national average in terms of intelligence, he/she must be able to write fluently in English and they must also be able to talk easily and openly at interview.  Understanding the expectations of the schools is the key to success.


How your sons and daughters are presented to schools is also very important.  You should not apply to lots of schools - you should apply to the “right” schools, probably just three.  Again this is where you need good advice from a consultant that you can trust.  Most agents apply with reports from school that are limited to the standard numerical value - all have grade 5 in almost every subject.  This does not give the schools the information they need and some will just hit that delete button at this stage.  More is needed in order to get past this very first stage.  Schools have to be convinced to take your application seriously.

Social Preparation

The fourth aspect to preparation is in some ways the most important.  Once you have set out on this path your children need to be prepared socially for what is going to happen.  A good Summer School or Induction Programme can be a huge help.  You already know just how strange this country is and you must therefore be aware of the fact that your 13 year old child is going to be faced with a completely different culture and environment in an English Boarding School.

A very small number of Summer Schools is worth considering and I suggest you consider two.  The first is one that offers an introduction to the whole boarding experience at an English school.  The Summer Academy  ( will be based at Sunningdale School in July 2015.  It combines serious academic work with  outdoor activity and cultural experiences.  It is ideal for those looking to broaden their understanding of UK boarding school life.  The second is designed to work on how the individual Russian child needs to broaden his/her thinking in order to avoid those embarrassing situations when they actually start school.  English society is very different to Russian society but the schools are even more different and there is nothing worse for the adolescent than getting it wrong socially at the start.  The “Fit Right In” programme, run by Regency Education (, in a traditional country house in The Cotswolds, places the emphasis on introducing young people to the subtleties of British society and values.


My final word of caution is for you as parents to remember that you also are being assessed when you visit the schools.  Visiting schools is not like looking for a new apartment.  You are being judged from the moment you arrive in the school.  This is because the schools are looking for families that will fit in, that will add something to the school community, that will engage with those they meet and that will be genuinely interested in their children’s education.

Remember, following that very friendly meeting with the Registrar or Head Teacher, notes will be written and judgements made.  In a very competitive world these notes matter!

The very last word!

It is so important to remember that the key person in all of this is your son or daughter.  It is their happiness, confidence and well-being that really matters. 

Thank you.

Rory I Reilly

2 June 2015