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Young learners special: Chinese whisper

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Are British boarding schools ready to take on the army of Chinese learners interested in taster courses? Melanie Butler investigates

‘We need to send a group of 150 15-year olds to a boarding school in the UK for four months. We would prefer Oxford, Cambridge or Central London.’ So reads one of the growing number of e-mails received by the Gazette from bilingual schools in China. The demand for boarding school ‘taster courses’ in the UK, where students join a school for a limited amount of time so they can experience British education, is not new.

Private schools in Germany and France have been doing it for years and agents from Brazil were active in the market until quite recently.

What is new, though, is the size of the groups that are coming, especially from China. To put it into context, there are a total of around 8,000 boarders aged 15 in British independent schools according to International School Council statistics. One group of 150 such students may represent only three classes in China – but in the UK it represents 2 per cent of all the boarders in that age group.

So where can they go? We talked to UK schools to find out. Many boarding schools we talked to are happy to squeeze in ten or twelve students for a term, though the highly selective schools, which tend to be oversubscribed, are less likely to do so.

It is also worth remembering that many boarding schools are single sex and most co-educational schools have more spare places for girls than boys. ‘Overseas parents are just more likely to send boys to the UK to study,’ one admissions officer told us ‘so we usually have a handful of spare places for girls’. A mainstream school with 150 spare boarding school places, however, is almost impossible to find, she confirmed, because ‘any school with that many empty places would go bust.’

Mainstream schools also struggle to deal with large numbers of students who need to stay outside term time, require special leisure programmes or want a ‘partial immersion’ programme where they attend classes with their own teachers for half the day.

The International Study Centres (ISCs), schools which prepare children for entry into the mainstream schools, have the right academic requirements: specialised English classes and subject teachers trained to deal with L2 but they tend to be very small, 200-300 students at most.

However, because they supply students to other schools, they are often in a position to set up a consortium and spread students out. Moreton Hall in Shropshire has dealt with small groups of short-stay young learners this way.

Taunton International Middle School, one of the few ISCs to take under 12s, say that they too could also co-ordinate some projects but ‘most schools don’t have a big English language teaching department and can’t take low level learners.’ They are also doubtful about very short courses of, say, two weeks. ‘It isn’t long enough to learn anything.’

International schools which enroll only international students certainly have the academic resources to cope with low-level learners, but again tend to be small. Oldfeld school, for example offers high school ‘taster’ programmes, for four, eight or 12 weeks and has an integration programme with a local school. It even has plenty of beds: it shares a campus with Harrow House, a large residential language school which also runs residential activity courses for British schools. When it comes to school students however, Oldfeld currently only takes 50. A few more would be welcome but a large inflow of students of one nationality would be unsustainable.

Indeed most boarding schools run strict nationality quotas, and China is the biggest market for British boarding schools. Of the 20 boarding schools we spoke to, only two were looking to recruit more Chinese.

Only one of the schools we talked to, Buckwood in Sussex, is able to take large groups of a single nationality on a full immersion or part immersion basis. It has a separate centre where the groups of 50+ can be accommodated and can be taught by their own teachers part of the time if necessary. All students take part in at least some of the lessons in the main school and many attend full-time. It is a market that the school, which also has British day pupils and mostly international boarders, has been in for years and demand is growing fast.

But then so is the market.