Working out which schools you can legally attend can be a minefield, Melanie Butler writes
China loves immersion programmes. The system of spending three or four months in an English-speaking country studying in an English-speaking school with local English-speaking students is not only popular with parents but supported by the Chinese government, too.
However, such schemes are not always so well-received by foreign governments, especially in Europe. EU law mandates that any child of EU citizens is legally entitled to study for free in any state school in any member country. European-style school exchanges, where small groups of ten to twenty students go abroad for two to three weeks, are wildly popular, especially within English-speaking countries.
However, most state-school children in the UK drop foreign languages at the age of fourteen, while in Ireland, the other big English-speaking destination, foreign languages are not compulsory. So demand for English-speaking exchanges far outstrips supply. Demand for school exchanges from outside the EU is also high, but European governments are not keen to embrace these programmes. Neither the UK nor Ireland has a visa that allows non-EU students to attend state schools, even for a week or two.
The US has always enthusiastically welcomed high-school exchanges and the State Department offers a well-established year-long programme on a J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa, which includes free high-school places and free host families.
Other F-1 Student Visa programmes also allow students to attend state-run high schools for shorter periods as long as they cover the whole cost. In the UK, by contrast, it is illegal for unaccompanied children from outside the EU to attend state schools, whether they pay or not, as you can see from the visa rules on this page. In Ireland the same rules apply.
The English law does not appear to stop the Chinese. In fact, there are a number of agencies placing Chinese children in state schools around England. Young students on those courses are almost certainly in the country illegally and could be turned back at the airport when they arrive in the UK. If found studying at state schools, these students can be deported, even when they are part of a legitimate school-exchange programme.
In 2015 ten Chinese children were refused entry to the UK to join a short exchange programme with a state secondary school in London.
The institution fought the issue in court and won. Immigration law has not changed but lawyers suggest that officials will normally allow entry for small groups of students if it is just for short periods of two to three weeks, without breaking the law.
Large groups of 100 or more students wanting to attend the same school for three or four months have no choice but to go to a fee-charging school or a language school.
Many Chinese consider British boarding schools their first, if not only, choice. But there are only 485 fee-charging boarding schools in England and a handful in Scotland and Wales. The Republic of Ireland has just 29. And while many boarding schools are happy to accept a Chinese student or two for ten weeks, almost none of them can manage large numbers. According to the Independent Schools Council, the average British boarding schools has 440 students, 150 of whom are boarders. Class sizes are tiny, with twenty students or even less.
How on Earth can schools of this size accommodate 150 visiting Chinese for three months? Both in Britain and Ireland there is room for growth in the fee-charging day-school sector. There are only around thirty in Ireland against a whopping 2,000 institutions in England. However, school and class sizes are small.
When it comes to the immersion courses, size matters.