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The Independent Schools Council Census of 2017

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The Independent Schools Council (ISC) Census of 2017 has been released. In this report, Britannia StudyLink (BSL) highlights several important issues and implications regarding Hong Kong parents’ approach to sending their children to study at a UK independent school. BSL also reports on the changing demographics affecting UK independent schools.


The ISC acts on behalf of the 1,301 independent schools in the UK. It also brings together seven associations of independent schools alongside their headteachers, bursars and governors. The ISC is widely considered as one of the most authoritative sources of information concerning the UK’s education landscape.

There are now record numbers of pupils at ISC member schools – 522,879 pupils, the highest level since records began in 1974. This is around 4,500 pupils more than in 2016. Although pupil numbers have remained stable, a “marginal decrease” in the number of boarding pupils (0.2%) and an increase in the number of day pupils are trends worth following over the next few years.

There has been a reasonable increase in the number of British pupils from 364,651 in 2016 to 387,738 in 2017, but with the demand for British boarding places becoming stronger in countries such as China, it is reasonable to assume that the ratio of British pupils to overseas pupils in boarding houses will remain roughly the same in the years to come. For 2017, the total number of boarders is 74,603. There are no precise figures for the number of international students who board but 27,281 overseas students have parents overseas while another 23,192 have parents in the UK.

Increased demand from overseas, and a more uncertain economic climate in the UK over the past ten years, has meant that UK independent schools have had to be canny when it comes to international recruitment. The majority of schools have found the right balance in terms of the number of nationalities represented while British boarding schools’ traditional values and boarding ethos have gone unaffected. The fusion of glorious histories and tradition with globalisation is working wonders at Britain’s top boarding schools.

In summary, UK independent schools are balancing the intake of international students and British pupils as well as they can

Between 2016 and 2017, fees rose by their lowest level since 1994 at 3.5%. However, one must be cautious with this single figure alone because the ISC has considered fee increases by region and it is natural that more undesirable regions will not see significant fee increases. It is worth noting that the average boarding fee has increased by 4.1%. Boarding numbers have been steady over the years but it is surprising to learn that 74% of ISC boarding schools have fewer than half their pupils boarding. Financials dictate and day schooling is becoming increasingly popular with families. Although full-time boarding numbers at Sixth Form are strong, figures for those boarding at Senior and Junior and below levels are disappointing – only 44,000 children board out of approximately 389,000 pupils at these levels.

The number of pupils educated in Independent School Council international campuses, or “franchise schools”, abroad has outstripped the number of pupils taught in Britain for the first time. ISC members currently operate 59 campuses abroad, educating 31,773 pupils – an increase from 46 campuses last year with 27,619 pupils. In these schools, children may receive an intensely academic education which is a far cry from a character-building and holistic British boarding education. Many of these franchise schools are adapting to local demand and one wonders about the ethicality of a leading brand becoming overly commercial. These schools should be abiding by the true ethos which British boarding schools have worked hard to mould throughout their glorious histories.

In terms of the number of pupils from Hong Kong at ISC Schools, there has been a small increase of 172 from 4,766 in 2016 to 4,938 in 2017. Britannia StudyLink, the largest education consultancy in Hong Kong, registers over 500 students a year to British boarding schools, while a third of pupils studying at Prep Schools are Britannia pupils. Although progress is being made, the number of new Hong Kong pupils with parents living overseas has not risen substantially. This academic year saw an increase of 125 new starters at Senior level. However, Britannia StudyLink is more concerned about the number of starters at Junior level this year - only 12 more pupils than 2016.

On the basis of the number of starters at Junior level from Hong Kong, it is doubtful whether a convincing majority of Hong Kong students are immersed in, and hence benefitting from, the essence of a British education. It is possible to infer that many families are content with enrolling children as late as possible with academic reasons in mind. Many parents still believe that entry into a prestigious university, as opposed to the development of transferable skills and life experience at boarding school, is the be- all and end-all of a British education.

Although there is clearly a great deal of work to be done when it comes to enrolling more Hong Kong pupils into Prep School, Hong Kong families respect the value of boarding as opposed to attending day school. One only has to look at the figures for non-British pupils with parents who live in the UK. Hong Kong has almost three times more boarders than pupils in day schools. For some countries, such as France, Germany and Russia, the number of pupils in day schools outstrips the number of boarders. Chinese parents living in the UK sent 606 children to day schools.

In summary, UK independent schools are balancing the intake of international students and British pupils as well as they can. It is not reasonable to assume they can recruit another 50,000 British students in order to smooth out ratios in boarding houses and nor should they be focused on doing so. As for the mindset of Hong Kong families, nothing is impossible. The next few years are vital and there are signs that parents are beginning to be convinced by the message which BSL is conveying at education events, seminars and talks. Families need to be looking at a longer British boarding education rather than a shorter academic-driven one.

Samuel Chan

Samuel Chan is the founder of British school placement company, Britannia StudyLink.

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