Your Insider Guide to the Top Boarding Schools in the UK

Let us guide you through the labyrinth to find the best school for your child.
Sunday 10 January 2021
Eton's uniforms are as unique as their heritage. Photo: Eton College

*This article was first published in the January/February issue of 2019.

Location: Windsor, Berkshire SL4 6DW
Ages: 13-18 term
Results: 60% A/A* at A-Levels
Fees: £13,556 per term
Admission: ISEB pre-test, school’s own exam, interview and previous school’s report at 11, CE at 13

Etonians are used to being in the public eye. The school has educated everyone from royalty to Prime Ministers, from writers to award-winning actors. With its outstanding teaching, fantastic extracurricular, unique traditions (Wall Game, anyone?), distinctive uniform and awe-inspiring surroundings, it’s no surprise that many Asian parents want a piece of the action.

Baffling then, that a relatively small number actually end up there. The already daunting admission into this heavily over-subscribed school is about to get even harder, with the boys expected to complete a two-stage assessment for entry in 2020. While this is certainly an impressive school, it is not for everyone.

There are a few boys who get lost in such a large, fast-paced and action-packed environment and are left by the wayside. “Some can’t keep up academically, others find it socially challenging and just retreat into themselves,” explains an Old Boy. Boys are expected to be very independent from day one as they have their own rooms and there is no set time for prep. However, with A*s results all round (A-Levels are taught alongside an increasing number of Pre-Us) and access to an unrivalled range of subjects, libraries filled with rare books, state-of-the-art laboratories and new buildings for modern languages, economics and divinity, Asian parents will continue to be fascinated with this school.

Location: Harrow-on-the-Hill HA1 3HP
Ages: 13-18
Results: 64% A/A* at A-Levels fees: £13,350 per term
Admission: ISEB pre-test, school’s own assessment, CE or school’s own exam; previous school’s report and interview

A popular school with Asians, some families have been sending their sons to Harrow for three generations. They like it for its traditions – the boater hat, school songs and peculiar games like Harrow football – as well as the strong bonds Harrovians have with each other. “Every time an Old Boy gets hitched, a bunch of us would sing The Harrow Song at the wedding,” says an ex-pupil.

While there is definitely pressure to do well, Harrow famously produces a well-rounded boy with a balanced education. “The atmosphere of the school is actually pretty relaxed,” says an Old Boy. Boys see themselves as bright, articulate and generally self-assured but not cocky and take inspiration from Old Harrovians such as Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, flamboyant poet Lord Byron and entrepreneur Julian Metcalfe. While the Harrow is beautifully set among 300 green acres, it is less cloistered than most other boarding schools being just 20 minutes away from London’s Baker Street – something parents may find to be either an advantage or disadvantage.

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All smiles at Wycombe Abbey. Photo: Wycombe Abbey

Location: Buckinghamshire HP11 1PE
Ages: 11-18
Results: 84% A/A* for A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £12,980 per term Day: £9,735 per term
Admission: Assessment day, CE or school’s own exam and interview

The all-girl boarding school most if not all Asian parents consider for their daughters, although a good number reject it for being too much of a hothouse. However, word has got out that the school is now less of a pressure cooker.

While academic standards are still incredibly high (29 girls were offered a place in Oxbridge this year), a current student says the school is a different breed to what it was. “I was surprised I felt at home so quickly,” she says. Surprisingly, a sizeable number of girls leave post GCSEs but it’s mainly because they have been tempted away by top London coeds after being cloistered for so long. Parents who have gone through the Wycombe Abbey experience say the school is still a great fit for the “super-bright high achiever who wants to be educated in a more traditional setting.”

Its impressive and diverse alumni attest to this: Polly Stenham (playwright), Baroness Butler-Sloss (judge) and India Knight (journalist). Jo Duncan, currently Headmistress of the Royal High School in Bath, will be the new Head from September 2019.

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The bright, sunny grounds of Brighton College. Photo: Brighton College

Location: Brighton BN2 0AL
Ages: 11-18 results: 82.5% A/A* for A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £14,300–£15,070 per term Day: £5,600–£8,180 per term
Admission: ISEB pre-test, CE or school’s own exam, interview and previous school’s report

New on the radar for most Asian parents but word has filtered out that this is the school ‘du jour’ if you want your child to have brilliant exam results in an exciting environment. Innovations include Mandarin for all and changing its uniform to accommodate transgender students.

Headmaster Richard Cairn, who is a bit of a cult figure among headmasters at the way he sped Brighton College up the league tables, says the school takes in children on the bright side of average. The quality of teaching paid off, as this year 99% of grades are at A*-B and about 30% of pupils are off to Oxbridge.

Don’t worry, it’s not just all study and no play at Brighton College – pupils do a lot of charity work within the local area and extracurricular is very strong, with sports being world class. Beware: while applications have skyrocketed (despite a heart attack-inducing increase in fees), weekly boarding is more popular than ever which means the full boarding Asian child might be a bit lonely
on weekends.

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Winchester College sits picturesquely in the background of the iconic River Itchen in Hampshire. Photo: Winchester College

Location: Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9NA
Ages: 13-18
Results: 74.5% D1–D3 grades (the equivalent of A*/A at A-Level)
Fees: Boarding: £13,304 per term
Admission: School’s own exam, interview and previous school’s report

Winchester dropped A-Levels in favour of the more academically rigorous preUs, and the school hasn’t looked back since. “Pupils are doing incredibly well,” crows a proud father. No wonder as the boys’ days are incredibly demanding: six 35-minute lessons before lunch, sports every day, two hours of homework each evening.

Wykehamists are encouraged to love learning for its own sake, and the skyrocketing exam results are merely a by-product of this. Many schools make this claim, however Winchester seems to walk the talk. A mother says the school appeals to a particular type – “the bookish, hardworking boy who bends to the charmingly geeky.”

And certainly, this school isn’t short of eccentricities. “Winchester doesn’t take itself too seriously but defends its right to do things in their slightly oddball way,” continues the mother. She cites the school’s decision to make swimming as the main winter sport for freshmen, not offering History or English Literature for GCSEs and a general non-worship of team sports as ways of showing its subtly non-conformist spirit.

Location: Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1JP
Ages: 13-18
Results: 67% A/A* at A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £13,482 per term Day: £10,114 per term
Admission: ISEB pre-test, CE or school’s own exam and interview

Tonbridge has not been getting the attention it deserves from Asian parents. It definitely deserves a snoop though, not least because of its impressive results with 20% of students regularly heading off to Oxbridge. While the pace of this academic powerhouse can be blistering, these quietly confident boys are said to be very driven – they know they are there to work hard and that is exactly what they do.

An average Tonbridge boy is expected to get A* A A for A-Level. Science is especially popular here but don’t worry, so is sports. The school has a unique mix of day boys and boarders within a boarding setting. However, an exodus of pupils who head home after Saturday school might pose a problem for full boarders.

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Location: Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 3EP
Ages: 11-18
Results: 65.2% A/A* at A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £12,315 per term Day: £8,270 per term
Admission: School’s own exam and interview

Perhaps the most famous girls’ school in the country, CLC was founded by a suffragette, Dorathea Beale in 1858 and has been producing wonderfully ambitious young ladies ever since. Just look at their long list of interesting Old Girls: artist Bridget Riley, actress Kristin Scott Thomas, scientist Mary Archer and exHome Secretary Amber Rudd.

CLC girls are certainly put through their paces, whether it is on the lacrosse pitch or in the classroom; under-achieving is not an option. Most take the traditional A-Levels although the IB diploma is getting increasingly popular. This year, 20 girls got into Oxbridge and 10 to prestigious US universities. The Cheltenham way, though brilliant for getting the very best results out of its girls, can be exhausting, especially for the less able or confident girl.

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It seems that girls who enter Cheltenham settle into this competitive environment much better than those entering into the sixth form. “The atmosphere can be quite daunting,” admits a pupil who has just left. “Perhaps the new well-being programme which tackles issues like diet, stress and peer pressure will help. The school’s position in the centre of Cheltenham is a great bonus; it means they can also escape the confines of school if it all gets too much.

Location: Crowthorne, Berkshire RG45 7PU
Ages: 13-18 results: 66% A/A* at A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £13,250 per term Day: £11,120 per term
Admission: ISEB pre-test, CE or school’s own exam, interview and previous school’s report at 11

One of the most popular schools for upper crust Asians. “Lots of children and grandchildren of Malaysia’s who’s who go there,” says one father. The reason for this is clear – it’s a fantastic all-round school.

A happy mother says: “Teaching is generally outstanding, especially the History and English departments.” She also gives a shout-out to its pastoral care which “is really good, the well-being lessons are genuinely useful.” Another mother with a positive experience speaks enthusiastically of the school’s mix of traditional values and innovative teaching, citing whiteboard walls and oval, American-style Harkness tables which encourage discussion.

IB is on offer and about 20 pupils take this qualification. Sports is victorious on most fronts with a national reputation in rugby, hockey, netball and cricket although one mother says it’s better for boys than girls. All approve of new headmaster Julian Thomas who took over from the divisive Anthony Seldon although they acknowledge the great job he had done with Wellington.

Location: Cranbrook, Kent TN17 4AA
Ages: 11-18
Results: 62% A/A* at A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £12,650 per term
Admission: CE or school’s own exam, interview and previous school’s report

Prospective parents must not let this beautiful school nestled in 97 hectares of beautiful parkland fool them into thinking Benenden is just another traditional, upmarket girl’s school. Behind this conventional veneer is a school that is progressive, energetic and dynamic, intent on preparing their girls for the competitive modern world outside.

There’s the new, snazzy science block, an entrepreneur-in-residence and the school’s trailblazing Professional Skills Programme that teaches sixth formers practical skills that are vital for the workplace. Pupils enthuse about the cosy dorms, “The best school food, especially the chocolate brownies and the nurturing atmosphere.”

“It’s all about sistahood,” says one. Sport is a central part of school life with lacrosse being the main focus. Full boarders can enjoy the school’s full Weekend Programme which is chock-full of activities. While there’s fun for all at the school, A-Levels results this year are impressive with 31% at A*.

Location: Sevenoaks, Kent TN13 1HU
Ages: 11-18
Aesults: IB mean points score of 39.6
Fees: Boarding: £12,432 per term Day: £7,785 per term
Admission: CE or school’s own exam, interview and previous school’s report

Academically high-achieving, this IB-only school is also strong on music, sport, drama, art and debating. Sevenoaks is an Asian parent’s dream school as it is a British institution with an international twist – about 23% of students coming from 40 nationalities outside the UK. “It really feels like a very cosmopolitan mini university,” endorses a mother.

Sevenoaks has twice won The Sunday Times Independent School of the Year Award based not only on the school’s academic achievement but also for its co-curricular activities, parent feedback and the success of former pupils. So far, so brilliant, but what really makes the school stand out is how forward thinking it is.

There are three new institutes designed to connect its students to the world beyond school – institutes for higher education and professional insight, teaching and learning, and service and entrepreneurship. The stinger? This school is extremely over-subscribed with more than 5 applicants per place.

Location: Peterborough PE8 4GH
Ages: 13-18 results: 58 A/A* at A-Levels
Fees: Boarding: £9,010 to £11,855 per term Day: £5,780 to £7,595 per term Admission: CE or school’s own exam and interview

A hugely popular coed school with Asian parents, this all-rounder school is known for its brilliant exam results, fearsome sports team, professional level drama and art departments. The school prepares pupils in 35 different subjects, 11 of which follow the Cambridge Pre-U programme, with excellent results – 22% of A-Level grades were A* this year.

One of the most striking things about the school is its facilities: the spectacular SciTec centre which is home to the STEM subjects, the state-of-the-art library that houses over 22,000 books and has its own Rare Book Room and more games pitches than any other school. Note of caution: The school is large and fast-paced which means some Asians who enter in the sixth form don’t always settle in immediately. “A lot of the other pupils have been here for ages so we foreigners tend to stick together,” says one ex-pupil. Ambitious developments are expected, including a sparkling new sports centre.

Related: The 3 Ps and Why They’re Important For Getting Your Child Into the ‘Perfect’ School