• EU students must apply for status under the EU Settlement Scheme to avoid visa complications, and schools are being advised to start this process
  • Bursaries and discounts are now being offered to children from the EU, while marketing efforts are focused on other locations outside the EU, such as China
  • The salary threshold for work visas might also affect staff recruitment, prompting schools to bump up wages by offering extra duties and accommodation

British boarding schools are developing new incentives to lure European students in a bid to reduce the impact of Brexit on their enrolments and school finances.

The initiatives range from urgent visa assistance to offering private health insurance, subsidising uniforms and books, and paying larger commissions to the agents who advise students on whether to go to the UK or its rising rivals in Ireland, Canada and other countries.

The most pressing problem is the continuing confusion surrounding the future visa status of EU students, who make up about 6,000 of the 75,000 pupils at UK boarding schools.

“It’s difficult to predict what will happen on 31 October,” says Imelda Reddington, an immigration solicitor with the law firm Herrington Carmichael.

“The best way EU nationals can prepare for Brexit is to apply for status under the EU Settlement Scheme. We are assured that if EU nationals have this status, they will continue to have at least the same rights and benefits as provided under EU Law.”

That still leaves a cloud hanging over the plans of EU students, many of whose parents could simply decide it is easier and less disruptive to stay away from the UK, according to Kathy Campbell, head of international marketing and development for the British Boarding Schools Network, a firm that advises boarding schools and helps their recruitment efforts.

“We are telling schools to get moving and start the process right now of applying for ‘pre-settled’ or ‘settled’ status for their students,” she says.

“Initiating the process of applying for pre-settlement status and submitting the details of each student should at least mean they can get back into the country after 31 October.

“The applications can only be submitted on an Android device – you can’t use an iPhone or a desktop computer [this should be available for iPhone by the end of 2019 ] – and it has to be done from within the UK but a lot of schools have made it easier for parents by getting the right device and doing the applications for them so they don’t have to make a special trip to the UK ,” she says.

Some schools are considering paying the £500-plus visa fees for parents, and many are improving their own skills at dealing with the fast-changing visa system.

Pastoral care may come to the fore

Stuart Higgins, head of international students at Hereford Cathedral School, says that apart from the immediate problems of the immigration system, boarding schools need to have a more fundamental review of their operations if they are going to continue to attract EU students after Brexit.

We are holding network events to reassure agents in places like Germany, Spain and France but some schools are also doing it themselves. It takes a lot of time but schools should be doing it

Kathy Campbell
British Boarding Schools Network

“If we are going to recruit and retain these students we have to make sure we are doing a top job at looking after them, like designating specific staff to oversee their pastoral care and making sure they are as happy and safe as they should be.”

Higgins has a rare insight into the obstacles for the industry created by Brexit because while several boarding facilities face potential closure, his 635-year-old school is one of the few to open a new boarding programme over the past year.

“We have recruited 32 students and I would have expected about a third of them to come from the EU but instead we have got just two.”

Like other veterans of the industry, Higgins says the upside of Brexit for boarding schools is that by weakening the pound it has made British school fees relatively cheaper for foreign parents, including in the booming market of China.

“It has got easier to recruit from China but a complication is that Chinese parents don’t want their kids to be in a 95%-Chinese school. They really want more of a mix with a diverse range of students,” he said.

As a result some schools are offering bursaries and discounts to European students, while making new marketing efforts in emerging markets such as Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Georgia and Iran.

Stepping up the publicity effort

Kathy Campbell, of the British Boarding Schools Network, says certain schools are trying to mitigate the impact of Brexit by “putting five times as much effort into convincing agents that we are still a welcoming environment”.

“We are holding network events to reassure agents in places like Germany, Spain and France but some schools are also doing it themselves. It takes a lot of time but schools should be doing it,” she says.

“Some are paying agents a little extra in commission, say 12% instead of 10%, as a gesture of goodwill for continuing to direct students towards schools in the UK.”

Schools are also making a greater effort to reach out directly to parents, sending staff overseas for promotional events and countering the impression that UK society is closing its doors to foreigners.

“They are holding more international days and celebrating foreign cultures,” says Campbell.

Several schools have begun schemes to lend or subsidise uniforms and books, she says, while others are coming up with activity programmes for the mid-term break to allow parents to save money by avoiding flights home for the holidays.

The downside of the weak currency is that it compounds a growing staff-recruitment problem amid rising competition from an increase in new overseas-based British-run private schools that are vying for teachers familiar with the UK curriculum.

The problem of recruiting support staff

Apart from making a pound sterling-based income less attractive to teachers, including the many language specialists who come from the EU, the fall of the pound has also made it tougher to recruit European support staff such as cleaners, administrators and maintenance workers.

The new immigration system is expected to impose a minimum salary of £30,000 for foreign workers, which could rule out some newly qualified teachers, given that wages for qualified teachers in England and Wales starts at £23,720.

A careful review of staff wage packages can reduce the impact of that threshold, according to Campbell, as schools can lift teachers’ salaries by offering accommodation or extra duties such as overseeing a school’s involvement with the Duke of Edinburgh awards.

Robin Fletcher, the chief executive of the Boarding Schools’ Association, says Brexit is a particularly severe problem for the 40 state boarding schools, which have relied on EU students for about 10% of their boarders.

Those state schools are not allowed to sponsor Tier 4 visas for foreign students, so when EU students are forced to use such visas they will not be able to attend state schools.

“The answer for a lot of schools will be to try to fill their empty spaces by looking for more British students, as well as Chinese and other [non-EU] students but even that is likely to be harder after Brexit,” says Stuart Higgins of Hereford Cathedral School.

“The number of British parents opting for boarding school has been declining for some time and any uncertainty will no doubt make a lot of British parents choose the cheaper option of independent day schools,” he says.

To combat this, schools are offering cheaper, flexi-boarding arrangements – when pupils board just two to four nights a week, for example, rather than five or seven. This fills vacant beds, while providing an opportunity for parents to up the number of nights if they wish.

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