The worldwide pandemic does not seem to have impacted unduly on the number of international boarding students returning to UK schools for the new academic year, but clearly schools have had to change the way they communicate with prospective students and their families from abroad.

More than half of boarders attending UK boarding schools are from families that are not UK-based, and there was palpable concern over the summer of 2020 that international travel restrictions might lead to overseas boarders not taking up their places in UK schools in September.

This does not appear to have been the case, MTM’s consultants have concluded as the result of discussions with senior leaders across a range of UK boarding schools.

‘There are around 37,000 international boarders in UK schools – about 5,000 more than the number of boarders who are UK-based,’ says MTM Consulting’s Managing Director, James Leggett, ‘So, any consequence of the pandemic that had prevented international boarders from coming to the UK for their education would have had a significant impact on school revenues for the academic year 2020-21.’

Many students from abroad have been required to quarantine before the start of term, and James and his MTM colleagues have been impressed by the way they have been accommodated at their schools, such as MTM client school Sedbergh, a co-educational full-boarding school in Cumbria in the north-west of England.

‘I believe that allowing students to return early before the start of the academic year in August certainly helped lower the number of students it impacted overall,’ says David Milner, Sedbergh School’s Director of Marketing and International Relations.

‘It was crucial that schools were flexible and at Sedbergh our supportive approach allowed us to ensure that pupils arrived and quarantined in a safe environment on campus, so they were able to then start the term as normal. This helped reassure families, in particular those who were sending their children overseas for the first time.’

Sedbergh, in common with some other UK boarding schools, has allowed some international students to arrive late in order to comply with their countries’ travel guidelines.

‘A number of our families deferred their start date,’ says David. ‘Some are joining us in January instead, while others will start next September, which has put us in a stronger position for September 2021 admissions.’

Although international recruitment fairs around the world have been cancelled and most recruitment agents have been unable to work as normal, direct enquiries to schools from non UK-based families are reportedly stronger than ever. In particular, many parents are seeking full-boarding schools for their children to avoid any difficulties sharing their time between school and the homes of guardians, should further lockdown restrictions be imposed.

However, it is too soon to tell if international admissions for 2021 will be heavily impacted. Certainly, schools have stepped up their communication to compensate for the withdrawal of face-to-face recruitment opportunities. Virtual fairs, open days and tours as well as zoom meetings, interviews and assessments have all become the norm.

‘Schools that are transparent, honest, flexible and provide regular communication to existing and prospective families and agents will come out of this stronger,’ says David Milner.

‘Schools need to reassure overseas families that they have implemented as many measures as possible to protect the school community,’ says David. ‘So, talk about your safe location, share photos of your isolation buildings, discuss your medical and pastoral support, and your plans to accommodate international students who would prefer not to travel home for future half-term breaks and exeats.

‘As a sector, we must support and advise each other, and work together.’