As an education  counsellor I get a lot of people approaching myself and colleagues asking what is the “best ” school in the UK, and wondering why we can’t give them a simple answer.

Of course, if the “best” schools were those  which had the highest examination results, then all the international students would want to go only to those schools, but in reality “best” is a combination of many different factors. There is also the question “Best for Whom?”.  So I’m setting out to demystify some of the procedures of choosing a school to give parents a broader base from which to make comparisons and choices.


Wouldn’t life be simple if there was only one set of league tables for  all schools? Well, there isn’t and for very good reasons.

  • The first reason is that there are many kinds of school: state schools, independent boarding schools and independent colleges. Most UK residents go to state schools or independent schools as day pupils. Not all schools have facilities for boarders or can accept international students. Since the different kinds of tables are really produced for the home market, they are not very helpful to international parents as the results of UK students do not necessarily correlate with those of international students (who are usually more strictly selected academically).
  • Schools are classified according to their size, they are also ranked by region as well as nationally for examination results. While all 11-18 or 14-18 schools will offer the national 2 year GCSE programme, only a few will offer the 1  or 2 year IGCSE programme (targeting international students only). Looking at the GCSE results for all schools in the country will not really help with selecting a good IGCSE programme, for example, as the international students in a school may perform much better than the home students, but this difference will not be seen in the results (in some cases, the IGCSE results may not be listed with the regular GCSE results).
  • With A Levels, it is a more complicated story. Private schools can enter the students they choose to take A Levels through their centre and using their centre number. Some  schools also have a second centre number they use for students less likely to achieve A* A and B grades, and so avoid having to list them with their top scoring student results. There are even some schools which ask students to leave after AS Levels if they feel they will not achieve A* A and B grades (oh yes, it happens!) State schools and colleges, and traditional boarding schools (i.e. not for profit) do not do this, but have to list  all the students taking exams (including those students who are not aiming for top universities), which means that their results may appear to be more modest in some cases. However, this does not mean that it is a “bad” school.
  • In addition, different league tables calculate results in different ways. Schools always choose the tables that show them in the best light. Here are some possible interpretations of claims that you need to be aware of when comparing schools:
  1. “100% Pass rate at A Level”: Yes, this is very good, but (if this is a private school) maybe the school did not enter all of their students under their main exam centre number. So there may be some students who failed one or more subjects but were not listed in the official record.
  2. “98% A* A and B grades”:  does this mean that 98% of students achieved ONLY A* A and B grades ? Or that they achieved at least ONE A*A or B grade?
  3. “57% Grades A*-C”-  seems even less clear, although this usually means that 57% of all exam entrants achieved grades composed only of A* A, B and C. Actually, this is a good statistic if the school is honestly reporting all the results from all its students and did not filter them before the exams.
  4. “Total overall average UCAS points per person- 380”.  Now this is a real brain teaser. It looks impressive (A*=140 UCAS points, A=120, B=100 etc), especially if you know that to enter a Russell Group University you usually need to achieve a minimum of 320 -360 UCAS points. However, to enter ANY good university, you only need 3 subjects. 4 or 5 subjects are not necessary even if they look impressive. For example, 3 x A* grades = 420 points. But  A+B+C+C+D= 440 points. Now which student do you think best deserves that place at a top university?  Be careful in  evaluating claims  based on points because it can mean a number of things and not necessarily what you are looking for.


  •  GCSE/IGCSE:  all students in mainstream education in England and Wales will enter a 2 year GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) programme when they are 14 years old . They will usually choose a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 10 subjects (average 7-8 subjects) which are studied over the 2 years. The International GCSE -or “IGCSE” is a separate programme which is only taught to international students. For example, students at an international school outside the UK will take the IGCSE instead of the GCSE. The curriculum is similar but has a less British  and more international focus. Students who complete Year 9 in Vietnam and want to switch to the UK can take a one  year IGCSE course which will prepare them for A Levels or IB as a bridge between their home system and the UK system. The number of subjects taken will depend on their level of English and on how much time the may need to spend improving their English, but generally, students need 5 (I)GCSE subjects at grade C or above to enter the A level or IB programme.
  • The difference between A levels and IB is much bigger. A Levels are the national examinations taken in the UK in order to enter University. The International Baccalaureate, on the other hand, is a totally independent programme not linked to any country but which is internationally accredited and recognised for entrance to university. With A Levels, students take three or four subjects in depth, but with IB they take 6 subjects (3 “standard” level and 3 “Higher” level) plus a long essay and a period of community service.  The A Level curriculum  is focused only around each subject but the IB programme is broader. Students must take at least one subject from each of the main categories – Sciences and Humanities-  For that reason it is thought to be more challenging than A Levels. In the UK, students can choose between A Levels or IB although fewer schools currently offer IB. For more information about IB, see my previous post.


SIZE: Parents in Vietnam seem to be very wary of “small” schools (i.e. with under 300 pupils) and  schools located in rural rather than urban areas because they apply what they know about their own country to the UK. They worry that smaller schools may have fewer facilities than larger schools and that pupils will be “bored”. They also think their children need to be close to or  right in a large city to be happy and comfortable. In fact, neither of things is  exactly true. Smaller schools may actually be better for Vietnamese children than very large ones because there will be more of a “family” feeling and a closer relationship between staff and students,  and students themselves. It will therefore be easier to make friends and students will get more personal attention. As Vietnamese students are often shy at first and find it  difficult to mix if they are not directly recruited  into activities, they can often go unnoticed in a large school and find it harder to break through the shyness barrier. See this article from “The Guardian” on small schools.

LOCATION: As for rural and urban, well, in the UK it is quite different  to Vietnam. It is usually wealthier people who choose to live outside major cities and to travel into the city  to work. Top schools in the UK (aside from those in London) are often located in smaller towns and  cities or in privileged rural areas. There is no problem with facilities as all areas of the UK are well resourced with good transport links, shopping centres, internet access, hospitals, entertainment etc. Students under the age of 18 also have limited opportunities to go out by themselves, especially in the evenings, as they have to be monitored by school staff for safety reasons. Schools provide many opportunities for students to go out- taking them to the theatre, cinema, on field trips, weekend trips to London and other cities, organising Saturday shopping trips and even short breaks in Europe for skiing or cultural studies. The school location is no advantage or disadvantage to having access to entertainment as that access will be supervised in any case. The only difference is with State  Colleges of Education where 16-18 year olds have more freedom when they are not actually in class. (Parents will sign a special waiver when sending their child to a State College under the age of 18, which acknowledges that they allow them to live in approved accommodation but without 24 hour supervision as they move between College and homestay).In the case of State Colleges, which are usually located in cities or large towns, parents need to be aware of the extra responsibility they have for their children’s freedom when they are off-campus. If they have any doubts about their child’s ability to concentrate on studies, plan their personal budget or use their time positively, they should choose a school with a higher level of supervision, such as a boarding school or independent college.

STATE OR PRIVATE?  International students can only attend State high schools and colleges when they are aged 16 or above. All other students must attend a boarding school or independent college where they can be properly and legally supervised both inside and out of the classroom. There is a great deal of confusion around the terms “boarding school” and “private school” which needs to be clarified:

i) The term “boarding school” refers to independent schools which are non-profit and  run by a board of governors. These schools belong to several different associations that are members of the  Independent Schools Council (ISC) and  are  all inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) which reports to the Department for Education (DfE). Although boarding schools  provide residential accommodation on campus for their students, they also accept local children who attend as day pupils. Boarding schools offer the full UK curriculum from primary through to the end of Year 13. They may offer IB as well as or instead of A Levels, and the IGCSE as well as the regular GCSE programme.  Class sizes tend to be smaller than in the state sector (usually a maximum of 15 students per class)

ii) Independent Colleges are private schools which tend to focus on examinations (from (I)GCSE to A Levels or IB or International Foundation courses) and accept students from about 14 years and upwards. Most (although not all) independent colleges are for profit institutions and they recruit mostly international students. Independent Colleges are inspected by Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education). They vary enormously in terms of size and facilities- some offer residential accommodation (boarding facilities), some have only homestay options, and the range of sports and leisure facilities they offer also depends on their size. They tend to have small classes  and to offer tutorial support beyond regular classes, especially  for students who wish to enter top universities or medical school.

For students aged 16+, there is also the option of studying at a State College. State Colleges of Further and Higher Education are usually large institutions located in major towns and cities and their main purpose is to provide lifelong education to people in their community. They  have separate centres  just for students aged 16-18.  There are also special state colleges which provide education programmes only for students aged 16-18. These are known as “Sixth Form Colleges”. All state colleges which accept international students offer A Levels, English language courses and International Foundation courses as well as a wide range of vocational courses.

The big advantage of state colleges is that they  offer a high standard of education at much lower cost than the private sector.  Provided students are motivated, academically able and mature enough to manage their own free time, state colleges offer the same opportunities for international students as any of the private schools. Students can- and frequently do- enter top universities including Oxford and Cambridge and win top scholarships . Living with a host family- rather than boarding with other students- also offers students a cultural window on the UK and, in many cases, friends for life. State Colleges also offer a very much wider range of subjects than most private schools and students get a chance to try new activities and subjects they may not previously have thought about.


UK High School Costs 2016

The chart above shows the average costs of  each type of high school, considering full fees. The highest and lowest prices will depend on several  factors such as location, facilities and accommodation and the school’s international fees. But even the most expensive state college package is not above £17,000 per year.

By contrast, boarding school and independent college fees start at around £28,000 per year for everything . Often there are extra charges to consider: students may require uniform, which has to be bought from the school, additional fees for English classes, examination fees, guardianship (during school holidays), compulsory insurance packages and other costs. Parents should always ask for a full list of costs before accepting a place at a private school.


It is a well-known fact that UK high schools offer generous scholarships to international students. many people judge the scholarship by the percentage of reduction, but, once again, it is very important to calculate exactly what you will have to pay.

State Colleges:  these offer scholarships of up to 50% of tuition fees and often only around 20-30%. This is because their tuition fees are already very low. The overall package is what should be considered here. If  the total cost is under £14,000 per year, this is an extremely good deal and offers some of the best value for money education in the world.

Boarding Schools: many boarding schools will offer up to 50% of tuition and boarding  fees to Vietnamese students who exceed academically or in special areas such as sports or Music. This is a massive fee reduction, but it is not the end of the story. You will need to add on all the extra costs that such schools require in order to work out the full amount to be paid. If a boarding school scholarship gives you a bill for under £20,000 per year for everything (including your child’s pocket money)  this is a very good deal.

Independent Colleges: these tend to be the most expensive schools and as they are often located in expensive cities (such as London, Cambridge and Oxford) it makes the overall package very heavy. Nowadays, independent colleges are also investing heavily in luxury accommodation, and baths is often much more expensive than the tuition fees. Since they offer scholarships only on tuition fees, the overall package price is still going to be high. You should have a starting budget of at least £25,000 per year if you intend to send your child to an independent college, and £30,000 per year for London after scholarship.


It’s a good idea to draw up a list of all the  factors you need to consider when choosing a school.

  • Start by setting your budget and then see what that will buy you.
  • Don’t focus only on academic results- look at other factors too, such as facilities, reports from authorised bodies, student reviews. The best schools will offer an all-round excellent environment for your child where he or she can fully develop as an individual.
  • Don’t assume you must send your child to an expensive private school just to get into a top university. State colleges can do the job just as well – do your research first.
  • Make a point of attending a wide range of events and information sessions before making your choice. Don’t listen only to your friends, talk to a wide range of people who can give helpful information and advice- school representatives, professional education agents,  parents of children at school in the UK etc.


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