Abroad approach

Integrating overseas students into UK school life can be a challenge. Ted Underwood has some solutions

“I’m not shocked. I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed in you.” This was a catchphrase of mine when I was a Head of Sixth Form. Students were brought before me – as often as not having been caught doing something they shouldn’t, where they shouldn’t, with someone they shouldn’t – and I would fix them with a baleful gaze and shake my head gently, before uttering the tried and tested line. Today, I am deploying that same expression, shake of the head and baleful gaze at The Times newspaper which recently – and rather selfishly, I might add – ruined my holiday.

Let me explain. I was in Brittany at the end of May. I like Brittany: the weather is like Britain but a bit better, the people are nice without being overly interested in you, and it is very difficult to find anything bad to eat there. I was happy. That is, until one balmy evening when I received an email from a school Head asking whether I had seen the latest article on international students in The Times.

As is the case with Brittany, I like The Times’ reporting on education. It’s stimulating without being wearying, and the writing style carries an air of detachment which lends it credibility.

However, what I read on this occasion was, quite frankly, a lazy piece of journalism which reported that British boarding schools are being overrun by apathetic international brats who won’t mix, take part or even breathe unaided. “Foreign students are blamed for public school ‘ghettos’,” screamed the headline.

Ghetto is, in my opinion, a nasty word to use in connection with foreign students – and entirely inappropriate when discussing the cosy environment of an independent school. It is bathos in its most ridiculous sense, and utterly beneath a publication such as The Times. Atop this piece sat a still from an old St Trinian’s film, with a tag line reporting that foreign students have been “acting up”.

Heavens preserve us! Had I just jumped in the Tardis and been spat out in 1955? Young people being insolent and needing a firm hand to put them back on track: whatever next? The fact that the picture and language might well have been forgiven if I’d been reading the article 60 years ago paled into insignificance next to the utter non-newsworthiness of the statement.

As I said at the start of this article, I wasn’t outraged or shocked by the article – just deeply disappointed to find an article of this nature in a newspaper normally so level-headed in its reporting on education.

What upset me most was that there was very little space given in the feature to any possible solutions. Students’ reluctance to mix outside their own nationality is hardly a new phenomenon – yet the article carried a tone of gleeful exasperation with the problem. Despite my irritation with the piece, I do sympathise with those teachers who were called upon to give sound bites expressing their frustration. It can be incredibly hard to teach a class made up of British students, brought up in the UK education system with its emphasis on analysis, evaluation and interaction, together with students from cultures where the teacher is the fount of all knowledge and will tell you the answers if you just sit down, shut up and try your best not to fall asleep.

The cause of the problem lies not with the schools (they have a different part to play in all of this), but with agents who are more focused on collecting commissions than on the welfare of their students. The student recruitment business is, by and large, an unregulated global industry worth an estimated $4 billion each year to the UK economy in fee payments alone. The British Council are doing good work to try and establish codes of practice and open a discussion on ethical behaviour within the trade – but they are rather swimming against the tide. As a result, the difference between the student whom the school expects to receive and the one who turns up on the door in September can be worlds apart.

Schools are mis-sold students and vice versa, creating a potential atmosphere of mutual disappointment which can precipitate into mutual indifference if left unchecked. If schools are going to use agents, they need to ensure that the latter will represent their school in the way that they want.

Among the comments beneath the article, one individual blustered, “These children come here to get a good education, not to become British. End of story.” That is just not the case. Yes, foreign students do come to boarding school and university in the UK to take advantage of our excellent education system: but, more and more commonly, they can acquire a similar education in their own countries (see my previous articles for examples).

Overseas parents also send their children to the UK in order to learn the types of lessons that their lives back home simply won’t permit. There is no way that a child from an affluent family in Nigeria would ever get the chance to go anywhere by bus, do their own laundry or even make themselves a piece of toast. That’s just the way things are – so who can blame parents for seeking a solution?

While schools are not to blame for these problems, they must ultimately take responsibility for the solutions. It is an undeniable fact that the income brought by foreign students has saved many of our independent schools from extinction. Doesn’t it make good business sense that if someone is investing in you, you invest back in them?

In the case of students, this means an investment of time rather than money. I know that staffing costs money but, in my experience, time spent engaging directly with students reaps dividends. Quality time with your international students, face to face, is a remarkably simple solution – but it works.

If pastoral teams can spend time coaxing the shy Asian student away from his Minecraft game to represent the House in a table tennis tournament, before long that student might, with a little more encouragement, make it along to school team practice. Has anyone taught the Russian oligarch’s daughter how to change her bed linen, and explained why it’s good to know how to do things for herself? I wonder.