Although Cayman has excellent schools, many parents will look to broaden their children’s horizons by enrolling them in an overseas boarding school. Over the years, the image of boarding schools has changed immeasurably; the transformation from the hardship and coldness of Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall to the spellbinding excitement of Hogwarts has been both evolutionary and revolutionary. But the changes in perception and the reality are not works of fiction; boarding schools in Britain and North America are flourishing and should be a real consideration for Cayman families thinking about the future schooling of their children.
Why Choose a Boarding School?
There are many reasons for choosing a boarding school, from the standards of teachers and teaching, to the friends and connections that are made. The following are all key factors to consider when deciding if boarding school is right for you and your child.
1. First Rate Education
The reputation of leading schools in the UK, USA and Canada is not just a label of prestige from the past; the academic, sporting and social success of these schools is evident. Academic excellence, their successes in international exams and their students winning places at Ivy League and Russell Group universities speak for themselves. The structured independence helps teenagers to thrive.
2. All-Round Education
Boarding schools are concerned with much more than academic prowess; pupils achieving their potential in the classroom is paramount, but the ability to be involved in whichever sporting, creative or intellectual pursuit that stimulates a child is of huge importance too. All these things are on the student’s doorstep; schools are extremely busy places where children are seldom bored or lonely.
Success is achieved through sound teaching plus individual care and attention. Staff at boarding schools are with their students for most of the day and are there to ensure that children are happy and performing well, addressing problems swiftly. Boarding schools are well-equipped and qualified to support most learning requirements. Plus, a wide range of schools offer specialist ‘Additional Support’ for learning and emotional needs.
Boarding schools have some outstanding facilities and offer beautiful spaces in which students can grow and develop. Academic, arts and sporting facilities can be state-of-the-art, and boarding houses are designed to offer the comforts of a home away from home.
A boarding education exposes children to a wide array of people from a variety of backgrounds – some of whom will become life-long friends. The ability to live and work with such a diverse group of people is what gives boarding school students the confidence, maturity and independence to excel in their future worlds. Exposure to the wider world and internationalism also helps prepare students for the world of business.
Boarding schools can be very competitive and many schools fill their places several years in advance of entry. Therefore, give yourself plenty of time to choose the right school. In addition to allowing time to visit schools, you should allow time for your child to be prepared for the entrance exams and for the transition to boarding school. Parents often underestimate how much time should be given to these steps, but at least one or two years in advance is the best time to begin the process. The most important thing to remember is to involve your child in the process from the very beginning, as this will allow them to become comfortable with the prospects of going away to a boarding school.
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Find out about life as a boarding school student.
General Age of Entry to Boarding Schools
American schools are typically set up to accept boarders from Grade 8 (aged 13-14 or Year 9 in the British system) but there are some which will accept boarders from Grade 6. In Canada, most schools accept students for boarding in Grade 9 (one year later than the US system). In the UK, your child can board from the age of 8 (Year 4) but the majority of students from Cayman usually either start boarding at the end of primary school (i.e. they finish Year 6 in Cayman and then leave) or they wait and go straight to a senior school in the UK when they are 13 (for the start of Year 9).
Boarding School Timelines & Entry Tests
UK Boarding Schools – Prep Schools (Years 4-8)
Because it is the job of preparatory schools to prepare pupils for the Common Entrance Exam (CE) at the end of Year 8, they prefer to have pupils for two or three years beforehand, so that they have sufficient grounding in all the academic subjects (including Latin and French). There are no fixed deadlines for entry to prep schools, although the most popular ones will fill their places several years in advance. Testing is ‘light touch’ and is generally conducted during a child’s visit to the school. They often ask pupils to spend a day and night at the school as a ‘taster’.
UK Boarding Schools – Girls Senior Schools (Years 7-13) 11+ Entry (Year 7)
Although Senior School traditionally begins in Year 9, many girls’ schools have both Year 7 and Year 9 entry. This has always been the case and means that girls can go straight into their senior school rather than having to go to a prep school first. Girls who are going for 11+ entry to a girls’ senior school will be tested in Year 6. Most girls’ schools use the ISEB 11+ Common Entrance, which is taken in January, and consists of papers in English, Maths and Science. Some schools have their own entrance papers but they are largely similar in scope to CE.
UK Boarding Schools – Senior Schools (Years 9-13) 13+ Entry (Year 9)
Many very popular UK senior schools will expect you to bring your child to have a tour of the school while they are in Years 4, 5 or 6. Then you are expected to register your child before the end of Year 5 (schools such as Eton, Harrow and Radley) or Year 6 for most other schools. In October or January of Year 6 or Year 7, your child will take the ISEB Common Pre-Test which is a timed computer-based test which measures your child’s ability and attainment. The tests include Verbal Reasoning, Non-Verbal Reasoning, English and Mathematics. Prior to, or just following the ISEB test, enrolled children will be invited for an interview and an assessment day. This takes place in December or January of Year 7. Very shortly after this, an offer of a place is given, subject to your child achieving the requisite average mark at Common Entrance. Finally, in May of Year 8, the Common Entrance Examination is taken. If your child is not in a UK prep school, and will be going straight to a UK senior school from a Cayman school, they will take the entrance tests at each of the schools to which you have applied.
Not all Senior Schools use the ISEB Pre-Test route and will consider children for entry on a much more flexible basis, although early application is, of course, still advisable. Each school will have its own way of conducting the admissions process but, in general, it will consist of a visit to the school, followed by an interview and testing (in English, Maths, Verbal Reasoning and Non Verbal Reasoning). The interview can often be conducted via Zoom and it might be possible to arrange for testing to be taken in Cayman.
16+ Entry (Years 12-13)
Most schools have a sizeable entry into the Sixth Form. Deadlines vary but many schools test and interview prospective pupils in mid to late September of the year before entry (often through special Sixth Form Assessment Days) and offers are made at the beginning of December.
US Senior Schools
Start your search for potential boarding schools at least 2-3 years in advance, especially if the schools you are looking at are very popular, and arrange for any online material and the application process to be sent to you. Once you have narrowed your choices down to a shortlist of three schools, arrange a visit and begin the application process with your top choices. While searching for schools also ask about their summer camp programmes. A few weeks at a boarding summer camp will help you and your child gain a better understanding of the school, the culture and give them a taste of what it will be like boarding. Another good suggestion is to ask an educational consultant to suggest a couple of schools that will suit your child academically, socially and will complement their interests and favourite sports.
It is important to note that not all school application processes are the same. Depending on the grade level that you will be applying for, you may need to register to take a required standardised test which will be used for academic placement purposes. Examples of these tests include the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) or the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE). For students wanting to join a boarding school for 11th and 12th Grade, it is highly recommended that they have a SAT, PSAT or ACT test score to share with the school. The SSAT and SAT can be taken at Cayman International School. Remember to confirm the school’s testing codes so that the test results can be sent directly to the school you want to apply to.
Another test that some schools are now requiring or recommending that applicants take is the Character Skills Snapshot test. This test measures eight character traits including resilience, open-mindedness, responsibility, teamwork, social awareness, self-control, intellectual curiosity and initiative.
Some schools may require you to fill out a Candidate Profile along with a detailed application, and all schools will require you to be interviewed. All schools will require the following supporting documentation – make sure that everything is saved in a PDF format for ease of uploading – academic transcripts, two core curriculum teacher recommendations as well as a letter from the Head of School, a copy of a recent writing assignment which has been corrected and graded by a teacher, plus a personal recommendation and a parent statement.
Canadian Senior Schools
You will want to start your search for a boarding school which suits the interests and strengths of your child ideally at least two years before entry, but many schools will consider applications much later. If you are unfamiliar with Canadian boarding schools, then plan to visit one of the Schools Fairs held in Cayman every November. There is always a very good representation of schools. Once you have done some research, plan to visit two or three of the schools to get an idea of what you like and what you don’t like. Once you have a shortlist, it is recommended that you check their website to see what documents they need to see and what entry tests they will ask your child to take. Some schools, especially those in Toronto, ask students to sit the Secondary School Admissions Test (SSAT) but many other schools have their own tests. The SSAT is a standardised test which some Canadian private schools use to assess a student’s overall aptitude, rather than their knowledge of specific subjects, but also offers the Character Skills Snapshot, which looks at a student's overall attitude/character. However, some schools do not use such standardised testing and use their own test papers instead.
Canadian boarding schools generally accept applications for students coming into Grade 9, 10 and/or 11 (Years 8-12) with the preference to starting the programme at the beginning of high school – in Grade 9 (age 14-15). About two-thirds of students begin in Grade 9, with the remainder joining in Grade 11. A small handful of boarding schools accept students for Grades 5-8. Education is a provincial matter in Canada, so students work towards a High School Diploma granted by the province (e.g. Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD)) in which they are studying, with some schools offering Advanced Placements or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
How to Choose a Boarding School
Narrowing down which boarding schools to visit is a monumental task. Here are some tips from parents:
For families who live full-time in Cayman, choosing a full boarding school, as opposed to a weekly boarding school, is the very first thing to consider. Many schools are moving towards weekly boarding, so be sure to check this out. You do not want a bored teenager at school alone with no friends around and time on their hands.
Schools are often strong on one specific team sport – for example soccer/football or rugby, but invariably not both. If your child is massively into one sport, but not keen on another, then find a school which plays that sport. Work out what your child is really keen on, then see if you can find a school which can play to that strength and interest.
Is the school kind? Does it have good pastoral care? Will my child be happy? What support is there in place if my child gets homesick? Childhood should be a happy time, so choose a school which has a reputation for being nice.
If your child needs educational support, check out schools that can help with that. Ask what additional help your child would be offered and whether the school could cater to your child’s needs.
Bear in mind that schools located within an hour of a major metropolis and an international airport (London, Toronto or New York for example) will attract a lot of overseas students. Most schools now limit the percentage of children hailing from a single nationality.
Expect to see one school a day (a typical tour is 3-4 hours long). The visit, which you must book well in advance, usually starts at 10am, so book accommodation near the school for the night before if you can. Ask if your visit will include lunch with the students – if it does it will give you great insight into the type of students your child will be boarding with.
Other Things to Consider
Deciding where to send your child to school is extremely important, but first you need to decide what system of schooling you want your child to participate in. For example, to attend 6th form in the UK, it is often extremely helpful if the student has taken GCSEs or the equivalent. It is also important to consider whether you are looking for a school near family and friends. Although the support systems provided by schools are very good, it is also beneficial to have a support system outside of school and people there to keep an eye on your child when you cannot.
Understanding Your Child’s Needs
It is vital to find the school in which your child will be happy and will thrive. Friends and acquaintances may offer school suggestions based on their own children’s success (or otherwise!). But a school being right for their children is no guarantee that it will be right for yours. Choose a school based on your child’s specific interests and needs, even if this is wildly different to that chosen by others. Make sure that the school offers the qualifications (International Baccalaureate; GCSE; A Levels; SATs; vocational courses) best-suited to your child and their intended higher education and career path.
Where to Get Help
Educational consultants are very knowledgeable about different boarding schools and will explain things that you cannot read about on a school's website or school prospectus. For example, does it run a house system and if so what are the benefits; how many students are weekly boarders and is the school moving towards that; does it cater well to children who need learning support; will your child flourish academically there or drift to the bottom third of the academic group. Also make a point of visiting the school fairs when they are held as its a great way to chat to the schools which you have narrowed down. Two school consultants who specifically work with Cayman families include:
Dorm & Day
Based in Grand Cayman, Dorm & Day offers a schools placement advisory service for education in Cayman and overseas. Owned and run by Amanda Roberts, every year they visit a diverse range of boarding schools in the USA, Canada and the UK, including schools for children with learning differences, using that first-hand personal knowledge to find the right fit for your child and help you to make an informed choice of school.
They guide you throughout the admissions process which includes reviewing transcripts, preparing shortlists, helping with applications and financial aid forms, finding scholarships for talented athletes and high academic achievers, scheduling and preparing for tests and interviews, arranging boarding school visits and communicating with schools from application to arrival.
Owned and run by Niall Browne, BvS is used by many Cayman families wanting impartial insider advice on where to send their children to boarding school. With a thorough knowledge of a wide range of UK and Canadian schools, and how their admissions processes work, BvS offers a bespoke service which is centred on finding the right school for your child. Niall Browne visits Cayman several times a year, to meet island families but he also conducts WhatsApp and Zoom calls with interested parents. BvS also conducts the UK Independent Schools’ Entry Test (UKiset) – either in person in Cayman or online – an invaluable tool in helping overseas parents to select the right schools based on their children’s academic ability. BvS also hosts an annual boarding school fair in Cayman which showcases some of the UK and Canada's leading boarding schools.
Recommended Boarding Schools
Here we list a few overseas boarding schools that are popular with Cayman families: