Although Cayman has excellent schools, many parents will look to broaden their children’s horizons by enroling 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. *Since Covid-19 some schools have become 'Test Optional Schools' and you can request not to do the entry test. Speak with an educational consultant who can advise on which schools now offer this option.
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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 eight (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 Modern Languages). 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 – 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 UKiset 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, VR & NVR). 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-late September the year before entry (often through special Sixth Form Assessment Days) and offers are made at the beginning of December.
*Although these are rough guidelines, there is now considerable flexibility in the system, so it is always worth enquiring with individual schools about availability.
US Senior Schools
Start your review of potential boarding schools at least 2-3 years in advance, especially if they are very popular, and arrange for a prospectus to be sent to you. Once you have decided on a short-list of two or three schools, arrange a visit and register with your favourite one. One really good tip is to sign your child up for the school’s summer programme: a few weeks at their summer camp will help you and your child gain a better understanding of the school, the culture and whether your child likes the other children.
Depending on which year you will be applying for, you will need to register to take the required standardised test. If you will be applying to Grades 9 or 10 then you will be required to take the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) or the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE). If you are applying to Grade 11 you have to take the SSAT, ISEE, SAT, PSAT or ACT. The SSAT tests can be taken at Cayman International School. For Grade 12, students have to take SAT or ACT. Please make sure you get the prospective school’s testing codes so that the test results can be sent directly to the school you want to apply for. Another test that many 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.
Once the tests have been taken you can schedule an interview with the Admissions Office. An interview is always a required part of the application process. Some schools may require you to fill out a Candidate Profile along with a detailed application, which is often done entirely online. Make sure to have documents scanned and PDF documents made, which you can then upload. For most schools, you will need to submit a copy of a recent writing assignment which has been corrected and graded by a teacher, plus a recent school report, current grades, a recommendation from your current maths and English teachers as well as your Head of School, 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 students 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 12-13). Education is a provincial matter in Canada, so students work towards a High School Diploma granted by the province in which they are studying, with some schools offering Advanced Placements or the International Baccalaureate Diploma.
How to Choose a Boarding School
Narrowing down which international boarding schools to visit is a monumental task. Here are some tips from parents who have gone through the process:
- For families who live full-time in Cayman, choosing a full boarding school 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. Why is this important? For two reasons: firstly schools that don’t have many students left in school at the weekend don’t put on many activities for the ones that are, and you don’t want a bored teenager. You also don’t want your child to be lonely. Secondly if your child’s best friend happens to be a day-girl/boy, or a weekly boarder, then they won’t be around to support your child at night and at the weekends when they are needed the most.
- 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 who 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, but it is worth asking the school what their policy is on this.
- It's worth repeating again; do consider talking to an educational consultant. This is one of the most important and costly things you can do for your child. An educational consultant will know what sort of school will suit your child and if they are worth their salt will recommend one they know well and will be the best fit for your child.
- 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, it is worth asking how the schools handled remote learning during the Covid-19 lockdown. Also make a point of visiting the school fairs when they are held (post Covid) 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 or 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 gives impartial insider advice based on many years of experience of teaching in leading British independent schools, taking pride in having a thorough knowledge of a wide range of UK based schools and the admissions processes for them.
They offer a bespoke service which is centred on finding the right school for your child. They also now offer advice for entry to Canadian schools. Niall Browne visits Cayman when he can (Covid-19 allowing) 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) in Cayman – an invaluable tool in helping overseas parents to select the right schools based on their children’s academic ability.
Recommended Boarding Schools
Here we list a few overseas boarding schools that are popular with Cayman families: