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'Prepping' in British independent schools

The principal door to the coveted British public schools and, ultimately, to university entrance remains the preparatory school. It is preferably approached when the child is 8, though many schools will take students who are 10 or older.

And many of the schools welcome a certain number of students from overseas, providing special help for those who come with little or no knowledge of English.

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Though the independent schools in Britain cater to only 5 percent of the total school population, their students gain one-quarter of the places at universities and other institutions of higher education and more than half the places at Oxford and Cambridge. Such schools are more willing now than at any time in the past to consider overseas pupils, according to Tim Devlin, director of the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS).

As a rule preparatory schools are small, with fewer than 150 pupils and an average faculty-student ratio of 1:12.Research by the service shows that the reasons given by British parents for seeking a member school are, in order of importance: the all-round educational standards, small classes, religious and moral instruction, discipline and manners, and facilities and equipment.

In 1979, about 3 percent, or just over 3,000 overseas pupils, were among the 93,000 enrolled at ISIS preparatory schools, including some that once had the reputation of catering mainly to royalty and the peerage. Michael C. J. Wheeler , headmaster of Cheam, Newburry, attended by Prince Charles and Prince Philip, says 13 percent of the student body is normally from overseas, of which half are British expatriates and the other half are non-European nationals.

In recent years he has received boys from the United States, Thailand, Uganda , Nigeria, Nepal, India, and other countries. There are few vacancies, however, since boys must begin at Cheam around their eighth birthday and application must be made several years before that; places from then on depend largely on cancellations.

Claremont Fan Court School, at Claremont, Esher, Surrey, has taken several pupils with only a smattering of English. W. A. Harrison, principal, writes that "in most cases they have been very able pupils who have had no difficulty in picking up English, and in all cases they have had extra lessons in English privately." He says that he is happy to consider applications on an individual basis, but that the school cannot cope with a vast influx of foreign students.

H. Y. Hunter, headmaster of Crawfordton House in Thornhill, Scotland, has a number of boys from overseas, but prefers that they have a good command of English before coming. Donald Bass, headmaster of Belhaven Hill in Lothian, Scotland, also takes children from overseas. He has had French and Spanish students. He, too, finds a foundation in English helpful.

As there are nearly 600 preparatory schools taht are members of ISIS, naming a few is arbitrary at best. The majority do accept overseas nationals, but vary in the degree of English instruction offered.

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How does a school go about teaching a child with little or no English? St. Wilfrid's, in Seaford, Sussex, is a traditional preparatory school, typical in its small size but a typical in being coeducational. It is a member of ISIS and the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools. The headmaster, John Maflin, is quite willing to accept overseas students. Children from overseas are quickly integrated linguistically by receiving individual instruction to supplement preparation for the Common Entrance Examination. Some have entered as late as 12, knowing little or no English, and at 13 successfully stood for entry to such public schools as Brighton College, haileyburry, Lancing, and Mill Hill.

Three St. Wilfrid's teachers who work on a part-time basis with non-English-speaking children explain their methods: Roxane hayes was one of the first to work with overseas children. She says the secret is in individual attention. If the child's native alphabet is different, as is often the case, she begins with the English alphabet and goes on phonetically. Special workbooks and other teaching aids are used. It usually snowballs, one word leading to another. The students begin reading stories and, for comprehension, writing essays about their reading. She says the younger they come the easier it is; they blend in whithin one or two terms if they are quite young, and then climb through the forms (grades) with the others.

A bright seven-year-old, or even a nine-year-old, can easily attain Common Entrance standard by the time he is 13. "Half the battle," she observes, "is listening to the other children. Nearly all are fluent within a year, and those who are exceptionally bright are fluent within one or two terms."

Penny Rowland-Jones believes one secret is to take it very slowly until the children are happily settled in. The ordinary method is blended with the direct method. Children who know absolutely no English may at first begin with the most basic exchanges, such as, "My name is . . .," "Your name is . . . ."

"One must be the right sort of person to get in tune with the child," she emphasizes. "I usually work with 10- and 12-year olds, but am now teaching an 8 -year-old with two older brothers who never has a minute's unhappiness." She believes the St. Wilfrid's methods are good, because the child is constantly watched in accordance with his level of comprehension. At present she has children from Iran, Somalia, and Nigeria. She too values the contributions of other children. "One can't kid oneself that all the English comes from us; a great deal comes from the children themselves."

Susan Sayers, who teaches principally Iranians and Africans in groups of two and three, says it's a two-way street; she enjoys it as much as they do. Many of her pupils have had a considerable amount of English grammar, but need comprehension. Her main method is to read a passage in English, or have them read it in turn. Then she goes through it carefully, working on words; if children don't know a word, they add it to a vocabulary list. They progress to composition and the speed and flow of phrases grows.

Within a few weeks they are making jokes in English, a watershed in their command of the language. "Once they have their timetables and are attending class," this teacher says, "progress is rapid. Eight is a particularly good age , because even the English children are having difficlty with grammar at that age." She des not find it a disadvantage teaching several students from the different countries, as they tend to converse in English rather than their native language.

Her main problem is getting English books adult enought to hold their attention with a lexicon that is simple enough. It is similar to the problem of remedial readers for secondary-school students, except that the children are usually of above-average intelligence. "Many of our students have reached quite a high level in their own countries. It is frustrating for them to know the math, and to know the sicence, and yet have to filter it through the wretched sieve of language."

She believes children are more likely to prosper at a regular preparatory school than at an intensive language school. "It is so necessary to have an outlet, and not to do language, language 10 hours a day. Sports and games are something they can do well. It releases their pent-up energy and gives relief from the constant language pressure, even on the playing field, when it's relatively painless." The children are tutored by a number of teachers, not just one.

One valuable experience in which all the teachers participate is taking the children on field trips. "Many have seen nothing of England but what is visible from the train in window between here and Heathrow," Susan Sayers observes. "It helps a great deal to introduce them to other aspects of the environment." They go to New Haven Harbor to watch the channel ferries and small boats, and into the village shops such as the drugstore and the grocer's, pointing to everyday items and learning the English vocabulary. They also take nature walks along the Downs, an invaluable oportunity for adding to their stock of words.

Such unstinting efforts to assist the overseas child's adjustment may be unusual, but the better preparatory schools consider it part of their task to assume responsibility for the child's emotional and moral, as well as intellectual, development.

In lieu of a visit to a prospective school, firsthand information about a comprehensive range of schools, both junior and senior, can be obtained from the Independent Schools, Information Service at 26 Caxton Street, London. It will assist in placing a child in the school best suited to him. Detailed information, though not the means for evaluation of atmosphere and merit, may be found in the Public and Preparatory Schools Yearbook and the Girls School Yearbook, widely available at libraries. Truman & Knightley, 76-78 Notting Hill Gate, London, publishes Schools, Where To Learn English in Great Britain, and the Directory of Catholic Schools and Colleges; these may also be found in some reference rooms or ordered direct.


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