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10 October 2017
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools and Brexit - an interview with Oakham School

Hello from foggy Oxford!
Following is an interview conducted with Head of Upper School at Oakham School, Simone Lorenz-Weir
Ferdinand Steinbeis: Simone, please describe the atmosphere at Oakham School on the day after the Brexit referendum…
Simone Lorenz-Weir: As you can imagine, we all were very, very surprised. Shocked even! That said, something I found really heartening was the palpable feeling of concern and care towards European students and staff. Everyone here wanted to let their colleagues and peers know that the vote made no difference to how they felt and saw the world. This has been the case ever since: ‘ We know it’s happening, but it won’t make any difference to us here at Oakham’. Just to underline this point further: we staged an internal school referendum on Brexit a few days before the actual event, and – unsurprisingly – an overwhelming majority voted to remain in Europe.
FS: With what you know at the moment, what do you anticipate the impact of Brexit to be on British boarding schools in general and Oakham School in particular?
SLW: Let me try and address some of the key issues here.
Will there be a visa requirement? The short answer is that we don’t yet know. Very little has been written or said about changes to requirements regarding visas. However, anyone applying to a British boarding school within the next two years is highly unlikely to be affected. The Brexit negotiations are just starting and will take a long time. Also, rest assured that if additional visa requirements are put in place Oakham will do whatever it can to support students applying to us. Parents will not be left to their own devices. I am confident that this goes for the other boarding schools, too.
Why I believe this?
Firstly, it is in our own interest as a school. Oakham has welcomed international students since 1973. That is even before the UK joined the EU. They are an integral part of our school and this will not change! Secondly, don’t forget that we have been supporting overseas students with their visa applications for a very long time. We are very, very experienced at this. If the UK government really implements a visa process for European students, we have the experience and resources to help. Thirdly, we have power in numbers. Oakham is part of a tight knit group of top boarding schools and associations who work together to ensure that the quality of the education we provide and the accessibility of this education (i.e. the application process) is guaranteed. We work together with the Boarding Schools Association, The Independent Schools Council and HMC/GSA - collectively, along with the British Council, who have traditionally supported the 'business' of education in the UK.
Will the quality of the education suffer?
Absolutely not. Look, we are an independent school. That means we choose our curriculum and how we teach it. We were one of the very first schools to introduce the IB to the UK and are 100% committed to teaching it to the highest possible standard. Brexit will not change this.
Will Oakham as a school community change?
If at all it will be even more close-knit! Oakham has always been a school where pupils and staff care a lot about each other and look after each other. The referendum vote has made us even more aware of this. For example, it was really interesting to witness the reaction of the Brexit with our British students. They were so full of empathy for their European friends at school, and went out of their way to reassure them. It almost felt as if they were all embarrassed for what had happened! Also, Oakham has always been a school with a global vision - as one of the first schools to offer the IB this is very much rooted in a global perspective. We have more than 40 staff in the school with an international, mainly European background, from teachers, to support staff to the Head of Upper School! This is part of our DNA, so it won’t change.
Anything else?
Yes, on a positive note – the weak Pound Sterling makes boarding schools 15% cheaper. To give parents full advantage of this, we have introduced a scheme where they can pay the entire fee amount in advance. Also – and this is specific to Oakham – we offer private medical insurance. So, even if there are issues with reciprocity of public health care and EU 
pupils need private medical insurance, our pupils are automatically covered. 

FS: What advice would you give worried parents thinking about applying to boarding school in the UK?
SLW: I would tell them to be pragmatic. Evaluate the reasons why you consider UK boarding schools in the first place. If it's for the outstanding quality of education - this will be unaffected, if it's for language immersion - this remains unchanged, if it is for the positive experience of living in another country - this will still happen. Boarding schools like Oakham are open, forward thinking places that encourage intellectual debates and celebrate multiculturalism. 
 So please do not worry – from our perspective, the Brexit vote has made no difference.
FS: Any final personal thoughts on the topic?
SLW: Now more than ever, Oakham is striving to be a welcoming, open-minded, pro-European school. We will practice this at school, but also outside of our gates. For example, we organize a large number of trips to the continent every year. To visit to WW1 battlefields; to go skiing; for design trips and cultural outings. We encourage all of our pupils to do work experience stints abroad. We do all this in the hope that we can continue to strengthen our ties to Europe. And lastly, in an ever-changing world that currently spins on a very different political axis, we encourage our students to develop their own political sensibilities. With lots of political debates and activities like mock-elections, Model-United-Nations and many inspiring outside speakers. It’s essential that our pupils engage with what is currently happening in the world! 

FS: Thank you very much, Susanne, for the insightful conversation!
Interested in more? Here are further interviews on Brexit:

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