UK Independent School Facts & Figures: Highlights of the 2020 ISC Annual Census

UK Independent School Facts & Figures: Highlights of the 2020 ISC Annual Census
Highfield Prep School International

When I meet with international parents they’re often keenly interested in the facts and figures of UK Independent Schools, especially regarding diversity of nationalities and the numbers of boarders. The 2020 ISC Census published at the end of April provides the latest key data - Highfield makes an interesting comparison.

As a whole, the UK independent sector educates around 630,000 children in 2,500 schools. This is 6.5% of the total number of school children in the UK (ISC Research). Perhaps owing to the global eminence of many of our UK boarding schools, international parents are often surprised that only an estimated 1% of UK children enjoy the benefits of a boarding education.*

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) conducts an annual census each January providing further detail. The data is collected from their member schools, representing over half the Independent Schools in the UK. Below are some of the key findings from their 2020 report relating to non-British pupils with parents living overseas:

  • Non-British pupils account for 5.5% of all pupils in ISC schools. This has remained fairly static on last year, at a total of 29,446 pupils.
  • In terms of boarding, non-British pupils make up 39% of boarding pupils at ISC schools. In contrast, at Highfield 75% of our boarders are British pupils with only 25% from overseas.
  • While full boarding remains the most popular boarding type, the proportion of weekly and flexi boarders has increased for four consecutive years to 20.2%. Full boarding has remained popular at Highfield with 40-60 pupils usually in at weekends. Only 10% of boarders have chosen our flexi boarding options.
  • The largest proportion of non-British pupils are from China & Hong Kong, then Germany, Russia and Spain. This is similar for Highfield, though our strict admissions process promotes a more even balance and diverse mix of nationalities.

The 2020 Report shows that UK boarding is increasing in popularity in China & HK, Japan, S Korea, North America and non-EEA European countries. Russia and many of the European markets reported a slight downturn, but the decreases in countries such as Germany, Spain or Italy, were particularly minimal. According to the British Boarding Schools Network (BBSN) these decreases could be attributed to uncertainty over Brexit. “Given that many European students attend for a year or less, some parents may have delayed sending their children to the UK in the current academic year, until after 31st January.” The BSSN survey of education agents in Europe reported a largely stable demand for British boarding schools.

“UK Independent schools significantly outperform the national and global averages academically”

Perhaps one of the many reasons that our schools have maintained strong global appeal over the decades, is that although fewer than 50% are academically selective, the ISC report finds that pupils in UK Independent schools significantly outperform the national and global averages academically.

What does this mean for the future? The data in this census was collected in January 2020, before Brexit, and before the COVID 19 outbreak, so it remains to be seen how these events will affect the coming academic year. We can perhaps take some comfort from one final observation in the report; UK Independent Schools are proud of their global outlook, and will continue to seek and welcome, the cultural diversity that non-British pupils bring.

To view the full ISC Census Report 2020 visit:


Lydia Wetzel, Head of International Development & Strategy

Highfield and Brookham Schools


*An estimated 80,000 pupils at either state or independent schools. Little, M. Kohm, A. Thompson, R. (2005). "The impact of residential placement on child development: research and policy implications". International Journal of Social Welfare; 14, 200–209. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2397.2005.00360.x (Chipenda-Dansokho et al., 2003; Department of Health, 1998)

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