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Adjusting to a UK School After Living Abroad

By: Sarah Knowles BA, MA - Updated: 6 Nov 2020 | comments*Discuss
Uk School Children English Language

When ex-pats decide to move back home to Blighty, often the transition can be a difficult one – especially if there are children involved.

Parents who grew up in the UK might think that “going home” will be easy for everyone. But for children who have spent a significant portion of their lives abroad – or even all their lives – moving “back” to the UK can often mean a rocky adjustment.

Entering a UK school, either for the first time or after a long period of time – can be especially difficult on kids, even if they have attended a British school abroad. And if they have attended a school where the primary language is not English, the adjustment can be even more difficult.

Language Barriers

Adults who travel and work abroad may move from place to place every three or four years, and may never really pick up the language. Children, however, have an extraordinary capacity to learn another lingua, and sometimes their mother tongue may suffer.

It’s easy to assume that going home to the UK means that all language barriers will disappear. But for children for whom English has become their second language, moving back to an English-speaking world is not always easy.

Don’t assume that your child will rejoice in having to speak English 24/7. They might struggle with their English language skills, and they may also miss speaking the language they've become used to. The adjustment can take a while, so be patient while they struggle to express themselves.

Trying to Fit In

Kids of all ages usually want nothing more than to fit in, and that can be hard when they are unsure of the social customs in a different society. If they left the UK only a few years ago they might be thrilled at returning, but might also underestimate how things have changed in their absence.

The general rule of thumb is that the younger the child, the easier the adjustment. Teenagers will find it harder to fit in on the most part, both to make new friends and cope with new ways of studying and learning.

Encouraging your children to explore new interests can help them both to regain some lost confidence and make new friends. Capitalise on their interests and strengths, and help them to join new clubs and groups.

Top Tips

Here are some top tips to help your children adjust more easily…

  • Allow your children to keep in touch with their old friends, either via phone calls or email. Some parents think cutting all ties, especially if a child is homesick, is the best way. But that can backfire, and also fill your child with resentment.
  • Speak to the school beforehand and express your worries and concerns, if you have any. A problem shared is that much more easily dealt with. Keep a positive focus, no matter what, and share your optimism with your children.
  • Ask the school about any clubs, groups or extra-curricular activities your children might be interested in (music, sport, drama), so they will have something to look forward to as well as some potential new friends.
  • Try to meet children who attend the same school beforehand in an informal setting, such as a playdate or barbecue at your home (depending on the age of your children).
  • Make sure the doors of communication are always open between you and your children, and that you are willing to listen to all their complaints, no matter how trivial they might appear to you.
Helping your children adjust to a new life back in the UK – and a UK school – may take more time than you anticipated. Keep in mind that while you may feel like you’re going home, your children may feel exactly the opposite.

Adjusting to any new school is hard, with unfamiliar faces and friendships that may have already been forged years ago. Encouraging active involvement in the school and reaching out to make new friends is one way break the ice.

Being patient and helping your children to find their own way is the best possible method of dealing with what to them is a foreign experience. Being open with the school and sharing some of their fears can also help make the adjustment easier.

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Our family is moving our 3 children to UK in May from Australia . The school year starts in January in Australia so worried whether they have to repeat the uk school year or move up a year. My eldest will be in year 10, my second child will be in year 8 and youngest year 3. We are interested in state schools that are coeducational.
Lisa - 6-Nov-20 @ 9:19 PM
Hi. We are immigrating to York, UK. My son will be 13 and my daughter 17. What are my daughters options to continue her schooling at age 17? Would it be advisable to redo one year? Thank you.
Belinda - 12-Sep-20 @ 4:03 PM
I am 14 nearly 15 and I moved to Australia halfway through year 7. I’m probably going to be moving back to the uk into year 10 to live with my dad. Do you think it will be detrimental on my schooling specially as I will have a year and a bit to prepare for GCSE.
Lauren - 7-Jul-20 @ 2:09 PM
I am a 16 year old that was born in the uk and left at age 1 , i have been to many schools over the word and i recently in the Philippines they dont have IGCSE but my mother and i want to return back to the uk , what are my options ? For 6th form and collage ?
Livia - 26-Apr-20 @ 6:22 PM
Hi, we are planning to return form Australia with our 3 boys after taking a 6 month trip. We have been in Oz for 5 year and the boys only know the Australian school system. It means our twins will go from end of year 1 (Oz) to start year 4 (UK) and our oldest will go from year 3 (Oz) to year 6 ( UK). I have asked to hold them back but the school's can not guarantee that this will happen. I have compared the curriculum and it appear that the UK expectations for my boys age group is very high compared to what they have been doing in Oz. In addition our oldest has apergers. Is moving back to the UK for them going to be a disaster?
Mumof3 - 15-Dec-19 @ 3:48 AM
Hi, my name's Onsay and I need a little advice. I have spent 6 years in Guyana, South America currently in grade 11 doing IGCSE but I wish to return to London because it's my place of birth once finished and enroll in sixth form. I know the system is constantly changing and I don't know how easy it will be too get back into their school system..
Ons - 13-Dec-19 @ 1:21 AM
mumofboys - Your Question:
I have been abroad for six years and have been wanting to return to the U.K. for some time. I recently made the decision to to return on a trial run with one of my children I actually thought my eight year old would have been the better choice but my husband has said only the older can go. He is fifteen and will go into year ten. He will have missed four months of school and I have been trying to do as much as I can but obviously not being in the country I can't actually do anything until we arrive. In January. Will the schools actually accept him or will he be told to drop down a year. Schools in Brazil are from February to December

Our Response:
We cannot advise what the school admissions will decide, you can find out more by contacting them directly via your prospective local council, please see link here .
GetTheRightSchool - 11-Dec-17 @ 11:03 AM
I have been abroad for six years and have been wanting to return to the U.K. for some time. I recently made the decision to to return on a trial run with one of my children I actually thought my eight year old would have been the better choice but my husband has said only the older can go. He is fifteen and will go into year ten. He will have missed four months of school and I have been trying to do as much as I can but obviously not being in the country i can't actually do anything until we arrive.In January. Will the schools actually accept him or will he be told to drop down a year. Schools in Brazil are from February to December
mumofboys - 9-Dec-17 @ 11:10 AM
I usto live in london i study untill yr 8 then my family moved to northen cyprus my school lifes been over for 10 yrs nearly im 22 now i wanna move back to london and continue my education is that posiible and how pls help
Blush - 24-Oct-17 @ 10:46 AM
Hi, I am moving back to UK as well this June and asked about many of these concerns you all have. First of all you need to be living in UK to apply to the local council authorities for a school place. They are now the ones in charge off allocate children in the schools. True, they will take into account the address you provide as home and I think place of work as well (and prove of it?I have been told thats is how it works now. Its a bit more complicated that before but they will always give you a place in a school even of is not the one you like most.
May - 30-May-16 @ 11:49 AM
I am returning from abroad as I am being transferred back to work in the UK at rather short notice. I was informed of the decision last month and will be relocated to the UK (to work in London) in July or August. My son is 11 years old, he has been attending school in China since he was an infant. We don't have accomodation arranged so far, so don't know what area of London we will be living in. How do I go about getting my son in school in London? Can I do anything before I return? Can anyone give me advice on the process involved? Thanking you in advance.
ian - 1-May-16 @ 10:58 AM
Hi. We are moving to UK from South Africa in August 2016. My son is 7 years old and in grade1 (DOB 13-02-2009). I am under the impression he will be going to the 3rd year in school in the UK. This is a massive jump. What can I do to get him academically ready to go to school in the UK. Please help.
sylvia - 28-Apr-16 @ 5:32 PM
Hi I'm 24 and I graduated from a Ghanaian university last year. I am now thinking of continuing with my masters programme in the UK. I am a British citizen and am wondering if there's an amount of time I hv to stay in the UK before I can start schooling?
annie - 23-Jan-16 @ 12:51 PM
hello am from Uganda and am 10yrs am wondering if i can find a bursary to study in UK for my further studies.my parents can not afford pay for my school fees since we are many and yet i do not want to drop out of school.thank you.
Tamale - 2-Jan-16 @ 9:45 AM
Hi, my kids 16 and 10 where born in Holland,lived there a while then they were taken to Ghana. After 4years we are going to stay in UK...how do I get them to excel in school and will the 16 year old write A levels test or GCSE test...how does this work because they Speak Dutch and a little bit of English, will the 16 year old go straight to college? I know the 10 year old will be fine Thank You.
Gladys - 12-Dec-15 @ 5:42 AM
Hi....my daughter is living aboard since her 6 Month ages and have school under Cambridge curriculum in aboard now she is grade 6 next year would be grade 7 my question is what i need suppose to do for her to get her first school in uk ....thanksGina
Gina - 23-Oct-15 @ 2:36 PM
Thanks for the reply.Another questionwill my 16 year old be able to sit gcse's how will this work for him?I know in the uk you leave school at 16 snd then go on to college/apprenticeshiprtcwhat can we do to help him?Thanks Sonia
Sonia Elliott - 12-Oct-15 @ 4:34 PM
Hi, how about how and which year the school allocate our kids? We are thinking of living abroad for 2years and when we come back tombritain, my son will be year 10. Does school will put him in lower year so that he could catch up all hope needs for GCSE or A levels? If he wants to enter UK university, I assure he needs to pass or complete UK tests. Or would it be all up to school's regulations? Please advise me, thank you.
May - 19-Sep-15 @ 10:26 PM
@Sonia - I can only suggest some extra tuition in order to get them accustomed to the written-side of the language once here.
GetTheRightSchool - 17-Jun-15 @ 2:26 PM
Hi I have a few concerns. Having lived in Italy for 10 years we are now thinking of returning home. My boys aged 16 and 14 are both bilingual but my worry is that their level of English (spelling) etc. is not how it should be as obviously they have been here since they were 5 and 7. How can we overcome this?They speak and read perfectly. English for us here is our first language and we've always spoken English at home. My worry is that their level of English would be up to the same standard as other kids their age at home. Any advice would be much appreciated.Many thanks. Sonia.
Sonia - 14-Jun-15 @ 7:11 PM
@Dani - I have included a link to the schools admissions website here. I hope this helps.
GetTheRightSchool - 18-May-15 @ 2:12 PM
Hello, My name is Daniel and I need some advices please if is possible. My sister will come this year in UK she will move here cause we are all families here and she's 12 years old, nationality romanian...what do I need to do to register to a school? Thank you.
Dani - 14-May-15 @ 11:32 PM
Success dosen't always bring happiness,but when you are happy you will alway be successful
Recoba - 23-Jun-14 @ 12:22 PM
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