Private schools say immigration officials are unfairly targeting foreign students — and jeopardising a booming trade.
Children from wealthy international families have been left terrified after being treated as migrants, according to the leaders of some of Britain’s top independent schools.
Despite paying up to £30,000 a year for a place at a British boarding school, some children have been deported in the middle of the year, while delays and intransigence over visas have left others stranded in the UK and forced to spend Christmas with strangers.
Head teachers say they are too concerned to give the children’s names for fear that pupils will be victimised. They warn that such experiences are driving a rich and powerful international elite to choose schools in America and Australia instead of Britain.
According to Matthew Burgess, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), the 25,000 overseas students at Britain’s private schools bring in £660m in fees a year, but they are “struggling painfully” with immigration bureaucracy.
Burgess has been called on to resolve disputes between schools and the UK Border Agency at least once a week.
“I have had people on the phone in tears because a child thinks they are to be deported any minute,” he said. “In one case I handled a child who spent the weekend in their boarding house waiting for the door to be knocked down by the UK Border Agency because that is how they imagine it works, that they will be dragged from school and shoved on a plane.
“Often the problems are caused just by blind, unthinking bureaucracy but the effect on children is very distressing.”
A 15-year-old South Korean pupil at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, where boarding fees are about £30,000 a year, was given just 24 hours’ notice to leave the country after his visa expired and there was a delay in receiving his new one.
The boy, the son of an academic and now in his first year at a British university, was not allowed back into Britain for two months and missed weeks of A-level study.
Jane Jorgensen, head of admissions at Abingdon, said: “I was doing my Christmas shopping on December 22 when I received a phone call from a pupil, a lovely boy, saying he had been given 24 hours to leave the country after a meeting earlier that day with immigration officials.
“He was very, very distressed and was trying to be brave but he was just 15, on his own. They were telling him he could only reapply for a visa from Korea. He had made a mistake in his paperwork which had delayed his visa, but it was a technicality.
“They could have considered that he was at a school which was highly trusted and had all the correct procedures in place to look after him. To say to him that he had 24 hours to get out was unkind when he was that age and on his own.”
In another case at Taunton School, the border agency lost the passport of a Chinese pupil and took six months to complete an extension to her visa.
“The delay meant she could not go home at all over the Christmas and Easter holidays and had to stay with strangers,” says Caroline Nixon, chairwoman of the British Association of International Schools and Colleges, and principal of Taunton School International.
“Only 15, she was terribly upset. She had already bought her plane ticket home for Christmas but she could not leave the country, because she would not have been able to get in again. It was dreadful. Her parents were so upset and she was so unhappy. Her GCSE exam results suffered as a result.”
The ISC is lobbying the government to remove such children from immigration targets.
Burgess says: “Independent schools have 26,000 students who need visas. The student immigration regime has been put together with adults in mind, but it also applies to children. In our view it should not.
“We have been trying to persuade the Home Office that pupils who come to our schools are the brightest and best and are very unlikely to be economic migrants or terrorists. These are children coming here who will return home to their parents in the holidays and they should be treated differently from adults.”
Nixon agrees. “These children are going to be influential people in their home countries in future,” she says. “We imply that they are going to get sucked into the black economy but the reality is that they spend £30,000 on fees alone a year.
“Their parents could send their children to be schooled in Australia or America. Why are we making it so difficult for children from these wealthy, influential families to come to this country?”
Christopher Greenfield, head of Dorset’s International College, Sherborne, said he had lost half a dozen pupils this year through immigration problems.
“This is another case of complacency and xenophobia costing Britain a huge amount in export earnings,” he complained.
The Home Office said: “This government recognises the important contribution that international students, including pupils at independent schools, make to the UK’s economy and to making our education system one of the best in the world.
“We are committed to bringing immigration back under control and creating a selective immigration system that works in our national interest. We have tightened the routes where abuse was rife and as a result of our reforms net migration has fallen by more than a third since 2010. There is no limit on the number of students that can enter the UK to study.”
It added that the student visa system had been reformed because it had been abused, with visas being used for immigration rather than educational purposes.