In 2020, the UK Government announced a new visa for Hong Kong residents that have British National (Overseas) status in response to the new security laws being introduced by China. China have since said they will no longer recognise the BNO passport as a valid travel document which has led the Hong Kong Government to say the same, Cathay Pacific to add a travel advisory to their website and the British Embassy in Beijing formally responding to what they call misleading claims. The UK government estimates over 5 million Hong Kong residents are eligible to move to the UK using the new visa and they expect 300,000 people to apply in the first year.
This article aims to give an overview of the new visa and what this means for your children’s education in the UK.
For information about eligibility and how to apply you need to read the British National (overseas) visa information to ensure you are following the correct process. The key points are summarised below and there is an information leaflet available.
- Applications opened on January 31st 2021, and a smartphone app will launch on February 23rd 2021 so that applicants do not need to attend a visa centre.
- The visa gives holders the right to live, work and/or study in the UK for five years, after which they will be able to apply to settle in the UK and then apply for citizenship.
- There are costs involved – you need to pay an application fee and a health surcharge to be able to use the National Health Service.
The significant change from an educational perspective is that Hong Kong residents can now access UK state schools which are funded by the government and free of charge to BNO visa holders and their dependent children under 18.
What are the types of schools in the UK?
In the UK schools fall into two categories – state funded (also called maintained, academies or free schools) by the government or independently funded (also called private or public) by parents. Subsidised and DSS schools do not exist in the same way they do in Hong Kong.
At Keystone, most of the families we support are applying for independent schools and you can apply without the BNO visa status. Many independent boarding schools and some day schools offer Child Student visas (formerly called the Tier 4 Child Student visa) and you can take a look at the full list of school sponsors on this site. If you apply to one of these schools, your child can attend an independent school whilst you remain in Hong Kong, or you can go with them if they are under the age of 12. If you are looking for more information about UK independent schools do take a look at our comprehensive overview.
When you apply to independent schools you apply to the schools directly and therefore you have a greater choice of where you would like to go, even though most are academically selective so your child needs to meet the academic requirements. The benefit is that you can apply to schools before you know where you will live – this allows you to plan for schools first, accommodation second. However, the fees at independent schools can be significant, considerably higher than Hong Kong private schools, ranging from around £15,000 to £50,000 per year – the fees are set by each school individually.
Applying to state schools is based almost entirely on where you live and you do not get to choose a specific school – you can express a preference but places are allocated by the local authority (further details below).
Can BNO visa holders study in state schools?
In short, yes, if you meet the BNO visa criteria as set out by the UK Government.
Is education free in the UK for BNO visa holders?
Yes, if you apply for state schools. Independent schools have fees that are set by each school – do check their websites for up-to-date information.
How do BNO visa holders apply to UK state schools?
You apply through the local authority or council (a local government organisation that oversees public services) in the area you will live. The process will vary depending on the local authority so you must follow the process set out on their websites. You can search using your postcode for Primary Schools (age 5-11) or Secondary Schools (age 11-18) to find the relevant local authority. Most local authorities require proof of address as part of the application so they can check which catchment area you live in. Many local authority areas are divided into ‘catchment areas’ and families living within the area are given priority for a certain school. If you live outside of the catchment area for a school your chances of getting a place are reduced. When moving from abroad you may also need to provide proof that your child is eligible for a state school place.
Can I choose the state school that I want my child to attend?
The application process for most local authorities requires you to list a number of schools (often up to 5) you have a preference for. The allocation of places is then decided by the local authority based on specific criteria such as distance from school, whether there is a sibling already at the school and whether the child has any Special Educational Needs. You are then allocated a school place and if you are not happy with the place you can usually appeal the decision. It is worth noting that the most sought after state schools are heavily over-subscribed and it is not uncommon for parents to move house so they fall in a catchment area for a school of their choice and therefore appealing decisions are often unsuccessful. This can also push up house prices in areas that have popular state schools.
Can we apply for state schools mid-year?
If you are eligible for a state school place, the local authority is obligated to find you a school place whenever you arrive, but you may not get any choice and you will need to accept the place offered which might not be the closest school. You will need to contact the relevant local authority and it would be wise to do this as soon as you know you are moving to get the process started.
What are UK grammar schools and how do you apply?
Grammar schools are state-funded secondary schools that are selective and children are required to take an entrance test. Many local authorities do not have grammar schools as they were phased out in the 1960s and 70s (this BBC article provides a brief history for those interested), and as of 2021, there are around 3,400 state secondary schools in England of which only 163 are grammar schools. You can find a full list of grammar schools in England to get an idea of where they are and as with all state schools, your eligibility is based on where you live, but in addition, your child will need to pass the relevant test. The process varies depending on the local authority and you need to follow the relevant guidance on their website.
It is worth noting that not all state grammar schools have ‘grammar’ in their name such as Aylesbury High School, and there are fee-paying independent schools such as Portsmouth Grammar School that are not part of the state system.
How do I know which are the good UK state schools?
The government publishes data on all schools in the UK and there is a comparison tool making it easier for parents to judge the performance of schools. In addition, all schools are inspected by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education); a government department responsible for ensuring the quality of education settings in the UK. They rate schools using a 4-point grading system and as of 2019 (inspections were paused in 2020 due to Covid-19) 20% of state schools are outstanding, 65% are good, 11% require improvement and 4% are inadequate. They publish an inspection report after they have visited a school and you can read previous reports for any UK state school. It is worth noting that the frequency of inspections depends on the grading and Outstanding schools can often go several years without an inspection. Some caution needs to be applied as a school may be quite different to how it was a few years ago.
Will my child be able to pay ‘home’ university fees?
UK universities have ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ fees and the cost difference can be significant. Home fees are subsidised by the government and are capped at £9,250 per year in 2021/22, whereas there is no such cap for overseas fees and you pay the full cost of the course. For humanities courses this could be around £20,000 per year, rising to £34,000 per year for Engineering at Imperial and £58,000 per year for Medicine at Cambridge.
University ‘fee status’ is determined by where you live and how long you have lived there. Usually, you are required to have lived in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the university course starting and this does not include students attending a UK boarding school if their parents live abroad. You can find the full details on the UKCISA site, and most universities provide their own information, for example, LSE and the University of Bath. A student’s fee status is determined when they apply through UCAS based on the information contained in the application. Universities can request more information from applicants if needed to determine fee status. University College London has added information about the BNO visa to its website, and other universities will likely follow suit.
How can Keystone help?
We regularly support families applying for UK independent schools and universities through our advisory services, but if you have any questions about the UK education system more generally please do not hesitate to get in touch and we would be very happy to help. We have had an increasing number of enquiries from families mentioning the BNO visa route and we have helped to steer them through their options.