01 02 03 Africa Expat Wives Club: The secondary school dilemma 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

The secondary school dilemma


Sorry to lower the tone but I have this condition. It’s crept up on me recently. I thought I could fight it but now I feel it has spiralled beyond my control. It gets worse every time I go out, especially to social things, a dinner party, drinks, restaurants or over to a friend’s for lunch, it can even strike whilst innocently drinking coffee. Sometimes I feel that this condition is not entirely my fault because lately it has been become a pandemic.

The Problem


It is not so much talking about the school my children are currently attending, (though I am guilty of nattering ad nauseam about this too). The problem is more the dilemma of where they will go to school next, i.e. for secondary education.

The question; ‘And what are you going to do with your three?’ trips off the tongue all too easily. It’s an easy opener in social situations when you can’t think of anything else to talk about. But beware, once you have touched on the subject of schools, the floodgates well and truly open. Once your child reaches the age of nine or ten, it’s the conversation on everyone’s lips.

Which secondary school to choose is a worry that keeps me awake at night and makes me even wish that I wasn’t British. The French, Belgians, Germans that I know are all much more cool about these things. Their parents never paid to educate them, so why should they worry? But in UK and Kenya too, overreaching yourself to pay for to educate your children is a real agony.

Expats in Nairobi are spoiled for choice with many excellent primary schools but when we get to secondary, we seem to fall apart completely. Parents end up falling into one of three categories and never the twain shall meet.

I asked a boy who was schooled at primary in Kenya and is currently at secondary in UK,
‘do you still see your old age mates who are still at school here?’

Answer: A categorical ‘no’.

1. Educate Locally

Some keep their children in secondary schools here. I really wish we all did this, then we’d be on a level playing field. Since many expats chose a different route, the decision to keep your kids close is cast into doubt.  Perhaps the facilities on offer locally aren’t quite up to scratch?  You fear that you are not giving your children the chance to ever ‘get out’ of rather a small pond in Kenya. Another major problem is that the expat community tends to hear in grisly detail all about all the latest infractions of teenage students at local schools.

‘Did you hear what went on at the Karen Country Lodge/Carnivore last Thursday?’ ‘Little Johnny’s been expelled for drugs.’
(obviously, these problems are universal)
Wealthier parents scratch their chin and shake their heads, implying ‘you should have sent them away like we did. Excellent pastoral care. It’s a sacrifice worth making.’

On the up side; if your kids are educated here in Nairobi or elsewhere Kenya, then at least you can keep a close eye on your offspring since they will be coming home every day or at least every weekend.

2. South African Private Schools

Some expats send their kids to South African boarding schools where the fees are the same as Nairobi private schools but the facilities are more on a par with those in England. The only problem is that the South African education system is fairly unique; they follow a Matric system that doesn’t correspond well with the British one that naturally leads onto gaining a place at a UK university. There are also four terms instead of three so holidays never fit in with those of siblings.

3. British Public Schools

English public school is the third option. Many of us feel we should be able to do this, because it’s what our parents selflessly did at vast personal cost. But the world has gone mad. At today’s prices, educating all three in England would cost us more than half a million pounds that we simply don’t have. To put it into perspective – our new pool (which incidentally is going on swimmingly, excuse the pun), and seems enormously expensive and hugely self-indulgent to have chosen to put in, would have paid for one and a half TERMS (not years) at British public school for ONE child only!!! And we have 3 kids!! Plus that’s before you have factored in long haul flights at the beginning and end of each term plus return flights for half term breaks, uniform, spending money, school trips, extras. (You won’t believe it, but ‘normal’ people actually manage this!)

Conscientious friends of mine have been doing whirlwind tours of private schools in England, kindly reporting back to their more thrifty neighbours who prefer to bury their head in the sand (me). I learn with some amazement that English boarding schools have changed enormously since my day when, to put it kindly, they were relatively basic.

In my mind, private schools in England today have morphed into private members clubs. For example, there are now fully equipped theatres on campus, Olympic sized indoor swimming pools, astro turf pitches, language labs with smart boards and banks of the latest computers (one per child), each boarding house has a private gym (I’ve seen this, really!), a restaurant or at the very least, a help yourself 'free' cafe. Old style dormitories have been replaced by private rooms with en suite bath or shower.

I do wish that UK private schools had kept the facilities simple and therefore the fees lower, but I suppose that competition for the few students whose parents are able to afford to pay has forced this change.

There’s another difference too, the little preciouses are able to escape nowadays because the modern approach of schools is to let them all go home or to a friend every single weekend if they so desire. Imagine the horror, our long-haul/overseas lassies might find themselves all alone in a deserted school that normally has 700 kids enrolled.

What to do?

If you can afford private education in England (and, in the first instance, paying for it in Kenya is no easy feat), then ask yourself, what sort of children would emerge? We might assume that after the comforts of a private UK school, real life might come as something of a shock. University and/or a 9-5 job would be a terrible step down after life within the heady confines of ‘The Club’. Then there’s the Gap Yah – how would one ever cope with roughing it when, up until now, all one has had to worry about was their Facebook status and which Jack Wills hoody to buy? Would your children be completely out of step with real life demanding to accompany wealthier friends on holiday to Barbados and the like.

Mind you, now that UK Universities are going to be so expensive for students (the government are no longer planning to subsidise tuition fees), I guess university will be the exclusive domain of private school kids - so it’ll just be like a giant reunion. No culture shock.

Option 4 – the one that I forgot to tell you about

A few people have chosen to send their kids to a handful of state grammar schools in England that are now beginning to accept boarders and seem to like ones from overseas. These boarding grammars charge the same for one year as English private schools charge per term. This would seem to be the perfect compromise only that the concept is still fairly new, there are questions over whether these state grammars are properly set up for pastoral care and there is still the problem of the place emptying out at weekends. Correct me if I am wrong.


It’s not so simple is it? When looking at a photograph of an English public school art and design studio, full of girls with bunched up long hair and sleeves pulled down long over their hands, I sighed deeply. Given the chance, our daughters would probably love it and there’s that nagging worry that won’t go away – by staying within the confines of what you can afford, you aren’t doing as much for your kids as your parents did for you.

What a dreadfully middle class dilemma I am in! For the moment, my plan is to keep the children here but what happens when my eldest and I nearly kill each other as we hit the teenage years will be interesting. In the meantime, I might change my mind – surprise lottery win permitting.

Interesting related article re private schools struggling during recession: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8132240/Private-schools-keeping-down-fees-to-attract-students.html

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