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What price for our grandchildren?

Posted on: 23 Feb 2015
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council considers the financial, and educational advantages of a globalised British education system for the future of our fee-paying schools in Britain.

As boarding school fees crash through the £30,000 a year mark many parents are asking themselves; if we are struggling, how will our children cope when the fees are over £40,000 or dare I say it, £50,000? Day school fees average £15,000 but even so it’s a mind-boggling amount to find each year per child.

School fees haven’t gone up much recently because of low inflation, but that can change at any time, and if it does, and, even if it is the best investment you can make in a child’s future, the inevitable consequence will be that many parents simply won’t be able to pay them. That is, if all else stays equal, but it won’t of course.

One of the greatest changes in education over the past decade has been its globalisation. British-system schools abroad are growing incredibly fast with 1.5 million children studying in 3,400 schools abroad. The number has doubled in the past ten years. These schools offer an English curriculum taught in English, often by British-born teachers and examined by British examination boards using GCSEs, and A-levels.

Several top independent schools including Harrow, Dulwich and Sherborne have taken advantage of this trend setting up 39 franchises, educating 22,000 pupils largely in the Middle East and in East Asia, because this is where the demand is greatest and where governments have assisted with the process (not least by providing land). Wellington College has two ‘look-alike’ schools in Shanghai and another in Tianjin with a third planned, and last year, Joe Spence, master of Dulwich College opened a fifth overseas school in Singapore.

Brighton College opened its first overseas school in Abu Dhabi in 2011 to respond to the demand from their government for a first-class 3–18 school in the Emirates that would help to drive up standards. ‘We also wanted to respond to the considerable demand from expatriate parents who sought a challenging British-style education based upon the aims and ethos of a well-known and successful UK school,’ says headmaster Richard Cairns, explaining how Brighton College exported their curriculum, co-curricular programme, the House system and uniform. ‘We worked hard to find top quality teachers and to share our DNA between academic departments. It’s been a huge success with pupil enrolment increasing from an initial 450 at the opening three years ago, to 1,200 last September.’

The immediate motivation is money. The income generated by these overseas English schools has enabled schools in the UK to hold down their fees, and to provide money for bursaries. Over a third of pupils at independent schools are now on a reduced fee scheme and last year £324 million was spent on means-tested bursaries.

Schools are often criticised for not adhering to their charitable status, but this is grossly unfair as they seek wherever possible to enable bright pupils from poorer backgrounds to access the schools. Many of them have big endowments but even when they don’t, they do not want to charge the cost of these bursaries to other parents. Franchise schools abroad are an answer. But, I am happy to report, a largely mercenary objective has a golden lining, the longer term aim of most partnerships is to ensure that the pupils and teachers of all the schools benefit from international links, and nowhere more so than in the employment and training of our already outstanding teachers and the education potential of our British based pupils. Seventy-six thousand teachers are employed abroad and the number is rising, and the UK independent schools with franchises abroad are turning this to their advantage, providing routes for good teachers to move between the schools on their chain.

Seven former teachers of Dulwich College, London are now teaching abroad and the head is offering one year secondments to the international schools. ‘In any one year, as many as 12 former Dulwich College pupils are working as ‘gappies’ in our international schools,’ says Spence, who is also developing a worldwide programme for teaching Mandarin and is planning a trip for up to 150 UK pupils to visit Dulwich schools in Shanghai, Suzhou and Beijing, with the trip ending in a three-day Olympiad in Beijing in April.

Of course, the fact that a school like Dulwich has set up schools in China may mean that fewer Chinese students want to come to Dulwich UK as boarders. There are 24,000 non-British pupils in Britain-based independent schools, representing 4.8 per cent of all independent school pupils. Their numbers are falling but this is a small price to pay, quite literally, for much greater rewards abroad. And as relationships between these schools mature, there may be growing numbers of student exchanges and good pupils coming to the UK schools in the sixth form (just in time for entry to UK universities).

All in all, these developments reflect the globalisation of education and the high regard with which British independent school education is held overseas. The money the UK schools receive in return for their hard work setting up and running the franchises will help hold down fees and open them up to pupils from lower income homes in this country.

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About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is Chairman of ISC.