Late last year Britain’s independent schools received a wake-up call. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School in Wimbledon, delivered it. Far too many of them, he said, have become the ‘finishing schools for the children of oligarchs’ because of an ‘apparently endless queue’ of wealthy foreigners who have pushed fees sky-high; there’s a ‘fees time bomb ticking away’ and one day, when it explodes, a lot of these schools are going to be screwed. It really was that blunt. Cue cheers from struggling parents all over the country, and squeals from school governors, who’d rather no one asked too many questions about the £30,000 price tag on a child’s yearly education.
Martin Stephen, the former High Master of St Paul’s School, once issued a similarly forthright warning about extortionate fees in the pages of the Daily Telegraph: ‘I was rapped so hard on the knuckles that I nearly lost my hands,’ he remembered recently.
But could it be that the answer to this problem — rich foreigners pricing out British families — is staring us in the face? If there’s an ‘endless queue’ of aspirational foreigners for our top private schools, why not go to the source, educate them overseas and then use the profits from this to fund bursaries and scholarships for pupils in the UK? It’s a progressive idea, and one that a handful of independent schools are already trying out.
The famous red-brick buildings of Wellington College belong to the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire. That’s where Queen Victoria herself laid the foundation stone of the public school in 1859. But scroll down a few pages on Google and you’ll find another Wellington College. It has an identical look: the same classical buildings, including state-of-the-art facilities and a 500-seat theatre, surrounded by the same green playing fields. This one, however, is in Tianjin, China, about 90 miles south-east of Beijing. It’s a replica, but with genuine British roots.
Wellington College International Tianjin was set up in 2011 to offer ex-pats and Chinese families the option of a ‘first-class British education for two- to 18-year-olds’. The imitation of the original Wellington runs deep: pupils wear the same uniform as their UK peers, including tartan skirts for the girls, and experience the same distinctive ethos. Fees aren’t cheap (up to £23,000 a year) but parents are eager to pay. The school is so popular that Wellington last year opened a second outpost in Shanghai and plans to open a third in Hong Kong.
For parents in the UK, the revolutionary thing is that these schools are already starting to send profits back to Britain to fund bursaries and scholarships. Sir Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, tells me it’s ‘not huge sums’ yet, but he hopes that within five years £3 million could be fed back from China to his school every year. That could make a huge difference in terms of affordability, which he agrees is a major issue for independent schooling in the UK.
Wellington is not alone. Dulwich College realised it was so popular with Asian parents that, a decade ago, it began to move the mountain to Mohammed. It now has seven schools in Asia teaching more than 5,000 children: there are Dulwich Colleges in Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Suzhou, Zhuhai and Singapore. It’s the Starbucks of British public schools — a massive international franchise.
Harrow also has satellite schools abroad. In fact it was the first, with a school in Bangkok in 1998. Its straw boaters amused the locals, who associated them not with playing fields but paddy fields. Again, profits in Asia equals bursaries in the UK. Andrew Halls recently revealed that his own school also hopes to raise money from China. KCS is reportedly signing a deal to help establish ten schools in China over the next 20 years — which would bring in £7 million a year in bursary funding.
The scale of this Asian expansion is astonishing. It’s a new British Empire of education. The Independent Schools Council says there are now 29 outposts of UK independent schools across the world, educating some 18,784 pupils. There’s even a Haileybury in Kazakhstan and a Sherborne in Qatar. The great risk is that the market reaches saturation point — or that British schooling simply goes out of fashion. Foreign parents suddenly decide that actually they want their kids to head to US universities and they’re not convinced the straw boaters will help.
At the moment, however, that day seems very far off. There’s an enormous and growing appetite for this great British export. In time it could be the thing that makes independent schooling in the UK affordable once again.