British education has never been so competitive. Our system, particularly the private sector, is a constant source of fascination and is renowned the world over — even though it educates only 7 per cent of UK children. But the current competition for places has borne a new industry, usually labelled ‘education consultancy.’ Consider education consultants the Robin to the private sector’s Batman. The Yoko to Eton’s John or the Sonny to Cheltenham Ladies’ Cher.
Are you keen for your son or daughter to get into one of the best prep schools in the land? Do you toss and turn in torment each night at the infinite options? If so, you are vulnerable to these education consultants, who can quell your fears and fast-track your little darlings to the best education that money can buy.
How has this come to be? A few generations ago, all you needed was a big brain and a fairly large wallet to gain entry to even the more prestigious private schools. But today, fee-paying schools are more difficult to get into than ever before. Prices are going up all the time. Competition is hotter than hell. And as a result, parents are increasingly panicked at the prospect of their offspring missing out. As such, they will go to extraordinary lengths to increase their chances.
Enter the education consultancy. Put simply, these companies claim to guarantee your child’s entry to whichever hideously expensive establishment you choose. They work ‘with’ you, as ‘advisory’ services, marketing themselves as bespoke, helpful and insightful, and dedicated to placing your child at the ‘right’ school. Of course, this does not come cheap. Education consultants are decidedly shifty when it comes to revealing their fees, but one tells me that on average, a placement can cost parents ‘way over’ £10,000. ‘I’ve had families I’ve worked with in Singapore who’ve been charged over £25,000 for a placement,’ she said. And that’s before your child has even opened a textbook.
Only a couple of months ago, the registrar at Stowe school resigned after he told an undercover reporter that he could secure a potential student’s place at the school for a hefty sum. And in the same month, an investigation in the Telegraph found that ‘education consultants were willing to facilitate payments of up to £5 million to public schools on behalf of families abroad’.
So why are education consultancies becoming a rite of passage for private-school parents? I spoke to Catherine Kelsey, director of elite clients at Gabbitas Education Consultants.
‘The UK education system has become a brand name. It is very good, and people spend a lot of money on it… education is very expensive, and it could be a very expensive mistake. We completely hold our clients’ hands from beginning to end,’ she told me.
When she says ‘beginning’, she means it. ‘Some of my clients come to me when they’re expecting their babies,’ she explains. ‘We have been waiting with all of the forms for the nursery, the pre-prep and the prep. We were just waiting for a name. As soon as the baby was born, the father rang me and everything was sent off… it’s a cradle to career service.’
It may sound bonkers, but what Kelsey is doing is fairly mainstream. If you want to be told you’re spending your money wisely, there are even more absurd rituals. One education consultancy in London forces each pupil to be interviewed by seven individuals, including an education psychologist, a nutritionist, and an ‘expert assessor’ — whatever that may be. All to find the ‘right’ school.
It might not surprise you to learn that a large chunk of the market is families from abroad. Of the companies I spoke to, the percentage of overseas clients danced around the 75–80 per cent mark. Recent years have seen a sharp rise in foreign students enrolling in the UK’s public schools. Figures released by the Independent Schools Councils show that one in ten students in the sector is from overseas. Of these, 23 per cent come from China, 17 per cent from Hong Kong, 8 per cent from Russia, 8 per cent from Germany, 5 per cent Spain, and 4 per cent Nigeria. This is a source of abject terror for the not-so-liberal elite.
This is not to lay any blame: the growth of consultancies is a straightforward consequence of the success of the UK’s independent schools. I asked one British mother why she had employed the service. ‘I was living in the Middle East, and we didn’t know what the best school might be for my eldest son. For me, bringing three children back to the UK after ten years, it was so fantastic knowing that I could trust somebody else to get him into the right school.’
There is no sign that the burgeoning crop of education consultants will one day wither on the vine. But are the eye-wateringly expensive services they provide any good? Or are they a massive con, profiting from parents with more money than sense; individuals riddled with intellectual insecurities and old-fashioned snobberies? They will have to wait for results day to find out.