Lessons in Britishness: why foreign pupils are swelling the numbers at UK boarding schools

The Financial Times, 02/03/15, looks at why the rarefied world of UK boarding schools appeals to parents around the world. HMC General Secretary Dr William Richardson is quoted. HMC member schools Roedean, Wellington College and Eton College and Charterhouse are referenced.

There is nothing new about sending children overseas to such schools. In the days of the British empire, boarding schools thrived as colonial administrators and local rulers sought to imbue their children with British culture and character. They are a staple of fiction, from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers to Ronald Searle’s St Trinian’s and, more recently, Hogwarts, the school for wizards in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Boarding schools’ image as purveyors of a gold standard of education has enticed wealthy foreign families in the 21st century to dispatch their children to the likes of Roedean, Wellington and Eton.

Today, 32 per cent of the UK’s boarding school pupils are non-British nationals with parents living overseas, according to the Independent Schools Council, the representative body for the UK’s independent education sector. Of the total number of non-British pupils at all the UK’s fee-paying schools — both day and boarding — with parents living overseas, the greatest number is from Hong Kong (4,704). However, among the steepest rises in recent years have been the numbers of pupils from mainland China and Russia. In 2007, 2,345 Chinese children attended UK boarding schools; last year the figure had almost doubled to 4,381. Over the same period, the number of Russian pupils more than trebled, from 816 to 2,536.

As  emerging markets have matured, British boarding schools have gone from being the preserve of the wealthy elite in those countries to being an object of aspiration for the middle classes, too. Families are also starting to send their children away at a younger age.

“There is massive interest in all top independent schools. We could fill the school several times over with international students,” says Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, a leading boarding school in Berkshire, southeast England. Such enthusiasm has even prompted some of the best-known schools, including Harrow, Sherborne and Wellington, to set up satellite schools in locations such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Qatar.

Irina Shumovitch, originally from Leningrad (she left the Soviet Union before the city was renamed St Petersburg), is an educational consultant to Russian families. She operates from her house in London — home to a hodge-podge of contemporary artwork and trinkets. Formerly a Russian teacher at St Paul’s Girls’ School in west London, she describes the educational system of her homeland as “very rigid”. “The children are not encouraged to experiment, to think for themselves, to analyse,” she says. “They’re always afraid to make a mistake. They’re not encouraged to fail. And, of course, if you don’t make a mistake and if you don’t fail you can’t move on — you can’t develop anything.”

Ms Shumovitch thinks Russian parents love the idea that their children are not “humiliated and shouted at… [they] are taken as individuals, and their abilities are noticed and developed”.

Yet parents also have a desire for their children to immerse themselves in British culture and speak the lingua franca of business in preparation for the global workplace. Simon Tso, a parent from Hong Kong, sent his daughter Stephanie to Charterhouse, a boarding school in Surrey, southeast England. He hoped she would widen her horizons, familiarise herself with the west’s culture and history and develop her English. Despite his fears that she would find it hard to settle and suffer homesickness, he detects that she has gained “confidence and is more determined” in her studies.

William Richardson, general secretary of the HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference), says British boarding schools are very good at making children resilient adults who can earn a good living. “Children in boarding schools win out in the graduate labour market. They do well all round, and are self-confident, resilient and networked,” he says.

Boarding schools counter that much has changed since Prince Charles’s time. Pastoral care is a priority today and technology makes families just a Skype call away. William Richardson, HMC general secretary, says boarding schools have modernised and many offer a mix of boarding and day schooling — attractive to families in which both parents work.

“The boarding sector is quite confident — proponents of boarding believe they have strong story to tell of pastoral care,” says Mr Richardson. In a fast-changing world fraught with parental anxiety about children’s safety, particularly online, such an education is an attractive proposition.

Foreign pupils not only offer British boarding schools the prospect of revenue but academic gain too. For schools dependent on league tables as marketing tools, Russian and Chinese children, who have been drilled in exams, can be a tempting way to bolster performance.

A school and all its pupils benefit from a diverse and international intake, says Wellington College’s Anthony Seldon. “They give an unbelievable amount to the school culture,” he says. “Our young people are going to be working abroad and it gives them a good foundation. If you can get to know foreign pupils as individuals, you use the perfume they bring to enrich the school.”

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