A global education – British Independent Schools thriving

In the Spring 2012 issue of Re:locate magazine, Rebecca Marriage finds out why despite the toughest economic climate the UK has seen in decades, British independent schools are thriving, both in the UK and overseas and why he British and international school experience is becoming so popular with globally mobile families. HMC's General Secretary Dr William Richardson is quoted along with 7 HMC schools.

UK boarding schools have experienced a sharp rise in numbers, British schools are hitting the headlines for their active recruitment of overseas pupils, and top school brands and British school groups are expanding aggressively into a growing international market.

But, while British education has long stood for academic excellence, and its reputation across the globe shows little sign of diminishing, it often goes hand in hand with a slightly 'starchy' image. To add to this, over the last year some social commentators have levied criticism specifically at the boarding-school system, which is likely to make uncomfortable reading for families considering the education choices for their child in the midst of a major move.

However, some schools would argue that, with their increasingly global outlook and commitment to excellence in pastoral care, they are, in fact, evolving to become a smart choice for relocating families.

Boarding schools thriving

Boarding schools carry some of the highest costs of the entire UK independent education sector, with average yearly tuition fees reaching just over £25,000. In these desperate economic times, it is hard to believe that such schools could have experienced significant growth, and yet that is exactly what has happened. These may be hard times, but boarding is thriving.

Years ago, it would not have been uncommon for boarders to spend entire terms with little or no contact with their parents, but, says Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School, in Rutland, today's picture is very different. "Nowadays, modern communications make the partnership between UK boarding-school parents and pupils genuinely close," he says.

Expanding curriculum choices

One of the reasons for this commitment to pastoral care might be the significant rise in overseas pupils in UK independent schools and the need for schools to attract families from international destinations. The ISC census indicated that overseas pupil numbers are up by 5.5 per cent from 2010. This has also resulted in a broadening of the curriculum choices on offer, with many independent schools offering the internationally recognised International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme alongside the English National Curriculum.

Clearly, marketing to families based overseas will be partly a financial decision for schools, but Dr William Richardson, general secretary of the prestigious group of schools the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), observes that the growing international mix is beneficial to all students.

Says Dr Richardson, "British independent schools are becoming more internationally and culturally open-minded, because, like high-aspiring relocating families, they are predisposed to think outside the narrow, nationalistic frames of reference. During a worldwide recession, when it becomes even more important to prepare people for the working environments they are likely to face, this flexibility and internationally minded approach creates a strong personal outlook for prosperity and wellbeing."

So, for UK and overseas families alike, the appeal of a British-based education appears to be increasingly attractive. Considering the affect that this has had on the dramatically improved pastoral care and communication offered in a British boarding school, this option might offer the continuity, stability and quality of education to children whose families are in flux.

"Whilst boarding may not be for every child," says Richard Harman, "if yours is suited to it and ready for it, boarding can offer so much: a warm, happy family atmosphere and a stable home-from-home environment; excellent pastoral care from deeply committed and well-trained people; a wealth of stimulating activities to keep children busy and stretch them to their full potential; the space and time to learn how to live and get on with others; and, of course, the bedrock of a strong academic British curriculum.

"All this may well make it a much better option than the uncertain one of a local or international school, wherever you are relocating. Expat communities can be transient, and the local schools sometimes reflect this. Every family will weigh up what is best for their particular child and circumstances, but a high-quality boarding school provides an excellent option for relocating families."

Dramatic growth of international schools

But the last few years have also seen major developments in the provision of international schools. There are now more options than ever for relocating families looking for the quality and reputation that a British education has to offer. According to a recent report from ISC Research, an organisation which researches and analyses developments in international schools, the international schools' market is experiencing dramatic growth – the sector ended the 2010/11 academic year with its highest-ever number of schools and greatest-ever number of students.

This development has not gone unnoticed by the UK's top private schools.  Among others, WellingtonDulwichHarrowReptonEpsom and Brighton College have all taken steps to expand their school networks in major global financial and cultural capitals in Asia and the Middle East.

Harrow, in Thailand and China (with another in Hong Kong opening next year), was among the earliest of the UK private schools to lead the move into international territory. Contrary to its staid image, Dr Mark Hensman, director of schools and chief operating officer for Harrow International Management Services, emphasises the importance of offering a warm, supportive and nurturing environment for families here, too. "Boarding is a very important part of the Harrow philosophy, because of the importance Harrow School places on top-quality pastoral care."

A growing market

Although many relocating families may not be able to afford the top fees that such prestigious British overseas sister schools will charge, ISC Research believes that this coming year will continue to be dominated by the race to keep up with demand, helping to build the market from its present value of £16.8 million (based on fee income alone) to £22.7 million by 2016, and £30.6 million by 2021, offering increased choice in international education provision.

There are a number of British school groups which are likely to be contributing to this figure and are looking to offer increased provision in new territories across the globe. As Anne Keeling, of ISC Research, says, "The one thing that nearly all these groups have in common is that they are expanding aggressively; either by buying existing schools, expanding existing operations, or starting new schools."

Alongside the surge in new British international schools, there are also many well-established international schools offering a British curriculum for relocating families. Like their counterparts in the UK, they believe that choosing an international school can bring cultural benefits. 

All this amounts to a wealth of choice for the globally mobile family making important education decisions. With the significant growth of a variety of international schools offering choice and diversity of education provision abroad, and the renewed confidence in the role of boarding schools in the UK and their modern global outlook, it seems that it is no longer a black-and-white choice between a local international school and a British boarding school back home.

Now, parents are able to take advantage of the British school experience both 'over here' and 'over there'. In addition, if they choose an independent school in the UK, they can be confident that, through an increasingly global outlook and wider cultural perspectives, a British independent school can help to prepare their children for the world stage.

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