Five-star schools

    30 November 2013

    There are several ways to measure the scale of the cultural changes in the English private school of the last few years, but one schoolmistress with a robust, old-fashioned outlook realised things had gone awry the other day when one of the Russian new girls went to complain to matron.

    The girl was annoyed that though she had slept in her bed for three nights, the maid had not yet been in to change the sheets.

    The cultural clashes do not end with bedlinen. The girls, this teacher says, don’t understand the prefect system and won’t participate. A housemaster confides that there is no point in choosing a head of house as that side of the school ethos has vanished. The Chinese won’t even come out of their rooms and socialise, and prefer to play computer games on their beds (just like children at state schools). The Russians object to being parted, even momentarily, from their iPhones or being told that some of their designer outfits and Louboutins are inappropriate for the English countryside.

    Recently this teacher asked a group of girls why they hadn’t changed for games. They looked blankly back at her, until one of them pointed out of the window at the rain falling on the English countryside. ‘I said: “Get out there, now!”’

    The school in question has changed beyond recognition in about 15 years. It shall be identified only by saying it sits in splendidly appointed grounds west of London, not far from the M4, and therefore convenient for Heathrow, which these days is key for any school selling into the international market.

    The school is not unusual these days in that more than half its boarders come from overseas. When schools began to struggle to fill their boarding places, they first turned to China, where local agents actively seek the new wealthy desiring the English public school experience. Then came the Russians who, with Nigerians, are now the fastest-growing population in British private schools.

    While the Independent Schools Council reports that private school rolls fell slightly last year, the number of foreign children maintained its upward trend. Just over 5 per cent of children in ISC schools are foreign-born, with parents living overseas, but they are heavily concentrated in boarding schools and at sixth-form level, so for senior boarders the figure is much, much higher.

    With fees of £30,000 a year, many boarding schools have already become decoupled from their traditional British middle-class roots and are now plugged into the global, ultra-wealthy elite. A British education, like a Knightsbridge penthouse, has become a commodity to be bought by foreigners who don’t even think about money, or at least not in the way there rest of us do.

    These parents will have watched Downton Abbey and want to buy their kids a piece of that — indeed, it is striking how many of the prospectuses of country schools feature a building which looks like a screen grab from Downton’s opening credits.

    The social consequences of this are far-reaching. Country solicitors, provincial architects, university lecturers cannot send their children to the boarding schools they once attended. And British investment bankers dropping their children off on Sunday night look at the cars being driven by the guardians of the Russian, Chinese and Nigerian children, and for the first time in their lives they feel poor.

    Schools are now pouring millions of pounds into facilities in a bid to attract the global education yuan and rouble. No self-respecting Russian oligarch is going to have his little princess slumming it in a dormitory with seven other girls, so the big trend is now towards private accommodation and fine food. This in turn renders the schools even more exclusive by pushing up the fees for everyone.

    Older readers who went to boarding school in the 1970s and before might prefer to look away now rather than read the Good Schools Guide’s description of the facilities of Queen Ethelburga’s College in Yorkshire, which attracts a lot of Chinese and Russians. ‘Modern boarding accommodation consists of smart and well-equipped bedrooms, the majority now with private bathrooms, all with flat-screen TVs [in fact there are two TVs in some twin rooms — just in case these lucky pupils wish to watch different programmes…], DVD players, telephones with voice mail, fridges, electric kettles, microwaves, air conditioning, trouser presses, room safes and ice-makers — pretty much everything except a mini-bar in fact.’

    Increasingly, schools are being tailored to match the lifestyles of their super-wealthy foreign pupils, so they can move from the luxury apartment in Shanghai or Moscow to Daddy’s yacht and on to school without the slightest cultural discombobulation.

    For this pampering of their progeny in Yorkshire, British parents pay up to £32,000 a year, with fees for foreign pupils ranging up to £39,885. Many will no doubt think it a small price to pay for accommodation based on a Four Seasons mini suite, plus the outdoor equestrian centre (pupils can stable their own horses on site) and ten acres of floodlit sports fields, though keen classicists should not apply as Latin and Greek are not offered.

    The grander, more academically top-rank schools are generally oversubscribed, so they can control the balance of their intake and cap the figure of foreign pupils at around 15 per cent. Harrow takes a lot of Chinese at sixth-form level, which explains in part why Winston Churchill’s alma mater now offers English as an Additional Language.

    But at sixth-form level in many second-tier boarding schools, English pupils are now in a minority; and many of them, their parents and their teachers don’t like it at all. Teachers who entered the profession because they love French literature, or inspiring the young, increasingly mutter that they are now in the business of reinforcing the privileges of a new global ruling class.

    In many schools, the foreign influx is the dominant issue among the children, and it spills over from the dormitory and into internet chat rooms such as The Student Room. In one thread, girls address the knotty issue of which establishment is the female equivalent of Eton, and the back and forth reveals a general anxiety about the number of foreigners in girls’ boarding schools.

    Indeed, some of the participants sound a little like old working-class Londoners in the 1960s maintaining that while they’ve got nothing against West Indians, they don’t want to be ‘swamped’.

    One anonymous girl who says she is in the sixth form at Roedean speaks of a school where the English pupils feel alienated, tells of Asian girls refusing to do sports, and of English being a minority language at the school. She even claims that one Chinese girl is leaving as her English is actually worse than when she arrived, ‘because she only speaks Mandarin’ in school.

    Another contributor to the thread from a different school throws a consoling virtual arm around the unhappy girl and explains that this is ‘what happens when the middle classes are allowed to take over, things get nauseatingly trendy’.

    In fact, the Good Schools Guide gives Roedean a decent rating under its new headmaster and does not relay any evidence that girls and parents think the 45 per cent foreign contingent is a problem. And needless to say, because of the high Asian intake, the school excels in science and maths.

    Some British parents actively seek an international school, thinking their children will thus be plugged into a global network of wealthy and high-achieving young people.

    Janette Wallis of the Good Schools Guide says some parents, but certainly not all, get jittery when the foreign contingent exceeds 10 per cent. But foreign parents equally don’t want to send their children to go to Britain to be surrounded by other foreigners.

    She says a genuinely international mix tends to work very well, but there can be problems when one nationality dominates. She cites Sevenoaks School, which took a deliberate decision to become international years before other schools were forced to do so by collapsing fee revenues. It is now about 25 per cent foreign, which many schools regard as too high.

    ‘But Sevenoaks’s internationalism is absolutely no deterrent to the British parents. The school does extremely well and is heavily oversubscribed,’ says Ms Wallis. The key there seems to be the genuine mix of nationalities with quite a strong representation of Germans and Italians.

    The problem is that too many schools are now irretrievably plugged into what Ms Wallis calls a ‘dependence on the international gravy train of the global elite’.

    Many country boarding schools cannot revert to their traditional role of offering a spartan but solid education to the children of rectors (though a surprising number of bursaries for the clergy can still be found on school websites). Health and safety burdens, rising teacher salaries and pension contributions, and the facilities arms race, have combined to push fees permanently beyond the reach of the indigenous middle classes.

    Meanwhile, European integration, globalisation, and the rise of the BRIC economies provide a ready new pool of parents ready to plug the gap, and the balance has permanently shifted.

    When the wheel turns and the Chinese, Russians, and Nigerians weary of their English experience, those second- and third-tier schools will be beached like a whale amid the theatres, music centres and hockey pitches, and then they will close down, having betrayed the dreams of the men and women who founded them.

    In the meantime, the rest of us can only wonder who among us would choose a school which thought our son might be the sort of chap who would use a trouser press.