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Best of British?

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

When you try to conjure up the image of a typical British independent school, you see smart children in striped blazers emerging from historic buildings to walk across an expansive green lawn, or perhaps brandishing a lacrosse stick, in the thick of a rugby scrum or pondering their next move on the chess board. Quintessentially British, sending their children to one of these schools is an aspiration for many parents around the world.

British education, particularly in China, is big business. According to a British government report published in March 2019, revenue from independent schools in 2016 was £20 billion (HK$191 billion). This is predicted to grow to an estimated £23 billion by 2020 and £35 billion by 2030. Transnational education activities have increased 73 per cent since 2010, and last year, more British independent schools opened overseas than in any other year over the past 20 years.

For British schools, this represents essential income. With only around 6.5 per cent of the total number of schoolchildren in the UK attending independent schools and the constantly looming threat of the withdrawal of their charitable status, which provides vital tax breaks, it is common sense to expand abroad, to diversify, and to tap into the China market.

But what is it about a British Education that is driving its popularity and rapid growth, not only in China, but globally?

In Hong Kong and mainland China, it is partly due to a shortage of school places in the public education sector, but it is also because of the rising number of affluent Chinese families seeking alternative options with a more proven route to overseas universities.

Big brand name British schools – such as Harrow and Wellington College – appear to be held in high regard, with internationally recognised qualifications. Viewed as robust institutions with longer histories than many countries – Harrow, for instance, was founded nearly 450 years ago, making it older than Germany, Italy or the United States – parents have confidence that these schools work as intended and are a gateway to some of the world’s best tertiary institutions. That in turn bodes well for future employment prospects and lucrative careers.

It should be no surprise then that Chinese students have flocked to the UK to attend boarding schools for many years. Since 2003, they have also had the option to stay in China and attend a big name boarding school, Chinese style, without the additional costs of travel and disruption to family life. Dulwich College, the first British school to open in China, in Shanghai in 2003, was also the first British private school to open an overseas campus, in Phuket in 1996.

Over the last 15 years, the growth has been phenomenal in China. Harrow opened in Beijing in 2005 and, by the end of 2017, 22 British independent schools were represented in the country, many in smaller cities. By the end of this year, the figure will have more than doubled.

Hong Kong and mainland China are jointly identified by the UK government as one of four “high-value” campaign regions. However, the education experiences can be starkly different in Asia compared to Britain.

Let’s be clear: a mainland Chinese interpretation of a traditional British education is not an authentic British experience. British schools in China have adapted to the wants and needs of Chinese families. Some, mainly the ones that opened first, get somewhat close to authenticity, but as more and more smaller, less well-known schools jump on the bandwagon and sell their brand to Chinese investors, these institutions are moving further and further away from providing a genuinely British experience. A British brand name is helpful, perhaps even necessary, in opening doors to business partners and officials and connecting with alumni and parents to get a project off the ground. Thereafter, though, the connection with the mother school varies in strength according to the individual agreement, be it a licence agreement, franchise, joint venture or a partnership.

Lady Eleanor Holles International School Foshan, set to open in the Greater Bay Area next year, is one of the rare breed of new schools that looks set to have a close partnership with its sister school in London, rather than adopting the franchise model utilised by many international schools opening in this part of the world. Steve Allen, Head Master, says, “This partnership allows our students to benefit from the 300-plus years of educational experience in London, and from the connections and alumnae network the UK school brings. It also provides reassurance to teachers, which has allowed us to recruit some exceptional British educators for our students.”

Recruitment of staff aside, which is difficult due to the shortage of qualified, experienced British educators willing to relocate to China, recruitment of students for these British schools is also challenging, especially in the Mainland. That can severely limit the British flavour of these institutions. At the end of the day, as with any school application you might be considering, it’s best to do your homework first. Not all these British institutions resemble their sister schools that much, whatever their increasing popularity.


Article by Ruth Benny and originally printed in the SCMP 2020/2021 Good Schools Guide.


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