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What is so special about private education in the UK?

“Lessons in Britishness. Why the rarefied world of UK boarding schools appeals to parents around the world”

This year, the head girl of Westonbirt School resolved to enjoy a quintessential English pastime, so she attended a lecture on the history of the Duke of Beaufort’s trail-hunt and met the riders. “That’s an experience I can speak about in the future if I meet anyone English elsewhere.

“Having been to an English Boarding School, it’s really nice to say you have seen it”

Such shared upper-crust experiences are part of the reason Subomi’s father, a lawyer who also attended an English boarding school, sends his daughter to Westonbirt school, located just above Bristol, England. He is far from alone.

About 20 per cent of Westonbirt’s intake is from overseas. Pupils come from 17 different countries, with the largest cohorts coming from mainland China, Nigeria and Germany. The school also lays on transport to and from airports.

There is nothing new about sending children overseas to such schools. In the days of the British empire, boarding schools thrived as colonial administrators & local rulers sought to imbue their children with British culture & 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.

According to Susan Hamlyn, director of the Good Schools Guide’s advice service, more parents from Russia and China are placing their children in British preparatory schools from the age of eight, rather than straight into senior schools at 13.

“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.

‘Chinese children work very hard and are focused on academics. The UK system can find an area for them to flourish in and build their confidence’

Education is a status symbol, but while sending a son to Eton might provide a chance to brag at a Beijing dinner party, it is not purely about acquiring the educational equivalent of a Gucci handbag. Parents, particularly in China and Russia, want to give their children more creative opportunities at school than they might gain from the rote learning and tough academic teaching in their own countries.

“Chinese children work very hard and are focused on academics. The UK system can find an area for them to flourish in and build their confidence,” says Emma Vanbergen, education consulting director at BE Education, an advisory service for Chinese parents. She tells the story of one boy who was sporty but not a rote learner. “We found him a school that encouraged his sportiness,” she says. “It helped boost his confidence and he did better in other subjects.”

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.”

The headmistress of Westonbirt, Natasha Dangerfield, notes similarities in the Chinese system with Ms Shumovitch’s description of Russian education. “That ability to develop an all-round person is something the Chinese don’t do in the way that they educate. It is very formulaic. It is about grades and it is about performance, but it is not very much about individual development.”

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.