Independent schools: Why it pays to look eastward

New branches of British schools are popping up everywhere - even in Kazakhstan, says Nick Jackson
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The Independent Online

Famous for dodgy oil deals and Borat, Kazakhstan may seem an unlikely setting for Clement Attlee and Alan Ayckbourn's Alma Mater. But a booming oil economy has created an élite that is hungry for British education and the old capital Almaty is to be the new home of a branch of Haileybury.

Kazakhstan is only the most recent addition to a growing trend for turning British independent schools into global franchises. For some, these franchises are the future of independent school education.

Foreign students are a large and growing market for British independent schools and in the 1990s Dulwich College and Harrow led the way with franchise schools in South-east Asia and China. Now other schools are setting up camp there and broadening their horizons to the Middle East and now, for the first time, Central Asia.

Haileybury was approached by Capital Partners, a Moscow-based company, which wanted to set up a school in Kazakhstan and was looking for a British independent school's expertise and name to make the project work. Similar approaches have been behind other schools.

Haileybury's headmaster, Stuart Westley, is candid about his interest in the project. For its advisory role and the use of its name, the school will receive a fixed fee. "The fee is the sole issue," says Westley. "We're not going to lose our focus on existing pupils in any way. And we're pleased that they wish to replicate our values and traditions." The fees will be used to improve facilities at the UK school and, for a school that is two-thirds boarding and so particularly sensitive to the independent market, will contribute towards a useful piggy bank for a rainy day.

While no headmaster can deny that the cash is a boon, many choose to focus instead on the international perspective the new schools give them. "We need to educate pupils for the global market-place, make sure that pupils have a global vision," says Robert Holroyd, headmaster at Repton School in Derbyshire, whose Dubai school will open this September. "A sister school in Dubai will give us the opportunity to do that."

Repton's school in Dubai will be the first British franchise school with boarding pupils and Holroyd says sixth-formers from each school will spend a term at the sister school. Although, like Haileybury, Repton did not provide any of the capital investment for the school, it has made what Robert Holroyd calls a "very considerable investment" of time and expertise over the two years it has taken to set up the school, design buildings, and design a curriculum combining British education and Arabic social and cultural norms. "It's been a major commitment for me," he admits. Not one, he adds, that would be appropriate over a long period of time.

Is it worth the effort? There is no doubt that the schools prove popular. Dulwich has two schools up and running in China, with a third opening later this year: Dulwich College Shanghai opened in 2003; Dulwich College Beijing in 2005. Together they teach nearly 2,000 expatriate children up to Year 11, with fees at around £12,000. Chinese students cannot study at international schools until they are 16, so all pupils are currently expatriates, but the schools plan to expand into the sixth form over the next three years.

In Thailand, Shrewsbury International School has 1,110 pupils up to Year 13. This year two have got into Oxbridge. Because of more relaxed education law, more of the students are locals, with 70 per cent Thai. Fees average £6,400 a year.

Dulwich and Shrewsbury play strongly on their roots. Dulwich College Shanghai's architecture is modelled closely on Dulwich College London's, with the famous clock tower at its hub, and at Shrewsbury's the Thai national flag and the school's shield sit next to each other in the lobby.

"It's been incredibly successful so far," says Stephen Holroyd, headmaster of the Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok. "Both schools add value to each other." The school has been up and running for three years and between them the English and Thai institutions run inter-school summer schools, teacher and staff exchanges, gap student programmes, and work together on parts of the curriculum. Holroyd himself taught at Shrewsbury in the UK for nearly 20 years. "It's a fascinating region and this gives students at Shrewsbury a chance to be aware of what is coming and to some extent be aware of the competition," he says. The biggest difference he has noticed between the schools is the Thai work ethic.

International franchises do not always end happily. In 2005 Dulwich withdrew its franchise from the Dulwich International College in Phuket after it failed to meet the British school's standards. It changed its name and logo and, although at the time the Phuket school said it was looking for a new British partner school, it is now called the Brit- ish Curriculum International School.

The failure of Dulwich International College in Phuket is a reminder that there is more to franchising than just drawing in the annual fee. And some in the independent sectors have their doubts. Dulwich sees its international schools in part as a way of attracting more foreign students to its London school, but some are concerned that failures in a franchise school could do more harm than good to a school's reputation.

And others are happier to let others take on the extra work and risk. "Good luck to them," says Martin Stephen, head of St Paul's School, London. "I applaud any entrepreneurial spirit in the independent sector. It shows that the independent sector doesn't mind taking a leap into the twilight." But, for now, St Paul's has no plans to develop franchise schools. "It's a tremendously exciting adventure but I've still seen too little evidence that the rewards justify the outlay," says Stephen. "Until these satellite schools prove to be a success, the jury is still out on the educational and financial benefits."

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