Is British still best in class?

Schools are facing much tougher competition in the lucrative market for foreign pupils, says Mark Piesing
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The Independent Online

At well-established schools such as Millfield in Somerset and Abbotsholme in Staffordshire, students from outside the United Kingdom make up almost 16 per cent of the total numbers. At other schools, the percentage may well be even higher.

The British Council estimates that there are almost 7,500 overseas students, excluding the children of expatriates, at independent schools in Britain. Many of them will go on to study at UK universities.

"Increasingly, schools are very aware that their communities belong to a global society, and of the importance of cultural diversity," says Jan Schilling, head of the international section of the Independent Schools Council. "International students often bring a good work ethic and are highly skilled. They know that their parents care."

Yet if you were to believe some commentators, a British education isn't worth getting out of bed for. So what is so special about UK independent schools?

"It's not purely about the academic side of things. It's about the whole package," Schilling argues. "The qualifications are highly marketable. The extracurricular activities are second to none in the world, as well as the pastoral care."

With more than £6bn at stake for the UK alone, according to the British Council, competition is inevitable. And the A-level standards debate may well do some damage to the independent schools' overseas market.

"There is increased competition," says Pat Killingley, the director of education services at the British Council. "The UK is seen as a more expensive option than its competitors, but that is counterbalanced by its quality."

The result of the competition is that more boarding schools are being set up in students' home countries by schools from the UK, as well as by our competitors. And the consequence of this competition is that overseas numbers are dropping in the United Kingdom in a number of schools. The biggest drop has been in students from China.

Steve Fairclough is the headmaster of Abbotsholme School, which is part of the international Round Square network of 140 schools across the globe. Sixteen per cent of his pupils are from countries such as India and Hong Kong. That does not include students who are visiting from other schools in the network.

Fairclough argues that there is more competition now, but that his school caters to a niche market. "We are in the middle of the country," he says. "It's very rural. Our focus on 'outward bounds' attracts a certain group and puts off a huge range of others."

With its well-known brand name, and tucked away in idyllic Somerset, Millfield School hasn't yet felt the heat of greater competition, either.

"International students are very important," says Christopher Coates, tutor for admissions. "They help to maintain the 'Millfield mix' and keep our student body as broad as possible in terms of culture, background and ability."

The competition from other schools worldwide has been exacerbated by Britain's involvement in Iraq and the "war on terror", and by the recent London bombs, which some schools fear may put potential international students (and their parents) off the UK.

Steve Fairclough argues that "people seem more worried by the British hooligan image than the bombs," but Catherine Stocker, the head of the guardian section at Gabbitas, consultants in independent school education, disagrees.

"Overseas parents do worry. The debates in the UK do produce concerns," Stocker says. "Schools are realising that they can't wait for students to come to them any more. They have to go to the student, whether via websites, DVD or visits."

The British Council helps by bringing all the players together in a partnership to promote UK education overseas (find details by logging on to www.education.org). It now has more than four million hits a year.

Schools have had to change attitudes as well. "Each school has its unique points," Stocker says. "Many schools are now appointing marketing professionals to help others see their uniqueness, too. "

The US model: 'We're always working on the next big market rather than relying on the one we have now'

The overseas student market is very important for some American independent schools. A boarding school such as the Grier School in Pennsylvania has 100 per cent full-time boarders, according to Andrew Wilson, the school's assistant head. About 40 per cent are students from 19 foreign countries.

"Parents recognise the significance of English," Wilson says. "Generally, they like American culture and feel that having a fluency in English will give their kids great advantages in their future careers."

According to Javier Colayco, the president of www.boardingschoolreview.com, it can be a daunting task for a foreign student who has not studied in the US to know which universities are a good fit and how best to prepare themselves for entry. "They improve their English, while we help them to learn about and gain acceptance to US universities," he says.

"The US market has been competitive for many years, and the schools that thrive are the ones that have been constantly improving," Wilson says. A typical boarding-school in America now has most of the facilities you'd expect to find at an expensive resort or hotel. "I have heard that this is not the case with boarding schools in some other countries," he says.

The big difficulty Wilson's school faces is on the visa front, because many more students are being turned down for visas following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. That creates frustration for both students and schools. "Since then, schools have needed to be more proactive in helping applicants to navigate through the visa process to make sure everything goes smoothly," Javier Colayco says.

"The international market is always fluid," Wilson says. "So we are always working on the next big market for our school rather than relying on the ones we have now."

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