From Egypt to Brunei, British schools are growing in popularity

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The Independent Online

The Empire may be long gone, but there is one remnant of Britain's colonial past on which the sun never sets. British schools abroad are booming. Last year, more than 1,200 opened across the world. Older, more established British international schools are vastly over-subscribed, with many embarking on building projects to meet the growing demand for places.

Moreover, the culture of the British school abroad has undergone radical change. Originally conceived as a way of educating expat British children in the twilight days of the Raj, British schools abroad are now far removed from a Kipling novel. They are modern, international centres of learning boasting a mix of nationalities and cultures.

The British International School, Cairo is one school that has expanded over the past few years. Founded in 1976, it was originally established to educate the expat British and Anglo-Egyptian communities. Today, its students come from a range of cultural backgrounds. One half are Egyptian, the remainder are a mixture of 40 nationalities from various expat communities.

Such is the demand for places, the school has moved from its campus in central Cairo, to a new 55 square-metre site 30km west of the city. The demand for places in the past few years has been extraordinary, according to the principal Simon O'Grady. "One of the reasons we decided to move was to escape the air pollution in Cairo," he says. "But it's mainly a question of space. The school has expanded phenomenally over the past few years."

The growth in demand has been particularly noticeable in the past 10 years, says O'Grady. In September 2007 the school had 600 students. This September numbers reached 755. Because the new campus is close to the telecommunications belt that has developed to the west of the city, it is likely to attract more students in the coming years.

Although traditionally British schools were set up in areas where Britain had colonial links, nowadays schools are mushrooming in all corners of the world – and one of the main areas of expansion is in Asia.

Jerudong International School in Brunei, South-east Asia, typifies the modern British school abroad. Founded in 1997, its student numbers have swelled to 1,300 and today 70 per cent of students are Asian.

Jerudong is one of an estimated 2,000 schools abroad offering a British curriculum, including GCSE and A-levels, and this is the key to the school's appeal, says its principal John Price. Like most international schools, the majority of the teachers are British. "Results do matter," he says. "Yes, parents are attracted by the school's emphasis on extra-curricular activities, but ultimately it's the high academic standard that appeals. Attending a school such as ours is seen as a passage to higher education. Most of our students go on to third-level study in the UK or further a field."

Some of Britain's best known independent schools are cashing in on the appeal of the British brand. Harrow and Dulwich College were the first to make the foray into international education in the 1990s, opening schools in Asia. Repton, Shrewsbury and Wellington have followed suit. The system is known as "franchising" – the school's name is franchised to independent parties who finance the new schools and pay the home school a fee.

Haileybury is one of the most recent schools to launch a partner school abroad. Its first franchise school, Haileybury-Almaty, has just opened in Kazakhstan. Why Kazakhstan? Alister Bartholomew, director of educational development, explains that the school has a long tradition of educating Kazakhs.

"Haileybury educates the highest proportion of Kazakhstan students of any school in the UK, so when Haileybury began looking for a partner school, Kazakhstan was the obvious choice," he says. Haileybury-Almaty opened this September and is already over-subscribed. Like most franchise schools, the school is financed independently, but controlled academically by the home school. The use of the Haileybury uniform, logos and house names, ensures that a little piece of Hertfordshire is alive and well in the heart of central Asia.

It's a system that benefits both parties, says Bartholomew. "Haileybury is paid a fee which it can invest in its own school; Kazakhs can educate their children through the British system without sending them away to the UK. Kazakhstan is very much a family-based society, so this is a major advantage for them. It also costs half as much as sending their children to school in the UK."

The exporting of British schooling, however, is not without problems. Questions have been asked about standards and quality. Just this month the Department for Children, Schools and Families announced that schools abroad advertising a British education are to be inspected by an independent body and monitored by Ofsted. Schools will be offered accreditation against standards similar to independent schools operating in Britain.

The move has been welcomed by the Council of British International Schools, the main association for British schools abroad. Its own schools have been undergoing inspections by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) since 2000 and its director Roger Fry believes that the Department's decision to introduce the inspection scheme is a sign that the Government is realising the important role played by British international schools to the economy.

Fry points, in particular, to the importance of international students to the UK's tertiary sector. In addition to the fact that British universities need to attract overseas students for financial reasons, many international students – particularly from Asia – are keen to study subjects that British students are shunning, such as engineering, maths and sciences. At a time when some university departments are shutting down, Fry believes that these students should be seen as an important resource.

Whether the introduction of an inspection and certification system for British schools abroad will have any effect on the quantity or quality of international schools remains to be seen. But in a globalised world, where English is increasingly the international language of commerce, the future of British education abroad appears bright.