Tom Brown, Jennings, Bunter ... and Patel

Encouraged by the assisted places scheme, ethnic minorities have started a love affair with the public schools. Judith Judd reports
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When Shabbir Laher arrived in Britain from India in 1962 he was sent by his father to work in a local textile factory. He hated it. Secretly, he went to evening classes to improve his English. He started a driving school, then a property business, and finally a restaurant. Now he works 17 hours a day in his Yorkshire restaurant to pay fees of pounds 3,400 a year each for his two sons to be educated at Batley Grammar, the local independent school.

Growing numbers of Asian pupils are being educated in British private schools. In part, this is a response to recession: many of the independent heads who will meet at the Headmasters' Conference this week have had, of necessity, to market themselves in the Far East to fill places. Private schools have tried to shed their old reputation as places where only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants felt at home: for the past two years there have been record increases in the number of overseas pupils coming to British boarding schools. As Douglas Hurd, old Etonian and former Foreign Secretary, remarked recently, sounding surprised, even Eton now has foreign pupils.

But the change in composition of the schools is not confined to the children of the affluent from Hong Kong. Recently, Asians of all classes already living in Britain have begun to use private education. A generation of Asian parents who settled here in the Sixties has come of age and, like Shabbir Laher, become more determined in asserting their children's rights to the best that British schools can offer.

Increasingly, that means sending them to fee-paying schools. Some are affluent enough to afford the fees easily. Others are prepared to make sacrifices. And growing numbers are looking to the government-funded assisted places scheme, which allows bright pupils from poor homes to attend fee- paying schools.

At the pounds 6,000-a-year Dulwich College in south-east London, Patel is now the commonest name on the register. There are 43 of them compared with 13 Smiths among the 1,400 pupils. At St James Independent School for Boys in Victoria, London, there are 27 Patels on a roll of 176.

As Arif Shah, who is unemployed and whose son has an assisted place at King Edward's School for Boys in Birmingham, puts it: "The generation that came here in the Sixties came for economic reasons, for jobs, not for education. Once they have realised they are going to stay they are exploring all avenues of where to send their children."

Hugh Wright, head of King Edward's, says: "There has been a big growth in the number of Asians coming here during the last five years because more of them are applying. A higher proportion of Asian children is coming to us from prep schools. They are already in the independent school system at the age of 11."

At Batley Grammar, a recent analysis shows that the school's Asian population has risen in two years from 10.2 per cent to 14.2 per cent. An increasing number of those on assisted places are Asian. While the proportion of non-Asian assisted place holders has risen by 7 per cent, that for Asians has gone up by more than 11 per cent.

More poor Asians are using the scheme than their non-Asian counterparts, the analysis suggests. Parents are means-tested to decide how much of their children's fees will be paid and three-quarters of the Asians applying receive the full amount. That compares with just under one-third for non-Asians.

In its search for the best education, the close-knit Asian community has built up the sort of network which is traditionally associated with middle-class white Britons. Just as the latter use every social contact to secure the schools they want, so, for example, Muslims exchange information at the mosque, where rich and poor meet regularly.

Chris Parker, former head of Batley Grammar School, says: "The mosque is the natural focus for people to talk about education in the same way as the church was 100 years ago, and the drive is always towards better education."

Nabila Ali and Arif Shah come from very different backgrounds but they meet at the mosque. Both have sons at King Edward's, Birmingham. Mrs Ali, whose husband is an eye surgeon, came to Britain from Pakistan 19 years ago. She says: "This school is the best investment we ever made, both for results and for behaviour." Mr Shah retired with back trouble from the Post Office and is now a law student at the University of Central England; because of the assisted places scheme, his contribution to fees for 13-year-old Muhammed Qasim is tiny.

While schools often have to work hard to attract the poorest non-Asian families to the assisted places scheme, Asians are better informed. Mr Shah says: "There was one concept earlier that they needed a lot of money to send their children to these sort of schools. Now they have found out they can come without spending a lot, they are more interested."

Mr Shah's decision to send his son to a fee-paying school is fuelled by the determination to give him social and economic advantages he never had. David Smith, head of Bradford Grammar School, says: "Schools like this are used by whichever section of society is socially mobile. They want their children to go to the best school as they perceive it."

Mr Shah came to England from Pakistan at the age of three but returned there for his secondary education and later went to college. "I joined a political party and wasted time so I did not finish my college course." He came back to Birmingham in 1978 to join his family who had returned in 1963.

He used the Government's exam league tables to decide where to send his son to school. "When we looked at where King Edward's came in the tables we decided he should have a try. We were advised that it was the cream. That year it had beaten Eton into fourth place. If a school is good enough to beat Eton, it has to have some standing." He paid for private coaching for Muhammed Qasim for two years to prepare him for the exam.

In Batley, Mr Laher was equally determined to give his two sons, Ahmed, 18, and Rahil, 11, the opportunities he had missed. Unlike Mr Shah, however, he pays full fees for them at Batley Grammar School. "I know how people suffer without education," he says. "I pay any amount for it and I tell them that is a good investment rather than receiving a huge amount later in life."

Both Mr Laher and Mr Shah are convinced that the sort of education they want is to be found in private rather than state schools. Discipline is particularly important to them. So is the prospect of a good job. They put both before political considerations.

Mr Shah says: "I believe that everybody should be on the same footing in health, justice and education. But unless the state puts more resources into inner-city schools, the quality of students coming out will not be very good. Children from these schools are leaving without qualifications. They will not get jobs."

Mr Laher believes that the company and the behaviour at local schools are not good, and has no doubt that most Asians would educate their children privately if they could afford to. "People think my children are lucky. They don't think it's wrong to send them to fee-paying schools."

He and other members of his community have clear ideas about the careers their children should follow. "There is a strong channelling into medicine, pharmacy and engineering and to the jobs that are particularly prized in the mother country," says Mr Parker. Private school attendance is seen as the surest route to these goals.

"Even travel to China if you have to for the sake of education" runs the Muslim saying. For many of Britain's Asians, religious beliefs, prosperity and education go hand in hand: education is the way to both social standing and economic advancement.

The advantage is not all on one side. For private schools anxious to maintain a respectable position in examination league tables, Asian pupils have obvious attractions. Evidence of their commitment to learning is plentiful. A series of studies has shown that Indian pupils consistently outperform the rest and that proportionately nearly three times as many ethnic minority pupils as whites go into higher education.

As private schools adapt to a multi-ethnic intake, so their old reputation as bastions of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism appears to be falling away. Last month Ahmed Laher began his economics degree at Nottingham University. He is sharing a room with a white friend from Batley Grammar. In Birmingham, Mrs Ali and Mr Shah say their sons have been accepted from the beginning by their peers: they have never suffered from racism. They are grateful for the arrangements made for their sons to practise their religion at school.

In some independent schools, at least, Asians now mix easily with the rest. At King Edward's in Birmingham, Hugh Wright says: "We have no racial awareness here. I can't tell you how many Asians get into Oxbridge. What has happened is that the city of Birmingham has come of age and Asians are using the schools in the same way that everyone else does."