Anthony Sampson: How Britain's public schools are teaching the world a lesson - for the moment

Many Asians see us merely as allowing them to learn some secrets of English education before they set up their own equivalents
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"Cry Harrow, and let slip the dogs of war!" It's a good joke, to rewrite Shakespeare's "Cry Havoc", to describe the arrogant rashness of the public-school adventurers; Mark Thatcher, the old Harrovian now charged with supporting the mercenary coup in Africa, and his Old Etonian friend and colleague Simon Mann, now in prison in Zimbabwe. It's also a reminder of how old-established public schools can still give their pupils a dangerous confidence, unrelated to the outside world, even when they lack the necessary ability and brains.

Harrow may have faded since its heyday a century ago, when it educated Winston Churchill and five members of Stanley Baldwin's cabinet. ("One of my first thoughts," wrote Baldwin, "was that it should be a government of which Harrow should not be ashamed.") Since then Harrow has given way to Eton as the nursery of Tory politicians, while now both schools have lost most of their influence on political life, and on business. But much of the old commanding style remains. And Harrow today, like some other public schools, provides an easy butt for jokes about arrogant young cads who are quite unequipped to make a living in the modern world.

But that is only an insular part of the story, and it is important today to realise how Harrow looks to much of the world outside. For it has established a different and more lasting reputation abroad, of which Englishmen are much less aware - as the nursery of the new elites in Asia.

With its military traditions and its links with Sandhurst, Harrow has long provided the kind of discipline and style which was very useful for rulers of emerging nations, and in many developing countries it became the symbol of English assurance and sangfroid.

Harrow's most impressive and influential product was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, whose English education proved crucial to British-Indian relations. But the school's alumni have also spread through the rest of Asia. The royal family of Thailand always favoured Harrow; as did the Hashemite monarchs in the Middle East: King Hussein of Jordan and his brother Prince Hassan (who until recently had hopes of becoming King of Iraq) were both models of the Harrovian ideal, with their cool courage and impeccable manners.

With such memories, it was not surprising that Harrow should now have a greater resonance abroad than inside Britain. It was associated with firm and decisive rule, and respect for law and order in countries always threatened by chaos. And it was natural that the school at Harrow-on-the Hill should look abroad for its future expansion. Seven years ago the school established another Harrow in Bangkok, with local backers who were allowed to use its name.

It was established under franchise, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, with standards and methods dictated by headquarters. But it was no ordinary franchise: it had an English headmaster and teachers, and the boys were taught the same A-levels as Harrovians in England. The Bangkok school has grown to 1,000 pupils, with its own English-style campus and sports fields, together with the Harrovians' straw boaters and the school song "Forty Years On".

And now Harrow has taken a step which may be far more significant: to establish a school in Beijing, to cater for the children of both expatriate and Chinese parents who want the benefits of an English education, without going to England.

Harrow's expansion is only part of a wider spread of British public schools into the highly profitable new areas of Asia. Last month Dulwich College in south London opened a sister school in Shanghai, the most phenomenal city in China, complete with a tall bell-tower. "This is a huge, booming area," the local head explained. "Dulwich is incredibly far-sighted in getting in early." And Dulwich is already planning two new schools in China.

Other schools (including Eton, Westminster and Stowe) have been asked to set up schools in Asia, particularly in Bangkok, but have rejected lucrative offers because they are wary that local franchises will not maintain their necessary standards. But it is doubtful whether they can long resist the blandishments. For the economic logic behind the exporting of English public schools is unassailable. Parents in China or Thailand are prepared to pay much more than English parents, and are more determined to give their children an exclusive education, separated from the local state system.

Rich families in China are very aware of the dynamic future of their country as a global power, both economic and military, as it exports more sophisticated goods round the world and becomes a master of arms technology. Like Victorian parents they see an expensive education providing the keys to the future.

They know that the traditional Chinese educational skills in mathematics are now specially valuable in the age of computers. But they see how ambitious Chinese children are hampered in the outside world - unlike Indian children - by their own unwieldy language, and need to equip themselves with the subtleties of the English language, and the international style which English public schools can provide.

The marriage of the two disciplines - the Confucian logic with an English polish - can provide a formidable combination to create a new elite which is much more highly qualified than the old English ruling class from Harrow or Eton. The picture of the future Chinese leader, combining the shrewd business sense of his predecessors with a Harrovian accent and social ease, should be daunting for English rivals with an inadequate training in mathematics or languages.

The exporting of public schools is only part of a wider dependence of British educational institutions on the burgeoning economies of Asia. Many schools in Britain have come to rely on Asian pupils to restore their finances; while the top universities including Oxbridge look to undergraduates and postgraduates from the East to provide both brains and money which they desperately need and cannot find at home.

But this growing dependence is a dangerously short-term expedient; for the universities and schools know that the Asian governments - and the Chinese particularly - are all the time learning how to set up their own comparable institutions which can compete with European institutions on their home ground.

The English may see themselves, for the time being, as shrewdly exploiting overseas students to subsidise their underfinanced schools and universities. But many Asians see us as merely allowing them to learn some secrets of English education, including social skills, before they set up their own equivalents in their own countries to compete with ours.

In this context the establishment of Harrow in Beijing or Bangkok is a natural development, as the beginning of a new trend to export schools instead of importing students. And if the present growth of Asian economies continues, it is only a matter of time before Harrow-in-London becomes a mere adjunct to Harrow-in-Beijing: which will give a more serious meaning to "Cry Harrow!".