From the Editor - International schools need a sporting chance

Gerard Kelly

The British have two ways of dealing with success: trash it or ignore it. Take the Olympics. To date, the venues have been completed on time and look great, ticket sales are unprecedented and our medal haul is forecast to be so large it would embarrass an East German sports minister. We are on course to deliver the best Olympics ever. And our reaction? National self-flagellation because one poor sod got lost and drove a busload of athletes too far up the A13.

If hysteria isn't an option, we rely on neglect. Success is just as easily smothered if we pretend it's not there. This appears to be the attitude of the government to one of our unsung achievements: the booming export of British education.

Whatever the home audience thinks of British schools, it seems foreigners can't get enough of them (see pages 22-25). They like our uniforms, our curriculum, our exams and our teachers. They especially like our schools' ability to be both disciplined and creative and their knack for propelling large numbers of pupils into good universities.

So successful are British schools that they have captured almost half the international market and contribute billions to the UK economy. On the world education scene, Britain has bagged gold. Our schools are the Usain Bolt of global learning, the Sir Steve Redgrave of instruction. And are they hanging out the bunting in Whitehall? Are they heck. Graeco-Roman wrestling gets more official recognition.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, the government has conspicuously neglected to bang the drum for British international schools. Cynics might conclude that it can hardly get dewy-eyed over the export success of GCSEs, say, when it's decided to ditch them at home. But neglect preceded the current administration and seems to be more institutional than political.

Nor does official disdain appear to be a reaction to the few schools that tempt teachers to exotic locations with fat, tax-free salaries, treat them like dirt and billet them in cockroach-infested barracks. Every sector has its Del-Boy elements - and anyway, the mistreatment of Britons abroad hasn't been of serious concern to any British government since Lord Palmerston sent in the gunboats to cow some uppity Greeks a century and a half ago.

No, the real source of Whitehall indifference springs from departmental divisions and the dubious role of the British Council. Responsibility for international schools falls awkwardly between the departments for education and business, with the result that neither does much. The council, meanwhile, not only deploys its usual lassitude in defence of British interests but actively competes against them. Its language schools vie with private institutions for the same students.

So what can be done? The government should clip the wings of the British Council, assign one department to look after international schools and have it endorse the good ones with an official stamp of approval. It's not a lot to ask.

But if it does nothing, not only does it dice with the future of a vibrant British business and the employment of 80,000 UK teachers, it also risks undermining an incredibly effective advertisement for British culture. Ministers should get a grip and learn how to wave a flag. Preferably the Union Jack.

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Gerard Kelly

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