Chinese investors can be the “salvation” of struggling private schools and won’t “dilute” their English character, the former head master of Harrow has said.
Barnaby Lenon, who now chairs the Independent Schools Council, said people should be “jolly pleased” that the Chinese were buying up UK private schools, and that those who objected had failed to realise “they’ve got the money now, we haven’t”.
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Last week, The Times reported that a number of Chinese education companies have bought private schools in recent years, with investors preparing to swoop on more schools once the dust has settled on Brexit.
Speaking to Tes, Mr Lenon said he had personally witnessed this trend over the last three years, and that it was a “very encouraging development”.
He said that the schools targeted by Chinese investors are often small and offer boarding, and might otherwise struggle to stand on their own two feet.
“We know that the supply of UK parents who are available to afford boarding, which is by its very nature expensive, is limited,” he said.
“This obviously is the salvation of a small number of these schools. It’s a good thing for those schools because it means they can remain viable.”
Mr Lenon also said Chinese investment could be positive because it would presage the arrival of Chinese students, who are “often quite high quality”, and that it would help schools cultivate an international outlook.
“It gives UK pupils in those schools a sense of globalisation, which all children need to have these days,” he said.
“Here we are in the middle of Brexit, looking in on ourselves rather, but what schools need to do is to open the eyes of children to the immense opportunities that are going to profoundly influence their lives in places like China.”
Mr Lenon said the Chinese wanted to send their children to British private schools for a number of reasons, including the English language, high standards of pastoral care and access to UK universities. He also said Britain offered things “which the Chinese education system doesn’t offer in quite the same degree”, such as “greater emphasis on creativity” and team sports.
He went on: “There will be some people who will say, isn’t it a shame we’re selling our schools to the Chinese?
"Well, that’s just a failure to recognise that China is a much wealthier country than we are.
"They’ve got the money now, we haven’t, and we should be jolly pleased that they regard English schools as something that they wish to invest in.”
He played down the idea that private schools could lose their character under Chinese owners.
“One of the things that the Chinese most want is the English culture, so it’s most unlikely that they would seek to dilute it anyway.”
The same applied to values like free speech and democracy. “What I have found with my Chinese pupils, is that one of the first things we have to do with them is to teach them to speak up in class and challenge the teacher…but that is one of the great things that we’re giving them, that’s one of the things that they are paying for.”
And he argued the trend could strengthen ties between Britain and China. “These educational links are potentially far more important than any number of ambassadors or trade envoys,” he said.
“In the lifetime of our children, this country, China, is going to have a huge influence on them. It’s very heartening that our relationship with China is being greatly strengthened through education at UK independent schools and UK universities.”