Reporter's take: Will Brexit hurt UK private schools?

Brexit may be dominating headlines, but UK independent schools seem unperturbed, writes Caroline Henshaw

Caroline Henshaw

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In yet another week dominated by Brexit, education has again been taking a backseat in the national news.

But there is one section of the schools system that might have a lot to lose from the chaos over the future of the UK’s international trade. Our country’s top independent schools have been huge winners from globalisation, using their brands to attract pupils from all continents and increase their fees in the process.

So with Brexit threatening an important pillar of the current regime of free trading and movement, could the likes of Eton and Wellington be about to come down to Earth with a bump?

This is, after all, already a sector under pressure. Many smaller schools are facing a squeeze on their budgets, an issue that is set to be compounded by a pensions hike next year. But a plan by Millfield to cut its fees has raised questions about whether others should do the same.  

Only last week, the executive director of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference felt it necessary to defend the work of his member schools as “socialism in action”. Will Brexit now add to their burden? The head of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools thinks it could, arguing that Germany and Spain are among the main sources of pupils for his member schools.

But at a conference in London this month, leading figures from the independent school sector seemed fairly sanguine about the potential impact of the UK leaving the European Union.

As MPs debated the UK's withdrawal deal in Parliament just a mile away, experts agreed they had seen little evidence that Brexit was putting off international students. More dangerous, they argued, were shifts in the international financial system, such as the recent slump in oil prices – or the potential for a Labour government.

A recent survey of the independent sector by private tutoring company Keystone Tutors backs this up: only 16 per cent of more than 150 senior figures said the spectre of Brexit has made the UK less attractive for international families.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that, while most international students in UK private schools hail from Europe, China and Hong Kong together already come a close second and look set to increase their share.

Brexit may be dominating headlines and scaring off European teachers, but as long as the reputation of British private schools remains sterling, it looks unlikely to persuade many to cut their fees.

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Caroline Henshaw

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