A little piece of England

12th March 2010 at 00:00
British schools may come in for constant criticism at home, but parents overseas can't get enough of our education system. Anne Joseph reports on the rush to global franchises

I think we sometimes underestimate the regard with which British education is held throughout the world," says Joe Davies, the master of Haileybury School in Hertford.

Given the level of teacher-bashing headlines and political soundbites in the UK, this comment may come as a surprise. But the provision of a branded British education abroad is one that a growing number of schools - mainly in the independent sector - are developing.

Haileybury was the first British independent school to export a "sister" school - Haileybury Almaty - to the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan in 2008. Impressed with what he saw, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev requested that another be built in the new capital, Astana. With such a ringing endorsement from the president himself, the school will open Haileybury Astana soon.

There is clearly a market for exporting school brands overseas. Prestigious establishments such as Harrow School and Dulwich College have had a presence in the Far East for a number of years.

"I get an email or a letter every month asking me to set up a school or to advise on setting up a school, based on the English system," explains Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow in Middlesex.

Harrow International operates in Bangkok and Beijing, with a third school in Hong Kong due in 2012. The brand name is an obvious benefit as it creates a certain level of expectation from parents and pupils alike. But that brand recognition also carries a danger, he explains. "If the school overseas wasn't maintaining good standards, it could damage the name."

Maintaining standards can be challenging, particularly in the early stages of a school's life when parents and pupils may not fully understand what it is the school is trying to be and do.

"Some pupils were expecting to take their own bodyguards to lessons," comments Robbie Woodburn, a former pupil at Haileybury in the UK and now a housemaster in Almaty.

Initially, it was quite difficult to manage parents' expectations, says Mr Woodburn, convincing them "that they couldn't just dump their child at school and expect them to come out a genius".

The majority of the pupils are born into oil and natural gas enterprises, and wealthy Kazakh families are unused to the rigours and discipline of a traditional British independent school.

But after a great deal of patience and careful communication, the co- educational, 400-pupil school for five to 15-year-olds is firmly established, and its aims and values are clear to both pupils and parents.

The logistics of starting a new school overseas are astounding. At a cost of approximately pound;56 million, Haileybury Almaty has won an award for most inspiring school design worldwide from the British Council for School Environmentalists. Built by the designers of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium - HOK Architects - it provides an atmosphere, according to founding head Andrew Auster, where pupils can thrive. He describes the building as "inspiring . full of light".

There was an existing link between Kazakhstan and Haileybury's Hertford campus, as many pupils from the former Soviet republic attended the school. But it was the vision and generosity of Serzhan Zhumashov, a Kazakh parent at Haileybury in the UK, who inspired the physical presence overseas.

Mr Zhumashov, a businessman and chair of Capital Partners, a Moscow-based international construction firm which managed the development of the project, was determined that the school should open on September 1, 2008 - which it did in spite of the building being incomplete.

Logistical challenges aside, how can a school "export" its reputation and ethos to a completely different culture?

As well as their fees and academic success, these schools are known for being the bastions of a certain type of Britishness.

Mark Henson, executive head of Harrow International Schools, explains that these schools are "an adaptation, not a replication" and the schools adjust accordingly, be it in uniform, curriculum or through the creation of their own school traditions.

In Harrow Beijing, for example, headmaster Matthew Farthing takes "some of the best values of a very, very good school in Britain" and plants them in the new environment in Asia.

But not everything can be exported, such as single-sex education. And a broader age range is offered in Beijing and Bangkok than in London. Lessons are taught in English, and the schools follow a broad British curriculum, but with some modifications, particularly in subjects such as history and geography.

In Thailand, the children study Thai history as well as aspects of English and European history, and in Beijing, patterns of migration is less about the Vikings and more about the Han and Mongolian empires. But pupils follow the same exam system of GCSEs and A-levels, and the schools offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities.

Haileybury also offers the International Baccalaureate, and Mr Auster hopes that after graduation students who have studied abroad will return to Kazakhstan and reinvest their skills and expertise.

One of the challenges is that these outpost schools are brand new in comparison to their "parent" institutions, yet parents still expect them to be steeped in tradition. Harrow has been established for 500 years, Harrow Beijing for just three - yet parents expect the same ethos and quality of education in both.

Mathematics teacher David Dawes has taught in all three of Harrow's schools, and relished the challenge and excitement of setting up a new school community at Harrow Beijing. Communication with pupils and parents was vital.

As well as increasing his knowledge base to include the history of mathematics in the region, he has had to think how he could teach pupils whose first language was not English. In contrast to Haileybury Almaty, where 79 per cent of pupils are Kazakh, this small non-boarding school of 400 pupils, from kindergarten to Year 13, mostly caters for the expat community, although children from Chinese and Korean families also attend.

Some of these children would have been sent to Harrow in the UK had the school in Beijing not been in existence, says its head, Matthew Farthing. He has been examining the demographics of his school and discovered that it has attracted long-stay expatriates who view Beijing as their home, as well as Asian and ethnic-Chinese families who have returned to seek residency in the city. Although the school educates the children of diplomats, it does not have many short-stay expat pupils, a situation he welcomes.

Most of the teachers come from the UK, and Mr Farthing takes pride in the school's staff retention.

The same can be said of Haileybury. "Parents want an English person or certainly an English first-language speaker at the front of their class," says Mr Woodburn.

Languages, including Kazakh, Russian or Mandarin, are taught by native speakers.

For a teacher from England, taking a job in Kazakhstan may not immediately spring to mind as a good career move, but there are many perks to working overseas.

There might be slightly different governance and ownership structures, but schools that have entered the global education marketplace benefit from crucial governor support and student and staff exchanges.

And Mr Woodburn believes he enjoys a quality of life and a standard of living far above that of his peers - at the age of just 24 he has almost paid off his university loan. He receives a 50 per cent subsidy for accommodation and his salary is paid net of all taxes. The travel opportunities are vast, and Mr Dawes adds that the chance to examine another culture and history "would be denied to me if I wasn't in Beijing".

The schools are clearly responding to a demand, with many holding substantial waiting lists. But are there any financial benefits?

"UK independent schools which choose to tap into this market can find that opening a branch abroad provides an important source of income, which can help the parent school in the UK provide more bursaries," says Fiona Rogers, general secretary of COBIS (Council of British Independent Schools).

Harrow International operates through franchises and the money made from their branches abroad is used to fund scholarships and bursaries at Harrow. Joe Davies at Haileybury describes the financial advantages as part of the motivation for the project, but not the only one. Again, any additional monies made, he says, are earmarked for bursaries.

Despite the fact that British education is popular internationally, these "daughter schools" represent only a very small percentage of the British international schools market. The vast majority are independent, without any link to a school in the UK, according to COBIS.

But the small but growing number of British "brands" exporting education overseas agree on one thing - it's a great adventure. Those without a pioneering spirit need not apply.

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