'A normal school for the abnormally wealthy'

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
There are private schools - and then there is Institut Le Rosey. David Marley finds out why parents are prepared to shell out for the most expensive school in the world

On a clear day, the view from the school is spectacular. Lake Geneva glistens in front of you, with Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak, dominating the horizon.

It is a remarkable setting, but its majesty is fitting for Institut Le Rosey, otherwise known as the "School of Kings" because of the large number of royals it has educated. It also happens to be renowned as the most expensive boarding school in the world.

For decades, it has been a magnet for a super-wealthy elite; old money and new, financial power brokers, the international aristocracy and the otherwise rich or famous. With annual fees for senior pupils topping #163;70,000 - more than double the amount charged by the likes of Eton or Harrow - the least pupils might expect is a decent view.

With a smile, Rob Gray, the school's headteacher, describes Le Rosey as just "a normal school for the abnormally wealthy". Granted rare access, TES went to discover what normal means for a school inhabited by 400 millionaire pupils from more than 50 different countries.

A first clue to the different kind of normality in operation at Le Rosey is that if you were to visit the school's main campus this term, you would find it deserted. The area around Lake Geneva in winter is often shrouded in thick cloud, spoiling that great vista. The solution? Move everyone and everything to the school's unique second campus, high up in the ultra-exclusive alpine village resort of Gstaad.

Ensconced in their home from home, pupils and teachers can enjoy fresh air, bright sunshine and daily skiing for two-and-a-half months before returning to the lakeside in spring.

"We're the only place where the whole school moves for a term," says Gray. "Four hundred pupils and 200 teachers and support staff all go; it's one of our selling points. It's such a mad thing to move an entire school; it's a major military operation, but all managed with fantastic Swiss efficiency.

"Every year, when we pack everything, we wonder if it's worth it, but the answer is always 'yes' because you get away from a rather depressing Geneva to brilliant sunlight and fantastic views. It gives everyone a new lease of life, a real psychological boost."

As the annual relocation exemplifies, expectations of life at Le Rosey are high, even by the standards of an elite boarding school. The main campus in the small town of Rolle, a 25-minute train ride from Geneva, is housed in a converted chateau. The school boasts its own 30-horse equestrian centre, a private sailing club and flying lessons at the weekend for those who are interested.

Opened more than 130 years ago, Le Rosey was initially established to offer an education in French instead of the German offered elsewhere. But as the 20th century progressed, so did the school's international reputation, helping it to build a who's who of the rich and powerful among its alumni. It has educated at least seven monarchs, as well as the children of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Elizabeth Taylor, Aristotle Onassis and various scions of the Rothschild banking dynasty. Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot were also reliably rumoured to have been linked to the school.

The tradition continues today, with royalty and the children of other members of the international A-list on the school roll (although a combination of Swiss discretion and security concerns stops names being named).

In the 1960s, the then owner of Le Rosey told a journalist from Life magazine that the reason he tried to meet pupils' parents was that it helped him forgive their children. Although Gray - an avuncular Englishman who has spent his career in international schools - laughs about the quote, he recognises truth in it. The children have great privilege, but also pressure, he says. "I don't think royals come here to be with other royals. It's not something we consider very important; we concentrate on the children and sometimes coming from that kind of background makes it very difficult for them.

"They have calls on their time and may have to go to official functions, royal weddings, funerals, coronations. When they finish they will have a particular role, which is very different from that of most students.

"We have to be very understanding and say yes, we know you have to go there, but there are other times we have to be quite firm and say to their parents that it's very important that they are allowed to focus on their studies."

Other children come from families involved in finance, business, the arts and politics. The school claims that there are no such things as typical parents, aside from their obvious financial clout. About a third are related to former students, the so-called anciens. There are also considerable numbers of siblings at the school - when one current pupil started she joined her two brothers and her sister, requiring an annual family outlay on fees in excess of #163;250,000.

But while pupils are from singularly wealthy homes, in terms of nationality they are diverse, coming from more than 50 countries. All older pupils must speak English and French in order to complete either the International Baccalaureate or the French Baccalaureat, but many speak three or four languages fluently.

Lots have parents from two different countries and have grown up in a third before arriving at Le Rosey. For them, the school offers a permanent base that becomes home and is a useful staging post before going to yet another country - most commonly the US - for university.

Multitude of nationalities

Nadim, a 16-year-old whose parents are from Singapore and Lebanon, says he settled in quickly having moved from an American day school in Singapore. "You live with people from so many different countries, but they are your brothers. There is a perception of boarding schools being repressed, but it's not like that at all. It's like living with 50 of your best friends."

Nadim speaks of his ambition to study at Stanford University in the US. But less typically for someone his age he also already has plans to work in the oil business in Ghana and Angola. Nadim is also aware that studying at Le Rosey will qualify him for a Swiss passport, meaning he can avoid two years of military service at home.

Vivienne, 17, came to Le Rosey four years ago from what she describes as a traditional boarding school in the Shropshire countryside. "There were only English people at my old school, so I met people here from places I never thought I would," she says. "When I go home people are fascinated that I go to school with people from Russia or Venezuela. It prepares you for life because you are not going to mix with people from only one place."

The multitude of nationalities is the result of a rule that bans any one country's children accounting for more than 10 per cent of pupils, including the Swiss. It creates an incredible mix, with pupils swapping from one language to another as they make their way through school. Although the bulk of the lessons are in English or French, the school offers lessons in more than 20 languages.

Over the decades, the school, which accepts pupils from the age of 8, attracted various nationalities as different economies prospered. In the 1970s, there was an increase from the oil-rich Middle East; in the 1980s, Japanese numbers grew. By the early 1990s, however, the massive growth in the number of wealthy Russians meant that it was their turn to become dominant.

But this time, the influx of a large group of newly rich pupils turned sour. Groups of Russian students would leave the tranquil campus at the weekend and use the family credit cards to host raucous parties in Geneva, damaging the atmosphere at the school and eroding its reputation. "Too much money and bad behaviour," as one member of staff put it.

The school took action, introducing the quota system to weed out undesirable pupils and restrict the dominance of any one country's students. The immediate problem was solved, but the school still takes great care to ensure that only the "right" kind of pupils win places.

There are the interviews and academic tests common to all selective schools, but pupils are vetted on more than their ability to get a decent grade in the IB. Nathalie Mercier, one of the admissions directors, says that they are looking for pupils who can bring something extra, a certain personality or talent that will add to the school community.

Academically, prospective pupils must be on course to get at least 24 points in the IB (the equivalent of a B and two Cs at A level) to win a place at the school. In fact, the average IB grade is nearly 35 points, worth more than three A grades at A level, and all students must sit the full IB - a policy that Gray says is rare in other international schools. "This is one of the many things that mark us out as a genuine school and not some sort of club for the uber-rich," he says.

Le Rosey attracts large numbers of students from the UK and the US, which both fill their 10 per cent quota. It also remains incredibly popular with Russians, but the school's experience from the 1990s means that potential pupils are carefully scrutinised. "On paper, they are good students, but not all of them would be the type of person you would want," says Gray. "They tend to be good pupils, well drilled, good linguists, but it has not always worked out. We're very careful with Russians now - not because the ones we have act out, they are very good, but we select them carefully."

Gray is at pains to point out that it is not only Russians about whom the school is picky. "We're fussy about all our students," he says. "Very often these old families that we attract have strong moral standards. They believe in discipline, hard work and the rest of it and they are quite easy to deal with.

"The people who come out of left field are those who might have come from a newly rich family - and the parents, they expect everything. We try to meet the parents as well as the children when we're admitting them because there are times when you know you might have problems."

It is assumed that parents can afford the fees, but background checks are carried out to make sure they have not made their money in a way that could reflect badly on the school; in other words, through criminality. Recently Le Rosey was ready to admit a pair of Greek siblings before it was contacted by a member of its impressive international network of former students. After a quiet word about the family background, the offer to study at the school - regardless of the family's ability to pay for it - was withdrawn.

"One of our alumni said we couldn't accept them, that we don't want them as a Rosey family," says Mercier. "We sometimes feel we don't want the family but we do want the children because we want to change them. Of course, we can't do that."

Craig Foreman, a politics and economics teacher from the north-east of England, moved to Switzerland after an eight-year stint at a boarding school in Berkshire. There, he says, the final year of school was all about A-level results and university entrance.

At Le Rosey, there is more focus on the monthly and termly grades that are sent to US universities, creating a constant pressure to perform. But the way that the American university system works means that many pupils receive confirmation of places as early as December.

This can obviously play well for students who then have less pressure during the winter term in Gstaad, but teachers are able to restrict pupils' freedoms to ensure work still gets done. As well as preventing students from leaving the campus, there are also punishments involving 6.30am exercise and cleaning duties. "They know we can punish them, so that helps," says Foreman. "Or it could be that their parents have a lot of respect for the school and they know it means a lot to them to be here so they have to be seen to behave.

"I was once accused by the nephew of a very senior member of the Chinese Communist Party of abusing my power by blocking him from going out because he hadn't done his work. He got it done, though, and then he could go."

Given its history and the unusual wealth of its pupils, it is perhaps not a surprise that the school has shied away from handing out large numbers of bursaries to less well-off pupils, although the children of staff all get free places.

Today, there are a handful of students receiving some kind of financial aid, but in most cases they will still be expected to find a third of the fees. That is still more than #163;20,000 a year, compared with full annual boarding fees in the UK that average #163;25,000.

A limited number of full bursaries have been handed out in the past, but there is concern about repeating the experience. "We don't want our kids to be flashy with their money, but it's very difficult to come from a poor village in Africa or Nepal or somewhere like that and be surrounded by children with lots and lots of money," says Gray.

"Pupils here are often flying off home at the weekend or at the end of term and they'll say, 'do you want to come to New York' or wherever, and the child will obviously have to say no. It could be quite difficult."

It is not only end-of-term trips home for which families are happy to put their hands in their pockets. There are annual visits to the Barcelona Grand Prix, the opera and recent school trips to Costa Rica and Japan.

A couple of weeks before the TES visit, Foreman had taken a group of pupils to London just for the weekend to watch a Chelsea match. "It's a normal thing to do," he says. "You have to get parental permission, but that's it - they sign the cheque and off you go. For some things, money is no object, and the school wants pupils to see as many things as possible.

"Teachers who stay here for a while recognise what a nice life they can have. They have a close relationship with the students and anything they fancy doing can be done. A colleague took a group to Brazil during half-term, for what we call voyage week. A bit like that cultural trip to London for football, curry and fish and chips."

Recommended pocket money for older students is 120 Swiss francs a week (about #163;80), which would appear sufficient considering that all obvious needs are catered for, but the school is involved in a "constant struggle" with parents to cap the allowance they give their children.

"Of course, many of the children get more," says Gray. "Occasionally we clamp down and check they don't have too much money in their safes, but it's difficult. It's not common that pupils want to look flasher than their peers as it leaves them open to ridicule, but what might be a #163;10,000 watch to you is just another possession to them.

"Anyway, our pupils think far more about university applications than they do about expensive accessories."

Relaxed and unstuffy

For some of the parents the school's fees are immaterial. For others, the annual outlay requires sacrifices in other parts of their lives, a helping hand from grandparents, or eating into the inheritance that their children might otherwise have received.

"If you're putting your child here for three or four years, by the time you've paid the air fares and the rest of it, it's going to be about half a million dollars," says Gray. "That's a serious financial undertaking and if you can get the same thing for a quarter of a million elsewhere, you think twice, don't you?"

Some parents may indeed think twice, but many still decide that it is an investment they want to make. The economic downturn that has affected many parts of the world has left Le Rosey unscathed - last year, it attracted more than three applications per place, including growing interest from China.

The school is not alone in the super-elite market, but Le Rosey remains pre-eminent, regularly topping the world's "most expensive" lists. For some, as the high number of pupils related to anciens suggests, attending the school is to do with family history and the kind of "set" that people move in. But given the costs, what else do parents get?

As with any luxury purchase, there is a certain social cachet to being a Rosean. Its name may not be well known among the majority of parents who educate their children privately in the UK, but in a way, that is the point - parents need to be in a particular stratum for a school such as Le Rosey to be on their radar.

Then there is the international feel of the place, underpinned by its commitment to bilingualism. It must also be said that mingling with other students from similarly well-travelled and moneyed backgrounds creates an international alumni network that makes the old boys' network of the UK look remarkably parochial.

Security is another major concern for many parents, with Switzerland in general and the school in particular providing a safe haven for their children. Some pupils have bodyguards shadowing their every move in their home countries, with kidnap a genuine fear, but they enjoy more freedom while at school. Bodyguards are banned at Le Rosey; while the school takes security seriously, in keeping with much about Le Rosey, it is kept discreet.

And inevitably the facilities are excellent and ever improving. Work is due to begin around now at the main campus on a #163;32 million, 850-seat auditorium and concert hall with classrooms for music, theatre and art. It is also planning to sell the Gstaad site, valued at about #163;68 million, and reinvest the money in building a bigger and better base outside the village.

But despite the money, there is a remarkably relaxed and unstuffy atmosphere. The pupils wear uniform only for a small number of official events during the year, or if they are being punished. For the most part, the school has the feel of an (admittedly younger) university campus.

Pupils speak warmly of their experience; they are aware of their privileged status and are possessed of the self-confidence that their kinds of background confer, but without any obvious arrogance.

The teaching staff obviously do not share their students' backgrounds in terms of wealth. But many are veterans of the international school circuit and come to Le Rosey having taught all over the world. They are not afraid to admit that a term in the mountains is a big draw.

Foreman moved to Switzerland from an English boarding school, but had previously taught in Greece and Spain.

"Some teachers who have been here a long time think that the parents think of us as cleaners with degrees," he says. "But I've never seen that, especially from the students. It doesn't feel like I'm dealing with someone from a different social class from me - although, of course, I am.

"There is also the bonus of the winter campus. Normally January is a really depressing month in English schools, but it's better than being on a summer holiday here. We're in such a brilliant place and even though we're working, which is full on, it's amazing."

In recent years, laws making it difficult to hire non-European staff have led to increasing numbers of British teachers taking up jobs at Le Rosey. So if faced with a less than dazzling view from your classroom this year, consider this: some of your fellow teachers are seeing out their working day on the slopes of Gstaad.


Le Rosey fees, 2012-13

Boarding: 96,300 Swiss francs (#163;66,750)

Additional language classes: 7,900 Swiss francs (#163;5,476)

International Baccalaureate costs: 7,300 Swiss francs (#163;5,060)

Private music lessons: 3,040 Swiss francs (#163;2,350)

Health insurance: 3,050 Swiss francs (#163;2,110)

Pocket money: up to 120 Swiss francs a week (#163;83)

Fees at top UK boarding schools

Winchester College: #163;31,350

Eton College: #163;30,981

Harrow School: #163;30,930

Westminster School: #163;30,438

Cheltenham Ladies' College: #163;28,845 (#163;32,493 for sixth-form entrants).

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