Cultural confusion costs foreign parents dearly

19th December 2014 at 00:00
Misunderstanding of donation system fills private school coffers

Private schools in the UK are at risk of being "corrupted" by large donations from foreign parents who believe that paying more money will provide a better education for their children, it has been claimed.

Rich Russian, Chinese and Kazakh parents are more likely to make sizeable donations to their child's school in a mistaken belief that this will ensure preferential treatment, a leading education consultant has said.

Alexander Nikitich, founding director of Carfax Education, which advises foreign families on British independent schools, said schools were becoming "increasingly commercial". Some saw foreign parents as "little more than money bags and donation opportunities," he added.

Mr Nikitich made his comments against the backdrop of a huge boom in independent school fundraising: the sector pulled in pound;130 million last year, up from pound;40 million in 2001. Membership of school fundraisers' body the Institute of Development Professionals in Education (IDPE) has risen by a third in the past five years.

The comments also follow a recent admission by Andrew Halls, head master of King's College School in Wimbledon, south-west London, that spiralling fees had made some private schools little more than "finishing schools" for the children of oligarchs.

Mr Nikitich told TES he knew a Russian family who had felt obliged to donate to a British school where their child was studying after being visited regularly by a development director in Moscow. "To them it seemed like he was there every other month, inviting them to drinks or lunch, and they would feel they had to make further donations," he said.

Schools could be "unwittingly" benefiting from overseas' parents expectation that they had to pay bribes to get a good service, he said. "Some of these parents come from countries and cultures where they're used to that - where if they want to get good service and good attention, they need to pay privately more than the official price.

"I think what happens at some schools - there's no particular malice, but they have been almost corrupted by this. Some private schools perhaps just feel that [parents] are being generous and that all they have to do is ask, perhaps not realising that the parents feel obliged."

Mr Nikitich stressed that asking for donations was "absolutely legitimate" and that the money was used for "very good purposes", allowing schools to offer generous bursary schemes and build better facilities.

But schools needed to be careful that "commercial thinking" did not undermine the values they had been promoting for hundreds of years, he said. He even suggested that UK private schools should make the situation more transparent for foreigners by simply charging them higher fees.

Development directors did not deny that they targeted fundraising at wealthy parents and former pupils, but insisted they did not specifically single out those from overseas.

Ian McClean, an independent development consultant who has led fundraising for numerous independent schools in the UK and abroad, said: "The simple fact is that a good development director nurtures and develops relationships with everyone in their school community, current and former pupils. They cultivate these relationships for the benefit of the school.

"Over the years, I have been to Moscow numerous times telling parents about the school's projects. If there's a project going on we naturally tell people connected to it. If the parents feel inclined to help the school, then that might come up.

"You have some oligarchs who might be in a position to help the school. Some might want to help, some might not. There's no doubt that part of the fundraising function of the schools is to identify people who might be in a position to help."

Elisabeth Anderson, chair of the IDPE and director of the Fettes Foundation, fundraising arm of the elite Fettes College in Edinburgh, said she regularly met up with alumni and parents from both the UK and overseas and insisted that they were always treated equally. "IDPE's member schools stand resolutely behind ethical practices irrespective of cultural differences," she said.

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