Elite UK independents map out a future with Africa

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
Iconic English schools are looking to booming Nigeria

Top independent schools have long been attractive to parents from overseas with their marquee brand names, such as Eton and Harrow, traditionally drawing in pupils from China, Hong Kong and the Middle East.

Now, however, some top public schools are turning their attention to a developing world country soaring up the economic league tables at a staggering rate - Nigeria.

Education UK, part of the British Council, which promotes UK expertise abroad, has commissioned a schools marketing consultant to compile a report on opportunities for British fee-paying schools in the west African country.

Oil-rich Nigeria, with its 155 million citizens, is predicted to enter the economic stratosphere between now and 2050, with the highest average GDP growth in the world.

The portents for UK education look promising. In its 2011 census, the Independent Schools Council (ISC) said the total number of pupils at its member schools whose parents were living in Nigeria stood at 802. Only Hong Kong, China, Germany, Russia and Spain surpassed the figure.

"Nigeria has a large population and historic cultural links," said ISC head of research Rudolf Eliott Lockhart. "Parents recognise the quality of our schools."

The British Council report is due to be launched at its annual conference in Edinburgh in November, and is being produced for the 52 members of its Education UK, whose members include Sussex girls' school Roedean and Cheltenham Ladies' College.

But its findings are already clear: "Nigeria is a huge market. There's never been a better time for schools to develop a relationship with parents over there," said report author Mark Brooks.

And to illustrate his point further, Mr Brooks said the ISC figures are likely to double given that large numbers of Nigerian pupils have parents who hold British passports and are therefore not included in the numbers.

Among Mr Brooks's recommendations is that UK schools should approach British schools operating in Nigeria. "The schools in Nigeria wish to develop working relationships rather than be seen as a captive recruitment market."

And some schools are already changing to reflect this. Roedean director of admissions Zoe Marlow said the Brighton school was now attracting more Nigerian children than Russian.

"Word of mouth is very important for schools," she added. "There are certain echelons of Nigerian society that have studied in the UK. They can give a school credibility by recommending it."

Others, too, want to get in on the act. Education consultant Gabbitas helps UK parents match their children to fee-paying schools. Director of assessment, guidance and consultancy Catherine Walters said nearly half its parents were from abroad.

"Our education is renowned to be the best," she said, "and that's what parents are looking for."

But there is a word of warning. "Getting hold of visas (for Nigerians) has become harder now," Mr Brooks said.

"Given the size of the UK overseas market, this is something independents should be concerned about."

This may be the case, but it's clear that a little bit of bureaucracy is not going to stop many independents looking to Nigeria as a rich new seam of business.

ULTIMATE UK

Education researcher Pere Ayling, a Nigerian, has been interviewing Nigerian parents as part of a project to find out why they send their children to UK schools.

"They are trying to distinguish themselves," said the Essex University lecturer. "The UK is seen as the ultimate. Canada is an option, but the British are still seen as the masters. They have complete and absolute trust in the British system."

She said this trust comes from the historic ties between the two and harks back to the days of the empire. Parents in Nigeria are somehow hoping their children will turn out like what they imagine the upper class in the UK to be.

FACTS AND FIGURES

Nigeria has the largest population of any African country, with 155 million people.

The capital is Abuja but the largest city is Lagos, which has a population of around 15 million.

The International Monetary Fund predicts the country's economy will grow 8 per cent this year. By contrast, the UK economy is expected to grow by just 1 per cent in 2011.

In February this year, US bank Citigroup said Nigeria will have the highest average GDP growth in the world between 2010 and 2050.

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