Independent schools: Swine flu turns away parents

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Pandemic panic spreads abroad, leaving UK boarding places deferred and cancelled

Original paper headline: Independents fall victim to swine flu as overseas parents turn tail

Panic over swine flu has led parents of some overseas students to cancel or defer their places at British boarding schools this autumn.

One headteacher has blamed media hype in key foreign markets such as Russia and China for the problem.

Complex and stringent new visa procedures for foreign students, designed to weed out bogus institutions that may harbour terrorists, are also adding to the headache for admissions officers this summer.

The twin blows come as boarding schools increasingly rely on the overseas market and weak pound to boost income during the recession.

Dr Christopher Greenfield, principal of Sherborne International College in Dorset, and chairman elect of the Boarding Schools' Association, said the Government's approach to the pandemic had led the world to believe, wrongly, that Britain was "ravaged" by swine flu.

According to official statistics, the UK has had among the highest number of reported cases worldwide.

The overseas parents' concerns have come to light following several high- profile stories involving British schools. Eton College hit the headlines at the end of May when it was forced to shut for a week after an outbreak. And in July, 52 British pupils and teachers attracted worldwide attention when they were quarantined on a trip to China after four pupils fell ill.

Admissions officers at Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire, reported that several students have pulled out of its summer school, and half a dozen overseas boarders have decided not to come next term because of swine flu fears.

Badminton School in Bristol, which recorded a case of swine flu earlier in the year, said one pupil from Thailand had deferred her place until 2010.

At Sherborne International College, three Russian children have already pulled out of the college's summer programme, and staff have been inundated with enquiries from parents, even though the school has had no recorded cases.

Foreign press reports put off overseas pupils

Dr Greenfield said pupils had been upset by reports in the foreign press.

"There have been some very odd stories making the headlines overseas. One Russian pupil on the summer programme thought she could not go home because her parents told her Heathrow airport was closed due to swine flu."

At Charterhouse in Godalming, Surrey, admissions officers said their recruitment agents abroad would be working hard to reassure parents.

Hugh Gammell, the school's registrar, said one Russian overseas recruitment agent had suggested that all pupils at the school visit the doctor before the start of term.

"Although no-one has pulled out, there are some indications of concern," he said.

Hilary Moriarty, director of the Boarding Schools' Association, said she did not think the vast majority of parents would be put off sending their children to the UK.

"Schools will be doing everything in their power to reassure parents."

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