Wealth Blog

British boarding schools – Asia marketing pays off

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 6:23pm

If you’re fed up with Hong Kong’s waiting lists, astronomical debentures for international schools and ESF politics, you might be thinking of sending your offspring to boarding school in England.

But for the novice parent about to fork out HK$390,000 a year, before air fares, for five or more years of English education, the range on offer is bewildering. You have to make decisions about what school offers what and guess which approach best suits your child.

Buyer’s market

You are the customer and most schools, except the ultra snooty elite ones who can pick and choose, like Eton and Harrow, will try to sell themselves to you. Usually you trawl through their glossy prospectuses in which the sun is always shining (not likely in England) and the children always smiling – not a teenage trout pout in sight. It’s a sales pitch. Headmasters with firm handshakes beckon you into book-lined dens with wide Winston Churchill desks and feed you afternoon tea from bone china. They size you up and tell you what you want to hear. Hoping to find that a particular school had some Chinese pupils, I asked the question. Making the wrong assumption, the headmaster said “Oh no, we don’t encourage Chinese pupils. They just stand around in corners speaking Chinese and eating noodles” He paused, no doubt expecting me to laugh. Instead, I said that since my child was Chinese, I hoped they would add Mandarin to the curriculum soon. He blushed to the top of this Thomas Pink collar.

Two ways to go

Many of the top schools are now huge, like Millfield with over 2,000 pupils. They employ headmasters who are as much marketing guys as head teachers. Every year they hit the road, visiting places like Hong Kong and Singapore, pushing the benefits of a very British education. Wander past the China Club’s library on Saturday afternoons and you’ll often see directions to an audience with the Millfield tradeshow. Public-spirited parents of existing pupils or those whose kids have recently left herd their friends in. I’ve always wondered what’s in it for them to persuade their friends to send little Johnny to the same school as their kids. Maybe they are grateful for the school removing little Johnny from Lan Kwai Fong for 32 weekends a year, or maybe they get a finder’s fee. I don’t know, but the schools certainly lean on these folks who seem quite happy to spread the gospel according to Sherborne Ladies or Bryanston or Wellington or whichever school. I’ve never seen parents with no obvious connection to a school taking their friends along.

The more formal route 

Then there are people, not exactly brokers, but they act as middle man, helping you to place your prodigy in the “right” school. The degree of service varies, some offer extra tuition in preparation for Common Entrance or whatever is needed. Some, I was surprised to find, as well as charging parents, also pocket commission from the school of up to five thousand quid (HK$65,000) per child. You think your kid’s done well to get in, when in fact someone is being paid for having sold you on the school. All very depressing to discover. But it’s just another business proposition at the end of the day, with large sums involved. 

The Boarders List

So which British public (private) school is winning the recruitment stakes in Hong Kong? A fascinating but frankly alarming document arrived in my inbox. It contained the details of 241 youngsters currently undergoing private educated in the UK. It had the names of parents, contact details, their children’s names, ages and UK establishments being attended. I understand this is useful for networking – but what about data protection?

Which schools are cool

Anyway, quick analysis of the 241 showed that of those, 11 attend Millfield or Millfield Prep, the junior section. So those Hong Kong trips are working, at pounds sterling 10,755 per child per term. Millfield is only beaten by Eton, which accounts for 12 of the kids on this list. This list does not contain every kid in Hong Kong being educated privately in the UK, and some of those listed are at university, but it’s a decent sample.

Marlborough, alma mater of Kate Middleton, does well, with eight Hong Kong pupils. Girl’s school Wyckham Abbey pulls in seven, Rugby eight, Radley seven. Oxford’s Dragon School seems very popular with 10 and I know more who are not featured. But then smart parents realise that Oxford is one of the schools handiest for London’s Heathrow Airport. Harrow gets seven, Oundle eight, Winchester has five but you have to be seriously bright to go there. King’s Canterbury is surprisingly popular with six, as is Benenden with 10. Bryanston gets seven, Catholic Ampleforth three and Haileybury three. Glenalmond and Gondonstoun get one apiece – but then Scotland involves a lot of extra travel from London.

I stress this list is far from complete, but it gives an interesting snapshot of which British schools are currently in vogue.