A decade after Bo Guagua, grandson to a revolutionary hero and son of fallen Communist Party leader Bo Xilai, became the first Chinese to attend Britain’s elite Harrow School, agencies promising access to Britain’s top independent schools are expanding rapidly to cope with rising demand from the growing pool of high-net-worth individuals from China.
The London-based education consultancy Gabbitas opened its first office in Shanghai in 2009. Four years later, it also advises well-off parents in Guangzhou, Wenzhou and Dalian on how to get their children into secondary schools once reserved for British and continental European aristocracy.
Within five years the agency plans to open another 12 branch offices, said Sofie Liao, director of Gabbitas in China. Schools like Eton and Harrow “are getting more and more enquiries from Chinese families,” she said, anticipating annual growth rates of 10 to 15 per cent.
Liao’s biggest challenge is to lower parents’ expectations, she said. Parents “have to be realistic,” she said. They “tend to think, you register with Eton and then you need to pack your luggage and go there next year.”
These schools “have royalty, they don’t care how much money you have in your bank account or how many listed companies you have,” Liao said.
She said parents are signing up their children to join the UK’s exclusive schools at a younger age to increase their chances of being accepted. “The youngest students we have are pre-prep school age, two to three years old. They have to wait another 11 years before they can get in.”
“It’s a very long selling cycle,” said Jazreel Goh, director for education marketing at the British embassy in Beijing, adding that such agencies are unlikely to be challenged by the average Chinese rivals.
“The market is a very niche and specialised service. The bar for being a good boarding school agent is set quite high – you have to have the network of boarding schools and you have to know which might suit the applicant,” she said.
Goh estimated that there are about ten professional boarding school agencies in China. The trend she has seen is more upper-middle-class parents signing up with agencies to send their children to the UK.
Students from China, including Hong Kong, make up by far the largest group of foreign students studying at British independent schools, according to a census in January this year surveying more than a thousand schools by the British Independent School Council. Among the 25,912 foreign secondary school children in Britain, 9,623 or 37.1 per cent came from China.
Hong Kong still leads the ranking of new intakes, but could be overtaken this year by the mainland. Last year, new intakes from Hong Kong entering British independent schools fell by 5.3 per cent to 1,821, while new intakes from the mainland increased 5.4 per cent to 1,746.
Several parents sending their children to British schools are hesitant to speak publicly about their experience of sending their children to British elite schools. “Education is a very personal family matter. It’s a very low-key, but important investment,” said Goh.