British boarding schools journey to the East to give Chinese elites a taste of prestige and privilege

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 10:59pm

British boarding schools are journeying to the East for their next growth opportunity as more and more expatriate parents and wealthy Chinese families look to the symbols of privilege and prestige as the grooming grounds for their children.

Harrow School, the 445-year-old institution whose alumni included Lord Byron and Winston Churchill, just opened its Shanghai campus in August 2016, following one in Hong Kong and another in Beijing. Dulwich College, a London independent school that traces its roots back to the 17th century, already operates five campuses across China.

Most recently, Malvern College, a top English school that edified two Nobel laureates and US spymaster James Jesus Angleton, opened two satellite schools in the Chinese cities of Qingdao and Chengdu. It will launch another in the Hong Kong Science Park in Sai Kung next year, aimed at the city’s expatriates.

The fees are steep. Malvern collects a total of 180,000 yuan (US$26,260) for a student to board at its Chengdu branch, five times the average annual income of a local resident.

China has highest international school tuition fees, while Hong Kong takes fifth place, survey shows

That had not deterred high-net-worth Chinese individuals from queuing up to apply. Only in its fourth year, Malvern’s Qingdao school already has 440 pupils registered and is rapidly growing towards an ultimate capacity of 700.

“There is really a desire among Chinese parents for the best-in-class British education on their doorstep,” said Antony Clark, headmaster of the 150-year-old school, which counts graduates from the branch at Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They want their [children] to think outside the box and to prepare them for getting into top universities overseas.”

The Chinese have a longstanding obsession with famous Western brands, whether it is Gucci or Louis Vuitton in bags, Marriott or Hilton in hotels, or Harvard and Oxford among universities.

When it comes to secondary schools, Eton and Harrow are the biggest attractions for Chinese millionaires, according to Hurun, which compiles an annual list of the wealthiest people and companies in China.

The high-profile boarding school adventures of Bo Guagua, the son of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, have further enhanced the appeal of elite British schools among Chinese families.

British private schools currently operate 59 campuses abroad, teaching 31,773 pupils, a sharp rise from the 29 schools reported four years earlier, according to the Independent Schools Council.

Hong Kong and mainland China make up the largest group of overseas students attending these schools, contributing £713 million (US$912 million) to Britain’s gross domestic product every year.

“The demand for big brand names like Malvern or Harrow will always be robust in China,” said Mariana Kou, head of China education research with CLSA.

International or local school for Hong Kong kids: does it really matter?

Unlike in the West, top Chinese secondary schools are still dominated by state-run institutions. Beijing No 4 High School, which educated generations of China’s elites including Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng and the senior Bo, has been funded and administered by the government for more than a century.

With a huge number of diehard adherents, those schools are extremely selective and are often celebrated for their “drilling” of pupils for the notorious college entrance examination gaokao (高考), China’s equivalent to the SAT.

“Some parents do not want their children to face too much academic pressure, so sending them to international schools is a good alternative,” Kou said.

Apart from fewer examinations, international schools tended to give students more opportunities to engage in activities such as sports, music, drama and art, helping them develop more well-rounded personalities, Clark said.

With income levels rising, the popularity was also triggered by an increasing number of Chinese parents eager to send children to prestigious Western universities, particularly the Ivy League colleges in the United States and the group of elite universities in the English cities of Cambridge, London and Oxford, known as Britain’s golden triangle.

Many parents believe international schools offering A-levels, GCSEs or IB programmes together with a range of extracurricular activities guarantee a better chance for their offspring to go to a well-reputed overseas university.

“Their English proficiency gets an additional boost,” Clark said.

As many as 91,215 students from China enrolled in British universities in 2015, far exceeding any other nationality around the globe and a significant increase from 2014. The same trend is evident in the US where the number of undergraduates from China soared sixfold to almost 140,000 between 2008 and 2015.

Shanghai private schools warned to focus more on official subjects, including ideology

International schools also appealed to those who were reluctant to drop their young children off in a new country like the US to have these “parachute kids” stay alone, Clark said.

The number of international schools in mainland China has nearly doubled to 597 in 2015 from 2013, with enrolment rising 28 per cent during the period to 236,400 students, according to the Centre for China and Globalisation.

However, the astonishing growth had raised questions over whether there were sufficient high-calibre teachers, particularly in second-tier cities, to live up to the parents’ high expectations, Kou said.

“And they also need to deal with the new regulations from the Chinese government,” she said.

In November, the authorities in Shanghai tightened controls over what private schools must teach to local pupils from the primary to junior high level, warning that they had to ­offer some domestic curriculum, including political ideology.