Saturday , October 1 2022

The International Appeal of British Independent Schools

I was recently with some wealthy Russians when the conversation turned to schooling, they proudly described their children’s schools, the good facilities and the English tuition offered. The Russian educational system is slowly modernising but for a westerner it is still obviously megalithic with outdated books and a serious lack of high quality teachers. Private schools are a fairly recent addition to Russia and some can be fairly good but they are yet to build the same facilities and attract the same teaching talent . The conversation moved to educating children abroad, some of their friends have children being schooled in the UK while others have their offspring encamped high up in the Swiss Alps. Turning to me they asked about my old school in the UK, producing my phone I casually asked if they wanted to see and clicked through to a recent promotional video. They stood transfixed, passing the phone between them, watching the video through. Although I didn’t see jaws drop I did feel a sense of wonder and amazement. It was not spoken but the realisation of the immense privilege that a foreign staff member could enjoy for free made their own valiant efforts with their children seem somewhat derisory. Feeling a little bit awkward and slightly sheepish I accepted the return of my phone. It was painfully obvious to see then that no amount of money would be able to recreate the elements required to give their own children the same experience in Russia. It also made me think about the connection between wealth and quality of life. Although not as wealthy as the Russian elite the families of the children who attend British private schools have an excellent quality of life; supreme education in a healthy, clean and safe environment, as equals you can also speak your mind on mostly any subject. Although I’m sure many Russians understand that great places of learning exist in the UK, unless they have visited them they usually do not comprehend their sheer scale, facilities, sense of history or teaching expertise.   Even though my school was free, it was vast, boasting its own full size theatre, train station, sports centre, chapel and dining hall. The video showed the pupils, wearing their extraordinary Tudor uniform, marching into lunch accompanied by the school’s full marching band. When you are a pupil you do not fully appreciate the majesty of the place or how lucky you are, it is really only after you have left or especially when you have worked abroad that you realise that you hit the jackpot.

There really aren’t that many countries with anything comparable to the public schools of Britain. There are some good schools in the US and Switzerland but they don’t seem to produce the same type of people. There is also a sense that money can open doors while in the UK most of the best schools will not take the wealth of the parents into account when choosing pupils. There are excellent schools in Australia, India and New Zealand but they are far away and are not really as international in scope, mainly educating native children.

In the past their has been great schools throughout the world, India, Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq, Egypt, China and Turkey had extraordinary educational establishments but over the centuries political turmoil, war and social change destroyed or made the schools a shadow of their former selves. What is special about the UK is that so many schools have survived the centuries more or less intact. There have been hiccups of course but even the threat of nationalisation and two world wars barely threatened their ongoing existence. Although we moan readily about the state of our country, Britain with it’s democratic institutions, defendable borders and steadyish economy has created a safe and secure environment over the centuries for educational establishments to flourish.

An important aspect of the schools currently that is of considerable appeal to the international elite lies in the breadth of the curriculum and life skills that these schools instill. While still being a fairly safe environment the children need to fend for themselves, there is no security staff or parental backup and it is almost impossible to sway the teachers through the fear of a families power or wealth, the schools are often institutions with sometimes as much wealth and certainly more power. The children are equals; the son of Sheikh has to compete with scholar on equal terms. With the addition of a uniform any sense of background is cleaned away, children can only compete with their character, social skills, sporting and academic achievements. Some children, maybe for the first time ever, will have to deal with difficult situations on their own, the more challenges they can overcome while in a safe environment the easier their life will be after, especially if they have large future burdens to bear.

It would be a pleasure to hear your thoughts on how British Independent schools are viewed abroad, perhaps as old fashioned elitist relics or even as a model for a more successful universal system?

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