The UK boarding school identity crisis
It is not uncommon for children at boarding school to call their parents and ask to come home in the first few weeks. But the German 14-year-old sent to a quiet school in the English countryside had a specific complaint.
He was there to experience the famed British boarding school education, which — despite a tarnished reputation in recent years — is still seen around the world as a defining feature of British culture.
Instead, the boy told his parents, he couldn’t make friends because he couldn’t understand what his roommates were saying. Not because his English wasn’t good enough. But because they were all speaking Mandarin. His parents withdrew him after one term.
British boarding schools are facing an identity crisis. With an average place now costing nearly £35,000 a year (up from £23,000 10 years ago), many of the pupils that made up their traditional bread and butter — the middle- or upper-middle-class children of doctors, lawyers or other professionals — can no longer afford to board full time. Not only that but, as attitudes to children and education change, boarding is no longer an option for many, even if they can afford it.
By contrast, the creation of wealth in Asia and other emerging markets, combined with concerns about the quality of local education, has caused demand from overseas students to rocket.
Though the number of boarders at British boarding schools has remained steady since the turn of the century, at just below 70,000 according to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), the percentage of overseas boarders has increased significantly. A decade ago, non-British pupils with parents overseas made up fewer than a third of total boarders: now the ISC puts the figure at more than 40 per cent.
The majority of these overseas boarders have come from mainland China and Hong Kong, which together make up 44 per cent of the total 28,910 pupils at independent schools who have parents overseas (making them highly likely to be boarders). Germans are a distant third, at less than 7 per cent of the total.
“The demand far outstrips the supply,” says Ferdinand Steinbeis, director of German boarding-school consultancy von Bülow Education. “Because you have a waning local market due to higher fees and changing personal needs, you have to somehow compensate. Any British boarding school could fill its beds tenfold with Chinese students.”
These forces show no signs of abating. Private schools warned last month that fees were likely to increase further due to steep rises in pension contributions for teachers, but consultants such as Henry Jiang at Grandville International, which helps to place mainland Chinese and Hong Kongese students in British boarding schools, say more families are looking at UK schools instead of American ones.
This follows reports last year that Donald Trump had described Chinese students in the US as “spies”.
Flora Yung, director at British United Education Services in Hong Kong, adds that after recent riots in the territory, she received an unprecedented number of calls from parents looking to send their children abroad immediately.
But as the shift to overseas students increases, there are fears in the sector that some have gone too far. Schools such as Eton and Harrow, Sevenoaks and Malvern College remain so popular with both traditional British and international families that they can balance students as they see fit.
But according to various boarding school consultants, many of the “mid- and lower-” tier schools (not a categorisation recognised by the official Boarding Schools’ Association) are simply “filling their beds” with overseas students.
The percentage of overseas boarders at UK independent schools who come from China or Hong Kong
More multicultural schools are widely viewed as a positive, for both the schools and students. But some institutions, fearful of otherwise being forced to close their doors, may pay the price for their relentless pursuit of wealthy international students.
Parents paying for a classic British education are starting to question what they are getting for their money. Particularly overseas parents, it seems. “One of the main questions we get is how many German, Russian and Chinese students there are at the school,” says Steinbeis. “With German families, there’s this chronic paranoia that the international mix of pupils won’t be right.”
The question for British boarding schools now is not only how to survive and thrive but how to retain their identity in the 21st century.
Sevenoaks School in Kent has been taking in students from around the world since the 1950s. Walking around the campus on a chilly day in September, I noticed plenty of change since I was there for sixth form in the 1990s.
A huge design and technology centre has been built, containing room after room of spacious offices for teachers, a cavernous sixth-form common room and high-tech equipment.
“You can take technology as a subject now,” remarks one of the polite students showing me around, referring to the International Baccalaureate that all students there take. “Can you? I didn’t know that. I would have taken it,” says the other. “Only three people do it,” shrugs the first.
Though the pace has slowed recently, the arms race between modernising boarding schools has been a contributing factor in annual fees rising faster than inflation. Since 2010, fee increases have averaged 3.9 per cent a year at private schools. Between 2000 and 2010 they averaged 6.6 per cent.
The upgrade in facilities and corresponding rise in fees is not to everyone’s taste. One father, whose son attends Marlborough College in Wiltshire, says: “I think schools have got a bit ahead of themselves in thinking they have to be all-singing, all-dancing in every facet. There are many, many families out there that would prefer that, rather than a new design and technology building, they kept the fees a bit lower.”
Indeed, while schools such as Eton have long tended to cater to the super-rich, many other older institutions had a tradition of austerity that is now being eschewed to meet the demands of the modern boarder.
In particular, consultants say that some schools are now firmly targeting an international crowd of new wealth. “The bad ones are terrible — they are like a theme park,” says one.
One school singled out by consultants as particularly representative of the new wealth in boarding schools is Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate, near York. Several said they would never recommend the school to their families, calling it “bling” — students have en-suite bathrooms — with “too many international students”.
They pointed to the fact that there had been a helicopter landing pad at the school as indicative of the clientele. “In the long run, what they’re doing will damage the UK traditional independent-school reputation,” said one consultant to Chinese families.
The school confirmed that there was no longer a helicopter pad on the campus, and said that half the students were international. Steven Jandrell, principal, said that the international mix was “fully representative of the world today”, adding: “The independent school sector has a huge variety of great schools with very different physical, social and cultural environments.”
Certain schools “appeared to have made it part of their business plan” to get students from Asia a few years ago, says Francis Hamlyn of The Good Schools Guide.
Roedean at one point had Chinese students approaching 40 per cent of the pupil population, he says, although that percentage has since fallen. Roedean declined to comment.
Chinese students represent both a good academic and financial bet for schools. Brought up in an exam-focused education system, they can help the institution rise up the league tables, an important measure of success for most.
British United Education Services’ Flora Yung says: “If the school has a lot of Chinese, they can get their ranking right up within one or two years as their maths is just so good.”
Sometimes she warns the parents she advises that the international mix is not balanced — and they will later complain to her that their child’s English didn’t improve at boarding school but their Mandarin did.
Some top schools will test for fluent English as part of their admissions process, while others have whole departments dedicated to teaching English as a second language. These include Roedean, Queen Ethelburga’s, Sherborne School, Oswestry, Queen Anne’s and Warminster — all of which were singled out by more than one consultant as having “too high” numbers of students from Asia.
As Sevenoaks’ head of admissions Arabella Stuart admits: “The pressure coming from the Far East has really increased. It’s [about] holding your nerve and making sure you keep in the back of your mind that diversity of nationalities is what the school is really about.”
The average annual increase in fees charged by UK independent schools since 2010
Sevenoaks has 46 nationalities in the school, with a rough cap of no more than two to three students out of 10-12 from one nationality joining a boarding house. She adds: “There are people chasing their place in the league tables at the exclusion of everything else; we are not doing that. I feel that it’s a short-term policy.”
Eric Liang, the director of Hong Kong Education Web, says that up to 20 per cent in a certain year from one nationality is “OK”, but “once you get close to half it becomes an issue”.
He says Chinese parents share the concern that there may be too many students from their own country at a school. “Sometimes because of the pressure of recruitment, schools do recruit too many students from a certain country.” Schools are not always transparent about this, he says.
Indeed, with schools not obliged to provide a breakdown of their international ratios, any suggestion of skewed balance may be a matter of perception.
Samantha Price, headmistress of Benenden, another school named by consultants as having “too many” students from Asia, says she is surprised by that view, given that only 12 per cent of the girls there are from outside the EU. “We could probably double our intake from overseas if we wanted to, but we don’t feel it’s in the best interests of the international students. They come for a British education,” she says.
The discussion about whether some have leaned “too much” towards certain nationalities can be a fraught one. One housemistress at a top boarding school near London recalls a father bursting into her office brandishing a photo he had just taken of his son with his new classmates.
“Look at this!” he shouted, clearly angry. “How many white people do you see? I haven’t spent £45,000 to send my boy to a school which isn’t a properly British school.” She adds that the boy had made friends all over the world by the time he left.
Anna (not her real name) sent her daughter to Sevenoaks School and says that she loved its international mindset: her daughter, too, now has friends all around the world.
Sevenoaks, Anna believes, has been extremely careful about getting the international mix right: “From a social point of view, that’s very important,” she says. Indeed, for most connected with boarding schools, having a multicultural mix of students helps these often ancient institutions better reflect the modern world outside.
The British tradition of boarding schools began with the foundation of Winchester College, which opened its doors in 1382 and was intended to train boys — often from poorer families — to go to New College, Oxford to join the priesthood.
Yet David Turner, a former FT education correspondent, writes in his 2015 book The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School, that “from the start, the college attracted boys far above the ‘poor and needy’” — Winchester represented, in effect, the beginning of a tradition of educating the children of the elite to prepare them for university. Eton College, founded in 1440, was modelled on Winchester.
The wealth generated by the industrial revolution in the 19th century saw a boom in boarding schools — for both girls and boys — as well as reforms in the sector. Sports such as rugby, named after Rugby School in Warwickshire, were introduced as part of attempts to reduce systematic abuses and cruelty.
By the end of the 20th century, however, the idea of boarding was in decline amid changing attitudes among parents. By 1992, the number of boarders fell below 100,000 for the first time since ISC records began in 1974.
At Sevenoaks, as we walk from a professional-level concert hall towards a gym that looks to have been built on an Olympic scale, I ask my two guides what they think about the British Labour party’s plans, announced at its recent conference, to abolish private schools.
“I don’t follow politics,” says one swiftly. “It seems to me that the government has enough problems providing education,” muses the other. “If private schools are happy to pay for themselves, why interfere with that?”
One parent, Jo Killick, has sent all four of her children to boarding schools. “Some people are very judgmental about sending the kids off; I see it as letting them grow wings,” she says. But even she accepts some boarding schools carry a stigma now. “I don’t want that label for my children: ‘I went to Eton.’ It’s a bit antagonistic these days,” she says.
For most modern boarding schools, the really pressing issue is differentiating themselves from the competition. Singling out Sevenoaks, Oundle, Gordonstoun and Malvern College as examples of successful brands, Steinbeis says: “The schools are all trying to find their identity and some do that better than others. For the second- and third-tier schools, I think it’s a case of survival for them over the next 10 years.”
There are already plenty of casualties. Abbots Bromley, a day and boarding school in Staffordshire, shut its doors this summer amid a funding crisis triggered by declining pupil numbers, with a last-minute bid from Chinese investors to buy the school falling through. Local news outlets said it was the third private school in the region to close in as many years.
St Bees School, a 16th-century boarding school on the isolated coast of Cumbria, closed its doors in 2015 but reopened in 2018 after investment from Shenzhen-based Full Circle Education.
One of Britain’s oldest schools at more than 400 years old, with a stunning location on the sea cliffs and an imposing building, St Bees now describes itself as “Where West meets East”, has a twin campus in China and instructs all students in Mandarin as a first foreign language.
Hamlyn says that buying UK private schools is currently “big business”, with Chinese companies Wanda Group and Bright Scholar also acquiring British schools in recent years.
He adds that the Labour party’s recent proposal to remove the charitable status from private schools would undoubtedly lead to closures, with many schools “already operating on pretty small margins”.
However, not all strategies for the survival of the British boarding school rely on an international element. One potential answer is to make it more possible for local students to become boarders again.
Boarding schools have long offered generous bursaries to pupils from low-income families. But they are now trying to focus more on how to get the middle classes, who are not struggling financially on any objective measure, back to the market.
Robin Fletcher, chief executive of the Boarding Schools Association, says that, in addition to bursaries for those from very low-income families, governors and heads are increasingly looking for ways to support students who “wouldn’t be counted poor as such”.
Price at Benenden says they recently stopped giving financial awards with scholarships that might go to wealthier pupils who don’t need them. Instead, they will offer partial bursaries — with 20 to 30 per cent off — to “more traditional Benenden parents” from middle-class backgrounds as well as families on lower incomes.
The international focus of modern boarding schools is held up by the schools themselves as a way of helping to break down assumptions that people from other cultures make about each other.
Sabine Richards, head of admissions at Gordonstoun in Scotland — Prince Charles’s alma mater — says the school has a strict policy of taking a third of its students from Scotland, a third from England and Wales, and a third from overseas, with a cap of 10 per cent on any one nationality.
Yet she points to the school’s founding in 1934 by a German refugee, whose ethos was that understanding other cultures would help overcome fascism. Given its rise as an international power, she says, “China is the most exciting, dynamic country to be in and students from all over the world need to embrace Chinese students. What we need is common understanding.”
Consultants from across the globe say that, regardless of the international mix, British boarding schools are still a unique concept with international appeal. Laurent Pasquet, head of La Route des Langues, a consultancy in France, says that French children tend to be taken aback by the culture of boarding schools.
“They are very surprised that the master knows them by name, that the school cares about them and their well-being. As a matter of fact, they don’t want to come back to France: I often have kids that are supposed to go for a month or a term and they stay for the whole school year.”
It is a far cry from infamous horror stories of boarding school bullying and hierarchical fagging systems. But pastoral care, encouraging independence and, above all, not focusing too heavily on league tables tend to be among the best boarding schools’ selling points, consultants say.
“Boarding schools are great for students who would be lost in their own system,” says another European consultant. “England is brilliant at that — there is a school for everybody. Well, everybody with the money.”
Alice Ross is the editor of the daily newsletter FT Trade Secrets. Subscribe at ft.com/tradesecrets