For some time independent schools in the UK have been short of cash. With recent increases in pension contributions and the threat to their charitable status, a state of tolerable penury has changed to impending bankruptcy.
But the business of making money does not come easily to such schools. The richest schools remain those endowed with land in the 14th and 15th centuries. A starker indication of the dearth of profitable ideas would be difficult to find.
Given the half-millennium of inactivity which preceded it, the independent sector’s newest venture looks extravagantly enterprising. School franchises in the Middle East and Asia are a major step into the business world.
Among the most successful of these operations are Wellington and Dulwich Colleges’ international schools. In their most recent filings with the UK Charity Commission they made £1.4 and £1.5 million respectively from their franchises. Westminster School looks set to follow them into the marketplace. It’s easy to understand why schools are interested. The profits are desperately needed to offset rising costs at home.
This marketplace covers a huge geography from Saudi Arabia to Japan. The fastest growth is in China, where international schools have enrolled around 350,000 pupils in just a few years.
The precise reason for China’s appetite for western schooling is tougher to pin down. There is a bizarre notion in the West that China is capable of teaching the sciences but at sea with the humanities. As a remedy, the argument goes, China has turned to English and American private schools. This is difficult to credit and smacks of chauvinism.
More likely is that a prestigious Chinese university education is far less available than a western one. Chinese universities account for just four of the top 100 universities in the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy’s index of top universities. Tellingly, in 40 of the top 50, the language of instruction is English. All but three of those are US or UK institutions.
To gain entry to a western university, you need schooling and qualifications that mean something to the admissions officers, serviceable English and money. The last of these is increasingly available as the profits of globalisation accrue to the Chinese upper-middle class. The first two are offered at the outposts of Wellington, Dulwich and others.
But while the relationship between Chinese pupils and the schools looks mutually beneficial, the relationship between the parent schools and the Chinese state itself is far from straightforward. China’s political elite does not want petri-dishes of liberal democracy inside its borders. To keep a lid on them, schools that enrol Chinese nationals are prevented from teaching undesirable elements of the British curriculum. Free political discussion is absolutely forbidden. To police these restrictions, the head teacher must also be Chinese. If this doesn’t make governors think twice before beginning a relationship with a Chinese franchise, it should. Values are at the heart of any school. Watering them down or stripping them out for money is dangerous. If they begin to look hollow, they already are. Without them, a private school in the UK is little more than an engine of inequality.
That said, detractors who accuse Dulwich and Wellington of lending their tacit support to an oppressive regime are being hysterically reductive. They are right on one thing, though. Schools cannot advocate a value system in the UK and ignore it in China.
Available remedies are few. Covertly following the UK curriculum is a non-starter. For a Chinese head teacher overseeing the day-to-day running of the school, a dissenting curriculum is a ticket to martyrdom.
The most plausible alternative is that international schools and the universities work together. American and British universities could insist that Chinese nationals pass a history of ideas course to gain entry – and this would need to be taught at the international schools. Sceptics might say it is naïve to expect Beijing to relax its restrictions for a few jumped up educators. But this is to misunderstand the bargaining positions of the two sides. While the Western educators badly need money, the Chinese need higher education. The Chinese state needs a stream of highly skilled graduates entering its workforce each year. Without the university infrastructure to support this in China, UK and US schools have a stronger hand to play than they think.
Schools need to stop goggling in disbelief at a cheque for a little over a million. Instead, they should take a moment to realise what they are selling and how cheaply.
Oswald O’Neill is a teacher and trustee of Stay at School Nepal