The Posh School's Burden
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 09, 2020
Boarding schools that once trained young men to run the British Empire are opening campuses for elites in countries with reputations for corruption and long colonial pasts. It could get awkward
Simon Akam

On a Friday afternoon in late 2018, children gathered on an artificial-grass pitch in Kazakhstan’s former capital of Almaty. In the distance, beyond the hangarlike buildings of their school, the Trans-Ili Alatau Mountains were snowcapped. On the other side rose the glass-walled Ritz-Carlton hotel complex. Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie blared from the PA.

The occasion was a soccer tournament like many the world over, but, Shakira notwithstanding, this one had a determinedly British bent. The competition was between houses—student groupings traditional in English private education. Pagodas by the pitch bore the signature colors of the Bartle Frere, Edmonstone, Kipling, and Attlee houses. The first two were named for 19th century administrators of British India. The third honored Rudyard Kipling, author of the imperialist panegyric The White Man’s Burden. The last was named for Clement Attlee, the prime minister who established Britain’s National Health Service. All four men attended the English private school Haileybury or its antecedents.

The tourney was taking place at Haileybury Almaty, the first of two Kazakh franchises that have opened since 2008. The move had some strange historical resonances. Haileybury, descended from the East India College, is arguably the school most closely associated with Britain’s imperial past. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is a vast autocracy, flush with petrodollars yet free for less than three decades after more than a century of near-unbroken Russian or Soviet rule. Out on the AstroTurf, a girl with braces waved a Kipling House banner bearing a hand-drawn hammer and sickle. The poet would no doubt have blanched at the image: When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, he wrote that one-sixth of the world had “passed bodily out of civilisation.”

Haileybury’s Kazakh outposts—the other is in Nur-Sultan, formerly Astana but renamed in tribute last spring after the country’s president since independence, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down—are part of a wider movement by U.K. private schools. According to consulting firm ISC Research, as of last September, 36 of these schools had opened 73 satellite campuses abroad, with a combined enrollment of 44,952 students and income from annual fees of $1 billion. The wave was partly born of financial pressure, but it has also proved an opportunity for the U.K. to export and celebrate its culture, creating a peculiar form of globalization in which youngsters in the Gulf States and East Asia eagerly adopt British traditions and iconography. Harrow’s school in Beijing trots out its iconic “boater” straw hats for special occasions. Repton School’s campus in Dubai features a grand entrance flanked by turrets.

This global branding opportunity is proving lucrative enough to renew thoughts of empire. “This is not about making a bit of spare cash,” says Mark Abell, a lawyer at Bird & Bird in London who’s worked on overseas franchise arrangements. “This is really about transforming the school into an international education business.”

The original Haileybury is on 500 acres of wooded grounds, about 20 miles north of central London. The campus features the largest academic quadrangle in England, ivied walls, and engraved plaques honoring alumni killed in conflict in regions from Somaliland to Tibet. The quadrangle was originally built for the East India College, which was founded in 1806 to educate administrators for the East India Company. The college closed in 1858, and Haileybury opened on the same site a few years later. In 1942 it merged with another empire feeder school. That school’s antecedent had educated Kipling, whom the Haileybury mythos enthusiastically absorbed.

With more than 830 pupils, Haileybury is among the larger of the U.K.’s 1,326 private schools, a category that suffers from confusing nomenclature. Schools so labeled are, like their U.S. counterparts, largely funded by student fees. For esoteric historical reasons, some—including, most famously, Eton College, alma mater of 20 British prime ministers and Princes William and Harry—are referred to as “public schools.” Government-funded schools, which in the U.S. would be the public ones, are called state schools. Whatever they’re dubbed—henceforth we’ll refer to all fee- paying schools as private—they collectively educate about 6% of the British school-age population. They also make up a disproportionate share of the student body at top universities (40% at Oxford, 35% at Cambridge, 32% at the London School of Economics) and of elite British professions (65% of senior judges, 29% of members of Parliament, 43% of journalists, including this one).

Adjusted for inflation, British private schooling has become three times more expensive since 1980. The rise owes in part to a facilities arms race that ran unimpeded until the financial crash of 2008, as schools once synonymous with character-forming privation became increasingly luxe. John Coles, acting headmaster at Haileybury Almaty, recalls that when he started at the main U.K. campus in 2001, the culture was restrictive enough that teachers would file into the masters’ common room for breakfast in mandatory collar and tie. They were given ironed copies of the Times of London to peruse in place of conversation, which was forbidden. Today the rules are looser, and the facilities include at least half a dozen tennis courts, a climbing wall, and a 25-meter swimming pool. The boarding fee has increased commensurately, rising since 2011 from £27,384 ($35,350) to £36,144 for a senior, slightly more than the pretax income of the average British worker.

As fee escalation put private schools beyond the reach of their traditional demographics, they started admitting more students from overseas, but the gambit had limits. Bringing in too many foreign students risked diluting the Harry Potteresque cachet that had attracted their parents in the first place. “They don’t want to have lots of internationals. They want lots of British kids,” says Lorna Clayton, whose company Academic Families places foreign students in U.K. schools. So the schools came up with franchising, which would bring in money and spread tradition without altering the original product, while also providing overseas parents with a more affordable way for their children to attend internationally reputable schools.

The move was led by what David Turner, a former Financial Times education correspondent and the author of a history of English private schools, calls “the second-tier private schools.” The more academic ones stood snobbishly aside. The first foreign institution opened in 1998, when Harrow School (alumni: Winston Churchill, Benedict Cumberbatch), which is socially renowned but not highly academic, started a subsidiary in Bangkok. That institution, like all but one that followed, was a franchise with branding rights paid for by local investors; the lone exception was a Malaysian outpost wholly owned by Marlborough College (Kate and Pippa Middleton). Levels of oversight by the home schools varied, as did the financial return. In selling British parents on the idea, the schools would often tout the bursaries they could now afford to give British children, an easier sell than directly subsidizing the off spring of others.

The early partnerships weren’t necessarily confidence-inspiring. “They all basically got it wrong,” Abell, the lawyer who’s worked on school franchising, says. “Some of them made terrible mistakes.” One institution accidentally gave away its worldwide intellectual-property rights to a Middle Eastern partner.

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