Selling the Old School Tie in Asia

Although the British school flag is being hoisted in ever-more exotic locations, spreading Her Majesty's version of education appears to be having about as many frustrations as establishing the empire did in the first place. Pioneering work on introducing British education into mainland Chinese schools, for instance, is the latest to have run into trouble.

Dulwich College has shelved a joint-venture project with Beijing No. 80 High School that would have allowed students to apply to both Chinese and foreign universities, Ralph Mainard, deputy master of Dulwich in charge of external relations, said in an interview.

“What they were after was for us to teach students who are not going to be successful in gaining entrance to top Chinese universities,” he said. “What we didn’t want, given that Beijing No. 80 is one of the top high schools, is for the joint venture to be second rate.”

The Shanghai Oxford High School, the first overseas joint venture by the Girls’ Day School Trust, the biggest group of independent schools in Britain, is still waiting for a government license, two years after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on a site in Baoshan District.

“We hope to gain approval in the next few months and open in September 2009,” said the GDST’s China project administrator, Spring Zhu.

Oxford High School is one of Britain’s top-performing schools, chosen by the Girls’ Day School Trust to front its international expansion because “Oxford is a recognised name,” according to Oxford High’s deputy head, Peter Secker. “When people think of Oxford they think of excellence.”

The co-educational school in Shanghai, which can accept 600 pupils aged between 15 and 18, is aimed at mainland Chinese barred by law from attending international schools in China that cater only to expatriate children and those with Hong King passports. The GDST and Dulwich believe there is a potentially huge demand to be tapped from newly affluent Chinese on the mainland who want a more international style of schooling for their children, but who cannot afford to send them abroad.

The hybrid school envisaged for Shanghai is part of a gradual opening of the Chinese educational market, with Western educational institutions trying to nudge the boundaries of what is officially permitted.

“There is distinct interest in Western-style education,” Mainard said. “They want to develop people who are lateral thinkers, good at thinking in new ways, and with new ideas.” The official intent is clearest now with Chinese children of kindergarten age, for whom Dulwich is studying a new joint venture, he added.

The Westernizing approach becomes more problematic among older Chinese students following the gao kao national curriculum, as pressure mounts to pass entrance exams to top universities.

The girls school trust said in a statement that its purpose at Shanghai Oxford High is to provide “enrichment” studies that complement the Chinese curriculum, to provide pupils with the “high-level language skills, creativity and initiative they will need to continue their education at top universities in China and elsewhere. We’re not talking about specific qualifications. We’re talking about a program to help students develop problem-solving and investigative skills, especially in math and sciences.”


Secker of Oxford High admitted there were limits on how much the Chinese curriculum could be enriched. “We can’t put in too much Western-style education, otherwise it might jeopardize the level of Chinese attainment.”

Zhu said a GDST team based in London is developing “English-language modules for all subjects” that students will be able to take in their third year should they wish to apply to foreign universities.

Preparation in London is going ahead despite the lack of a license that has halted construction work on the school in Shanghai’s Baoshan District beside the Yangtze River estuary. Baoshan is home to China’s largest steelmaker, Baosteel, as well as the main campus of Shanghai University. Oxford High’s joint-venture partner, Xing Zhi Senior High School, founded by the famous educator Tao Xingzhi in 1939, is also located there. The Chinese school is renowned for its science teaching.

There are an estimated 2,000 international schools across the globe claiming to operate a ‘British’ curriculum. Unlike American, German, or French schools in foreign countries, these ‘British’ schools do not have to adhere to any standards set by the home government.

“There is nothing to stop anyone setting up a ‘British’ School,’ offering a ‘British’ education, anywhere in the world,” Baroness Morgan, parliamentary undersecretary for children, young people and families, pointed out in October. “The ‘Britishness’ could amount to little more than a Union Jack on the school’s letterhead.”

The UK government has now asked the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which already inspects about 150 British schools overseas, to draft a set of standards for all to follow.

“If there’s no way of finding out which ‘British’ schools are good, and which are bad, the reputation of any school flying the flag will suffer,” Morgan said.

The reason, she added, that a Starbucks skinny latte is the same from Detroit to Dudley is that their quality control is of Stalinist severity,” and “we are dealing with something rather more significant than a cup of coffee.”

‘British’ schools in Asia vary widely in academic quality and outside oversight of standards. Some are franchises of venerable English schools with proud traditions, such as Dulwich College, founded in the southern outskirts of London in 1619, or Shrewsbury, where Charles Darwin studied. Others may lack any formal link to Britain, or be run purely for profit.

Nord Anglia Education Ltd., which operates four schools in China and one in South Korea under the ‘British International School’ brand, was acquired in August by Baring Private Equity Asia for $360 million. The British School of Beijing belongs to a Madrid-based conglomerate, the King’s Group, which also owns five ‘British schools’ in Spain and a boarding school in England, plus language and summer schools in Spain.

The commercial incentive can be a sensitive topic. Matthew Farthing, headmaster of Harrow International School Beijing, bristles at being described as running a “franchise.” The term has “mass-market” connotations suited to McDonald’s hamburger chains, not to the alma mater of Winston Churchill, Pandit Nehru, Lord Byron, Anthony Trollope and King Hussein of Jordan, he insists.


His colleague Mark Hensman, the headmaster of Harrow International School Bangkok, takes credit for introducing Harrow’s famous boater (Harrow Hat) to the Thai campus near Bangkok airport. He also chairs the Federation of British International Schools in South East and East Asia, with 30 member schools in 12 Asian countries and Hong Kong. The website of the federation makes no mention of quality requirements in teaching, or any system of self-regulation.

Among its members is the British International School in Phuket, Thailand. Until 2005, when the mother school terminated its franchise agreement, it was called Dulwich International College, Phuket. “The owners wished to take the school in directions which would not have been compatible with the ethos of the college,” Graham Able, the master of Dulwich College, reported to the governors.

Several months before, chief executive Arthit Ourairat had criticized Dulwich for placing too much emphasis on a British curriculum, and for not caring about “Thai culture.” Arthit, who had served three times as a government minister, was introduced to Dulwich by former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun, an old boy of the school and its honorary international adviser.

Arthit was managing director and chief investor in Prasit Patana, a group of four private hospitals founded by his father. In September 2000, when the signing ceremony to build Dulwich International College in Phuket was being held, Prasit Patana had debts of nearly twice its assets, and in 2001 was placed under court bankruptcy protection.

Prasit Patana was later taken over by Wichai Thongtang, a former lawyer for Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown as Thai prime minister in a 2006 coup d’etat.

Arthit, who is still involved in legal proceedings over Prasit Patana, is chairman of the successor to the Dulwich school. His goal, according to the school’s website, was for the Phuket campus to be “not merely a place where the whole package of western principles and practices are transferred and adopted, but rather a place where western and eastern philosophy, culture and wisdom would blend beautifully.” He adds, “this dream has now been realised.”

The British school flag is being planted elsewhere as well. Haileybury, the US$37,000-a-year boarding school founded by the East India Company to train young Englishmen for India, and the alma mater of Rudyard Kipling, recently opened the first British school in Central Asia, in Almaty, the commercial hub of oil-and gas-rich Kazakhstan.

“They chose us as the result of an accident,” Stuart Westley, master of Haileybury, said in an interview. “We have quite a few Kazakh pupils, all from Almaty, and all drawn here by word of mouth. Two or three of the parents work for Capital Partners, a property developer of hotels, but of a spectacular shopping mall in Moscow. They were interested in establishing a new international school in Almaty.”

Nursultan Nazarbayev, the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan, visited Haileybury Almaty “last week” and suggested to Capital Partners that they open another Haileybury school in Astana, his new desert capital, Westley said.

Haileybury is no stranger to pet projects of Asian leaders. Previously the school was keen to start a franchise in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s new administrative capital. The school was to educate children of foreign diplomats, but when their embassies refused to move from Kuala Lumpur, the project fell apart.

The Dulwich franchise in China has grown from a Shanghai nursery for the less than thirty toddlers, opened by Tony Blair during a 2003 visit, to schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou with a total enrolment of more than 2,000. Last year the college signed a new agreement to expand the franchise globally, and build at least three new schools outside of China by 2013. Mainard said Chinese authorities have also asked Dulwich to expand its international school in Shanghai.

The Beijing school is a converted shopping complex near Beijing Airport. In the wake of a property crash, the mall was left unfinished by the developer Poly Group, the business wing of the People’s Liberation Army. The vacant shops on each level are now classrooms. The PLA retain right of access to a golf-driving range included in the sale to Dulwich, and Chinese generals occasionally visit to practise their strokes.

Dulwich sticks to a well-tried formula of locating schools on the outskirts of big cities, which was why Mainard was “surprised” by the GDST’s project to open another ‘Oxford High’ co-educational school in Lavasa, a new ‘Hill Station Town’ under construction in Maharashtra State. The school will share an educational campus with the Oxford University’s Said Business School.

The GDST describes the project as “exciting,” “visionary,” “prestigious” and a “fantastic opportunity,” but concedes Lavasa is a three-hour drive from India’s financial capital Mumbai, though “there is some discussion about building a highway.”

Felicity Lusk, the headmistress of Oxford High, cancelled her planned December trip to Mumbai because of the terrorist attacks.

“It’s not something we would do,” Mainard said of the GDST’s India project. “Three hours from Mumbai? According to our model, it doesn’t work.”