While other sectors remain on tenterhooks, Britain’s private schools are feeling generally bullish about the future and have few fears about the possible impact of Brexit.
That’s according to World Class Education, an inaugural report by Keystone Tutors and Wild Research, which is based on surveys and more than 150 interviews with respected figures in the UK’s independent education sector, including head teachers, admissions officers, specialist consultants, and even relocation experts.
It reveals how high-net-worth (HNW) families around the world view schooling in the United Kingdom, whether their perspectives are changing and, in particular, how they regard Brexit. It also provides advice for parents considering the UK as an education destination, and shows where the country fits in when compared against other popular choices like the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere in Europe.
Significantly, the findings show most respondents – 66 per cent – believe the outcome of continuing negotiations between Britain and the EU will have “no impact” on the attractiveness of education in the UK. Indeed, 6 per cent suggested there would actually be a positive impact, while 28 per cent expressed concern that things might turn negative.
The generally upbeat view was confirmed by results showing 61 per cent of respondents said the overall “appetite” for considering a UK education had not changed over the past 12 months. On this question, 24 per cent of replies felt interest had increased, and only 16 per cent indicated a decrease.
Going further, the report also found that the two greatest motivations for sending children to study in Britain are “quality of education” and the “prestige of the school/ university name”.
For secondary school level, parents say another driving factor is to chance to improve their children’s hopes of winning a place at one of the country’s top universities. While for those only thinking about university options, considerations like culture and lifestyle play a bigger part.
“The UK’s independent schools have long projected an image of excellence, continuity and reliability in this uncertain world,” says Will Orr-Ewing, the founder and director of Keystone. “As this report makes clear, that image continues to resonate with families all over the world. Schools in Britain are not immune to global trends, but we hope that their ambition, dynamism and independence mean they can continue to capitalise on these trends, rather than succumb to them.”
The report’s findings, he believes, paint a positive picture ahead of the UK’s planned departure from the EU in the first half of 2019. In dong so, it also captures the rise of China in two important respects. The first is as a leading – and increasing – source of students attending boarding schools in Britain. The second relates to its role as a destination for well-known UK schools looking to set up overseas campuses and export their “brand” and ethos.
Like tourists, international students bring value and create jobs, and government data shows overwhelmingly that they do not overstay their visas
“We have seen at first hand this appetite for UK education among families based in Asia,” Orr-Ewing says. “We know too from other reports just how central education is to the [hopes and ambitions] of high-net-worth families around the world. And we thought it would be interesting to ask what distinct advantages the UK has in serving this demographic.”
As Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, is quick to highlight, education in the UK makes the second largest contribution to the national economy after financial services. That said, he believes the potential for growth is still immense, provided the authorities do not give the impression of being unwelcoming by, for instance, complicating the process of obtaining student visas.
“Like tourists, international students bring value and create jobs, and government data shows overwhelmingly that they do not overstay their visas,” Lenon says. “What’s more, international students can potentially help to bridge the UK’s high-level STEM skills gap.
“We need to open our eyes to the scale of the opportunity which awaits those with a positive approach. [And we have to understand] the current context of why foreign students come to the UK, what they are like, and what we need to know to manage their future even more effectively.”
However, if high-net-worth families and members of Asia’s fast-growing middle classes are on the lookout for the best education available, that brings certain inevitable consequences.
“Uncomfortable as it may make many people in Britain feel, it is hard to get away from the fact that UK independent schools are some of the most expensive educational investments in the world,” Orr-Ewing says.
Therefore, the report also considers if the levels of fees are justifiable – broadly speaking, it seems that they are – and the priority family offices now accord to education of the younger generation as part of their all-round succession planning.
“Many of the families covered in this report are scouring the world for the best education money can buy for their children and, rationally, are settling on the UK,” Orr-Ewing says.