The past few months have been tough for Henry Jiang. Over two decades, he built Grandville International into a successful London-based advisory firm by tapping into a lucrative source of business for fee-paying schools in the UK: growing demand from parents in mainland China for a British education for their children.

Now, coronavirus has reduced this demand and hit his consultancy in its wake. “We are struggling, to be honest,” he says. “With the one-child policy in China [more recently revised to two and then three], safety is always the priority for families. Since the pandemic started, parents and students have become quite worried about coming to the UK, and [most] of those who were studying here have returned home.”

For Jiang, and for many of the schools at which he and other agents have helped place foreign students, Covid-19 has overturned a steady growth in the UK’s appeal to China’s middle classes. As they grew richer, they became more open to educating the next generation abroad.

But fear of Covid-19 infection and the consequent travel restrictions imposed a short-term brake on the international movement of students. And the pandemic also brought to the fore deeper structural problems, including cultural tensions and attitudes.

Recent critics of UK independent schools include the novelist Louis de Bernières, who denounced the physical and mental abuse at his Kent prep school in the 1960s, prompting others to share their own painful experiences. Then came the social media-led Everyone’s Invited campaign, which unleashed shocking contemporary testimonies of sexual harassment and assaults in elite schools.

The question for schools — and the universities that many pupils go on to — is whether, and how soon, flows from China will pick up or if a longer-term downturn will be offset by rising demand from other countries.

Concord College has extensive connections to China
Concord College has extensive connections to China © Alamy

“What you can say about the last 12 months is that it’s been bonkers,” says Neil Hawkins, principal of Concord College, founded in 1949 with an international focus and extensive connections in China, which accounts for 100 of its current pupils. “It’s definitely been fluid and we’ve had more families dropping out than usual. There are complex forces in operation. We won’t be clear for at least two more years if something has really shifted.”

There is no doubt about the scale of the squeeze. The latest annual census from the Independent Schools Council, which represents 1,377 private schools in the UK, showed that 24,674 non-British pupils with parents overseas — 4.6 per cent of the total — were on the roll in January 2021, down 15 per cent from 28,963 a year earlier. Of these, mainland Chinese students comprised the largest single group, at 6,033, and represented the greatest decline: down nearly 27 per cent from 2020. Even among the 29,562 non-British pupils with parents living in the UK — mainly children at day schools — Chinese were the third-largest group after Americans and French, numbering 2,525 (and down nearly 3 per cent).

“It’s been a bad year for some boarding schools financially,” says Barnaby Lenon, chair of the council and former headmaster of Harrow School in north-west London. “Some have had small numbers or stopped boarding. It’s the one area of the independent school sector that has suffered. The big question now is: what will happen this September?”

Some schools were already struggling, especially smaller, rural junior preparatory schools. The drop in foreign demand was the final blow for many, adding to a fall in fee income as children shifted to home learning. David Woodgate, chief executive of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association, says 42 private schools closed in 2020, compared with half a dozen in a typical year.

“The margins are so tight, particularly at some of the smaller prep schools, that even if you lose two or three pupils you can be operating at a loss,” argues Mark Johnson, former headmaster of Cheam School, a preparatory school in Hampshire, and now director of KJ Associates, an education consultancy.

Students with Alex Peterken, headmaster of Charterhouse
Students with Alex Peterken, headmaster of Charterhouse
Charterhouse School in Surrey
Charterhouse School in Surrey © Alamy

Other better-funded private schools are more sanguine, stressing their pastoral strengths at a time of particular stress for foreign students. “We had to do a huge amount more to look after them,” says Alex Peterken, headmaster of Charterhouse, a school in Surrey. “We really worked closely with the families on travel, quarantine, meeting them at airports, being compliant with government rules and keeping facilities open all year round. Families put a lot of faith in us.”

“Covid anxiety” has made it more difficult to plan, says Andy Kemp, principal of the National Mathematics and Science College, a sixth-form school in Coventry, which specialises in teaching international students interested in science, technology, engineering and maths. “Recruiting from China is proving much harder work than I would expect in a normal year. There’s a real lack of commitment from international parents, who are still anxious about whether to sign up. Unusually, we’ve had some on the books for months [expressing interest] who haven’t confirmed yet.”

Many schools are reluctant to provide a breakdown of pupils’ nationalities, in part because of sensitivities in maintaining a good balance between those from different backgrounds — including Britons. As Johnson puts it, “most of the time you are slightly cocooned in schools, and Chinese kids often stick together in little microcosms”.

Roedean, the top day and boarding school for girls near Brighton, says it has 12 mainland Chinese students planning to join in the 2021 academic year, down by half on a year earlier — a decline it attributes in part to the effects of the pandemic. But, as at many of its peers, that dip has been offset by rising demand from families in the UK and other countries, including Hong Kong, where many are emigrating or sending their children abroad as mainland China imposes tighter control.

“I’m optimistic that things won’t change that much,” says Kate Reynolds, head of the Royal High School Bath, which offers boarding and day places. “Looking forward two to three years, I would be surprised if there is a significant drop. It depends on how quickly different countries recover financially, but the value of British education has triumphed.”

For most of 2020, the UK’s reputation suffered as it struggled to control Covid-19. Stuart Rolland, chief executive for Europe at Cognita, which owns 85 schools around the world, says rising demand from countries such as Nigeria offset a drop from China. “The story about how the pandemic was handled in the UK was represented very negatively in the Chinese media.”

Jiang, the educational consultant, argues some students in the UK were also demoralised by hostile attitudes toward Asians. When the pandemic first hit, Chinese families swiftly followed national guidance to suppress the virus and urged their children to do the same by wearing masks, making them stand out at a time when face coverings were not widely used in Britain. “The teachers were not against it, but classmates and roommates were, and told them that if they felt uncomfortable or sick, they should stay at home or go back to their country,” he says.

He also suggests some Chinese families have been sharing wider concerns on social media, including the recent allegations of sexual harassment in British schools. He cites parents who decided to keep their daughter at school in China until she was more mature and the pandemic had abated and then to send her to the UK for university.

Soma Sara, whose Everyone’s Invited site has exposed sexual harassment in schools
Soma Sara, whose Everyone’s Invited site has exposed sexual harassment in schools © Charlie Bibby/FT

Since the Everyone’s Invited website launched this year, it has collected more than 16,000 testimonies of rape and harassment, many from students in top schools and universities. That has sparked fierce debate about whether the problems are disproportionately concentrated in fee-paying schools.

Everyone’s Invited was started by Soma Sara, a woman in her early twenties and a former student at Wycombe Abbey School in Buckinghamshire. “We would very much hope people would not have the response of not sending their child to these places,” she says. “Our intention is to highlight a culture that exists in all schools, universities and societies. It’s about structures and systems that need to be reformed, not about naming and shaming individuals or schools.”

Peterken at Charterhouse says: “The questions I’ve had from parents are about what we are doing to prepare our young boys and girls for the 21st century, including adolescent wellbeing. Any good school should be responding. We have a gender action plan and encourage an open ‘say something’ culture, where kids feel they can come, tell us what’s worrying them in confidence and call out anything that needs to be raised.”

Whatever the reasons for the falling intakes of foreign students to UK schools, it has been offset by a growth in enrolment at international schools in fast-developing regions such as Asia and the Gulf. That includes rising attendance in franchises of well-established British schools, offering co-curricular activities such as music, arts and sport and a more diverse range of academic courses valued by parents and recognised by western universities.

ISC Research, an educational consultancy, estimates that, in China alone, at least 53 new school campuses were scheduled to open in September 2020, albeit including some that postponed their opening because of the pandemic. The consultancy identifies 78 that are set to open in the coming years, of which 37 are branded with the names of UK independent schools.

Chris Seal, principal of Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok, says last year he took back 20 of his Thai students who had moved to senior schools in the UK but returned home to continue their studies as lockdown tightened. A further 10 decided to remain in Thailand rather than leave to start secondary school in the UK.

Seal points to a gradual dilution of the appeal of schools in the UK, in part as their role in helping entry into British universities is weakened as alternative higher education options open up. Rival institutions in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, for example, are offering affordable degrees taught in English, and some of Seal’s students have applied to increasingly well-regarded Thai medical schools. “There is definitely still a market for UK boarding in the traditional top-quality schools, but the numbers have decreased over time,” he says. “I see parents are now hedging their bets and looking at a more diverse range of options.”

While foreign branches and affiliates can provide British schools with an income cushion to offset lost fees at home, setting up in China is becoming more difficult, with tighter political supervision and control of the curriculum, and tougher visa conditions for teachers trained in the UK.

Much of the growth is coming from Chinese-owned international schools. “It’s awful to say we’ve been a beneficiary of Covid, but actually we have,” says Mark Bishop, executive headmaster of Shanghai’s YK Pao School, which is controlled by a Hong Kong-based family. “Normally, we would lose 10-15 students who would go to top UK and US boarding schools. This year, there’s been a reversal. We’ve had 33 from [those countries] applying to join us.”

A final challenge for UK schools seeking to recruit abroad is online learning. While most students and their families are keen to return to the classroom after the pandemic, Nadim Nsouli, head of Inspired Education, a group of 20 international schools around the world, has recently launched King’s College Online. This targets 14-18-year-olds seeking to stick with virtual schooling. “It’s not easy being a teenager,” he says. “We have a few students who joined us because of bullying. It serves a market for people who can’t afford a traditional private school, where there is no suitable provision, they need a more flexible schedule or they are not thriving in their own schools.”

Despite such innovations, Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College in the UK, is confident that international demand will increase. “There’s a sense that the British handle crises very well, and we lost some credibility [early in the pandemic]. Understandably, the Chinese held back. But I think that is short term. By and large, British independent education is still very highly regarded. It’s a wonderfully successful export industry.”

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment

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