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English is not only the language of business, it is also the lingua franca of privilege and it is set to become even more so. It is already used by many of the young heirs to the world’s wealth and in 10 years’ time, twice their number are likely to be fluent in English, if forecasts by an educational consultancy hold true.
The number of children enrolled in English-language international schools is expected to grow from 4.16m in 2016 to 8.75m by 2026, according to research published in February 2016 by International School Consultancy, which has been charting the growth of these schools for more than 30 years.
“There is huge demand the world over for quality education and international school enrolment is increasingly dominated by the richest 5 per cent of non-English-speaking parents who want their children to compete on the global stage,” says Nicholas Brummitt, the consultancy’s chairman.
For the newly and truly wealthy, not only is money no object, but there is rarely any historical connection with a particular school. So what influences their choices?
“The UK influence is disproportionately the highest in the world,” says Kevin Ruth from the Education Collaborative for International Schools, a non-profit organisation that provides market intelligence as well as professional training. He says that influence can be seen through schools’ choice of curriculum and in the institutions that many families prefer.
Despite the rapidly expanding range of English-language international schools — the International School Consultancy says that there were 8,178 from January 1 compared with 2,584 in 2000 — many parents are determined to ignore the increasingly large number of institutions on their doorsteps and consider sending their children to board instead. Education advisers say the best British boarding schools continue to be seen as the gold standard in terms of quality of education but that some have already become victims of their own success.
The advisers say that in some institutions there are so many overseas students that native English speakers are vastly outnumbered. Often the first to complain are the overseas parents who have invested considerable amounts of money to ensure their child learns English and is immersed in British culture.
It is hard to quantify how widespread the problem might be. The recently published annual census report from the Independent Schools Council, which represents 1,280 institutions, or about half of the total number of independent schools in the UK, shows that non-British pupils whose parents live overseas represent just 5.3 per cent of the total pupil population surveyed, the same percentage as last year and a proportion that it says has not changed significantly in 30 years.
“Over the past few years a number of commentators have pointed towards large increases [in the proportion of overseas students] not borne out by the statistics, and unfortunately this perception has stuck,” says Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council.
However, Susan Hamlyn, director of the Good Schools Guide, an advisory service, insists that the proportion of foreign students at many of the UK’s most prestigious schools has grown significantly. She points out, for example, that 20 per cent of pupils at the well-known Benenden School, for girls aged between 11 and 18, were from overseas in 2016.
At Stonar School, known for its equestrian facilities, the proportion jumped from 10 per cent in 2003 to 70 per cent in 2016.
Hamlyn says the problem of overpopulation with overseas students has not been picked up by the Independent Schools Council simply because it does not represent all independent schools.
“There are quite a lot of schools that would not survive without international students,” she says.
International demand for an English-language education is a lucrative business. A number of advisers say they have begun to notice a two-tier fee system for boarding school pupils, with some schools charging a higher rate for international boarders.
“They’re saying it’s for extra services like English classes or help with visa applications, but 10 years ago the fees were uniform,” says Les Webb, managing director of Education Advisers.
Among those with a two-tier charging system is the most expensive boarding school in Britain, Queen Ethelburga’s College, that asks for £34,434 for domestic boarders at sixth form and £42,471 for overseas sixth form children.
Steven Jandrell, principal of Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate, explains that the difference is due to the additional tuition received by international students. “All of our international students receive a full programme of English tuition in addition to their normal educational programme and the cost of this is reflected in the fees,” he says. “Also the expenses involved in admission and enrolment of overseas students are far more than for UK students.”