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With its glass-and-metal exterior and state-of-the-art acoustics in a 1,000-seat auditorium, the sleek Paul & Henri Carnal Hall seems fit for a leading global metropolis. But while it attracts top international musicians, the building nestles like a grounded spacecraft in the tiny Swiss town of Rolle on Lake Geneva.
It is the most eye-catching recent addition to the Institut Le Rosey, one of the most expensive and elite schools in the world. Sitting in its own 28-hectare park, the school has tennis courts, swimming pools, stables and a farm that flank buildings centred on a remodelled 14th-century castle. Off-site, it owns a campus in the Alps and a yacht berthed on the Mediterranean.
With fees of more than $100,000 a year, Le Rosey claims to offer a rounded, multicultural “school for life” to a tight network of students. It merits scrutiny as one of an exclusive group of high-charging institutions, at a time of debate over rising inequality and the emergence of a new class of rich sealed off from the rest of society.
Its educational model would be impossible to replicate on any significant scale, but the tuition charges — and the extras — are of little concern to the well-heeled parents of most of its 420 students, drawn from around the world.
There are scant concessions to the talented poor: 30 pupils attend because their parents are teachers on campus and another three each year have partial scholarships. The rest pay the full rate. Like several other elite Swiss schools established in the late 19th century, control remains in the hands of a single family, which insists overheads, rather than profits, drive the pricing.
“I could strip out 10 per cent of the costs and add 30 per cent to the fees, but it’s not our goal to make money,” says Christophe Gudin, the school’s fifth director-owner, a former pupil who took over the management from his parents in 2015 after studying for an MBA at Insead and working for consultants McKinsey. “There have been many approaches to buy us, but that would change the integrity of the school.”
“We are against donations,” he adds, sitting in his glass-walled office with views across the school’s central courtyard. “We want to remain fully independent. We feel we can do what we want without constraints. I’ve talked to many heads who couldn’t expel a child because the parents were donors, and others who spend 20-60 per cent of their time fundraising.”
A stroll round the premises gives an indication of the overheads. The SFr45m ($46m) Carnal Hall was inaugurated in 2014 and named after Le Rosey’s founder, who opened the school in 1880, inspired by the UK boarding system. A new science and technology centre is due to open in 2022, designed to foster entrepreneurship, with start-up companies in residence.
Most classrooms have just a small scattering of desks: with 150 full-time teachers and more than 20 part-time, the average class size is 10 pupils. Rachel Gray, head of music and artistic director, coordinates 350 private lessons a week in a wide range of instruments, even bagpipes. “We offer too much,” she says.
Le Rosey students receive a distinctive education. To maintain cultural if not social diversity, a maximum of 10 per cent of pupils are allowed from a single country or language group. Pupils opt to study in English or French and must continue complementary lessons in their mother tongue. They can take the International or the French Baccalaureate, and 30 per cent go on to study at either one of the elite Russell Group of UK universities or a US Ivy League institution; 60 per cent of students go to universities in the US.
“Kids come because it’s a multicultural, multilingual . . . melange, a huge melting pot,” says Joannah Spencer, head of the junior school. “We are educating them in the hope they will go on to become global voices and leaders.”
Traditionally “Roseans” were drawn from the aristocracy, including Prince Rainier of Monaco, King Juan Carlos of Spain, the Shah of Iran and the Aga Khan. In more recent years, the rolls have included French hedge fund manager Arpad “Arki” Busson and the American singer Julian Casablancas. Now the intake from 71 countries includes families with more freshly minted fortunes from Russia and eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Ian, a student from Bulgaria, says: “My parents chose Le Rosey because they want me to be successful in life.” Martin from Colombia says: “I was inspired by Percy Jackson’s boarding school,” referring to the fantasy novels by Rick Riordan. He did his research online and suggested his parents send him.
Rob Gray, the headmaster, says successful applicants — 10 students apply for every place offered in the senior years — will normally show an interest in sports as well as academic work. “We offer sports, arts, boarding. If you don’t enjoy any of those, you will have a tough time. If you are only interested in bling, money and nice clothes, you probably won’t enjoy it.”
Le Rosey emphasises activities outside the classroom, bringing its lessons right to the ski slopes. Ever since 1916, when Henri Carnal, the founder’s heir, decided to decamp to Gstaad to cheer up the handful of pupils who remained in residence during the war, the school has shifted its entire operation to a second campus that dominates the Alpine resort for its January to March term.
All year round, students take part in ritual défis, or challenges, such as swimming around a nearby island in Lake Geneva. Those who perform well in academic and sporting activities earn up to three “eagles”, which give them additional privileges.
If only to reassure parents, the school’s rule book warns that smoking and drugs are not tolerated; it checks on the latter with frequent random testing. It also provides more traditional guidance. “Table manners are dictated by Swiss custom,” it states. “One eats with a straight back and with the hands, but not the elbows, on the table. One eats by lifting the food to the mouth and not by moving the head closer to the plate.”
Yet Ed Coetzer, a South African who taught at a UK boarding school before joining Le Rosey, where he runs one of its houses, says there is much less red tape and far greater resources compared with the UK. “When I came here, it just blew my mind,” he says. “It’s a bit of paradise.”
But how far does the gilded circle of Roseans limit their broader experience of — or empathy with — the rest of society? “I thought I’d be surrounded by a bunch of spoilt brats, but they are normal kids with the same issues as others. In many ways they are well grounded. They don’t splash the cash or talk about what their parents do,” he says.
Gudin points to the school’s partnerships in Mali and Kenya for students and teachers, as well as projects working with refugees in Greece. He says the school “didn’t work out” for a few students, including the children of some film stars. But he argues: “Wealth is out of the equation because they know they all come from wealthy families.”
Felipe Laurent, who finished his studies at Le Rosey in 2010 and is now its director of communications, says if one thing has changed, it is that his peers are having a “quarter-life crisis” and seeking to establish their own career path, rather than just inheriting their parents’ wealth or taking over the family business. New money may be bringing new types of students to the school, but money is certainly still required.
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