Why the world is buying what we're rejecting
British education is one of our most valuable exports, so why don’t we shout about it?
Nestled among the rigid straight lines of post-war housing on the outskirts of The Hague is the British School in the Netherlands. A metallic box of a building, it wouldn’t look out of place on one of the many industrial estates that line the road from Schiphol Airport to the Netherlands’ civic centre.
But the school, in its peaceful corner of suburbia, has quietly developed a reputation as being among the best in the world. Hugely popular among the expatriate community and upper-class Dutch families, it also regularly attracts about 50 to 100 applications for each of its vacant teacher posts.
The reason for the school’s excellent reputation, at least according to its principal Martin Coles, is simple: it is because it is British, and it follows the English national curriculum.
“People believe that British education has order and discipline, that it makes sure its pupils don’t go off the rails,” Coles says over his morning coffee and croissant. “The uniform is a signal of that. People really buy into that. We’re the only school in the Netherlands with a uniform, and in UK terms it’s hardly recognisable as a uniform.”
While schools such as Coles’ trade heavily on the ideal of the British independent school system - names such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester carry a long way across the oceans to parents in far-flung lands - it is the more progressive English national curriculum used in state schools that most parents are keen on.
“Parents want the wide range of extracurricular activities that the British education system provides, but that the German or French systems don’t,” Coles says. “But they also prefer our more liberal approach to teaching and learning.
“It’s not drills, it’s not what (education secretary) Michael Gove wants - standing up in class learning poetry off by heart. It’s a more interesting curriculum compared with, say, the French or German (one). Parents buy into that, particularly at primary level.”
The British School in the Netherlands caters for the children of the employees of Anglo-Dutch petrochemical giant Shell, which has its headquarters in the city. It also teaches the children of people working at the myriad transnational organisations based in The Hague, such as the International Criminal Court and Europol. Around a third of the school’s pupils come from British families, with the next largest national group being the Dutch. Overall, it caters for more than 80 nationalities.
It is because of institutions such as this that “British-style” schools have become increasingly influential and a potentially lucrative export for the UK. Just how much they are worth to the UK economy is hard to pin down, but analysts have estimated that the figure for education overall, including universities, is somewhere between £7 billion and £15 billion a year.
Even if the real figure is closer to the lower end of that scale, education would be worth more to the UK economy as an export than either the drinks industry or the iron and steel business. A less conservative estimate would place education at the level of the pharmaceutical industry in terms of its value to the country.
The higher education sector is the powerhouse within the British education export brand, but the worldwide growth of international schools has made the primary and secondary sectors difficult to ignore. According to ISC Research, a company that monitors international schools, the whole schools market - encompassing US schools, French schools and so on - is already worth £24 billion each year and it is expected to double over the next decade as countries in emerging economic regions look for more high- quality schooling.
“International schools are already big business,” says Nicholas Brummitt, managing director of ISC Research. “They have attracted the attention of governments the world over as well as powerful commercial organisations, and they are no longer a small group of schools for expatriate families. They are considered the key to the future for many non-English-speaking families around the world.”
Power and influence abroad
Over the past 10 years the market has doubled in size, with more than 6,000 international schools open, staffed by around 80,000 British teachers. Nearly half teach the English national curriculum either in part or in its entirety. Brummitt expects the number of such schools to nearly double again by 2021, to approximately 10,000.
With such figures, one would expect the UK government to be clamouring to be at the forefront of such a fast-growing global market. But so far, politicians have shown only a passing interest in the performance of Britain’s international schools.
If anything, the sector has found itself battling against the government, in the shape of the latter’s overseas cultural and educational charity, the British Council. Rather than supporting schools abroad, the council often establishes its own language schools in direct competition.
“Our schools are a big national asset that need support from all arms of government, of which the British Council is one,” says Trevor Rowell, chairman of the Council of British International Schools (Cobis), a membership organisation that accredits British international schools. “We would like to see clearer focus on what role the council plays in this area.”
One overarching problem is that the government has difficulty in figuring out which of its departments should be responsible for international schools: historically, they have fallen between multiple stools, including the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and even UK Trade and Investment.
Rowell says that Cobis has written to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, seeking reassurance, as the government has so far regarded British education overseas as the purview of higher education, and ministers have only recently begun to realise the importance of international schools to the UK.
Their reach is unquestionable. It stretches from Europe - particularly Spain, where many of the country’s wealthiest children are educated in English-speaking, British private schools, studying the English national curriculum - and across the world from South America to Japan. The children who are taught in these schools are generally the sons and daughters of affluent diplomats, businessmen and women, and expatriates working for some of the biggest companies in the world.
And it is for this reason that headteachers in the leading British schools believe that ministers should take greater interest in the work they are doing.
“The government should realise the power and cultural influence we can have as schools,” Coles says. “The kids in our classrooms are most likely going to be the leaders of tomorrow. One of our schools is probably teaching the next treasury minister of the Chinese government.
“The reason people choose our schools is because they want to get their children into the top universities, where they go on to read international relations or politics at Oxford or Cambridge.”
As he talks, the current crop of Year 11 pupils is sitting GCSEs. The majority of them will be answering questions on Shakespeare in their third or fourth language. Having access to such minds and introducing them to the British way of life could provide significant advantages to the UK in the future, Coles argues.
“It makes it much easier to do business, either political or commercial, with someone who has had a British education and gone through the British system,” he says. “They are likely to have some empathy with Britain as a result.
“If you are negotiating a big oil contract with someone from Azerbaijan and they happened to have gone to a British school then it is going to be a lot easier.”
And while the UK dithers, other countries are seizing the opportunities that international schools can offer. Already, the Australian, Canadian, French, German and US governments are actively supporting their international schools, with most providing funding for these cultural outposts.
A ‘Kitemark’ for schools
American schools are British institutions’ fiercest competitors, but they are seen as too rigid. The American way of doing things is often judged to be less transferable to an international context than the British, as it is geared towards access to US universities.
But the US State Department is taking an increasing interest in the work its international schools are doing and British schools want the same kind of attention from the UK government, with official recognition and a seal of approval.
“What we want is a ‘Kitemark’,” says Mark Leppard, principal of Doha College in Qatar. “If you look at all the other schools, from Germany to the US, their governments put a ‘Kitemark’ on them, but the UK does not.”
It may seem like a trifle for schools to be getting upset over, but the international school sector suffers from bad press more than any other part of the education system. While most schools provide excellent teaching and facilities, it is all too easy for an enterprising local businessman to set up an ersatz version, with bad teaching and facilities, and charge the earth in fees. And parents are keenly aware of this phenomenon.
“They really do look for a stamp of approval,” Leppard says. “There are some schools that are brilliant in this region, but there are others that I would deter my staff from going to work in, let alone send children to.
“There are schools where the fees go up, but the parents are still having to pay for books and the facilities are not being improved, the money is just going into someone’s pocket.”
In the past couple of years, the DfE introduced its Standards for the inspection of British schools overseas, a scheme whereby international schools can volunteer to be inspected. However, without an official seal of approval it is hard for schools to protect the British “brand”.
Therefore, although the move has been welcomed by British schools worldwide, many are concerned that it does not go far enough. Moreover, many feel not only that the UK government does not pay enough attention to international schools as booming businesses in themselves but also that politicians ignore the fact that such schools can be part of a strategy to attract future international investment.
“British schools are a fundamental factor in securing British investment overseas and that is something that is not lost on the embassies,” says David Porritt, headteacher of one of three junior schools at the British School in the Netherlands.
Porritt worked for a number of years at the Tanglin Trust School in Singapore. He says the success of the school had a tremendous impact on the level of investment and the quality of personnel it attracted. “The embassies are all too aware that without a top-quality British school in emerging markets such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, British companies will not be able to take their top people.
“They simply will not go unless there is a good school for their kids. They are all in their forties and they all have small children. They are successful people and they believe in education - that is why they are successful. It’s self-perpetuating and it is vital to the British interest overseas.”
But while Britain’s education system might be vital for the UK’s interests beyond these shores, those at home do not always give this fact due consideration. Both the education secretary and the prime minister David Cameron have repeatedly pointed out the supposed failings of the country’s education system since coming to power in 2010. And according to Coles, ministers are all too often unaware of the damage they are doing to the British education brand when they claim that GCSEs are too easy or A levels not rigorous enough.
“What we would like politicians to bear in mind is that there is a valuable international audience out there, which sees A levels and GCSEs as the gold standard,” he says. “When a government minister lays into A levels, (they should) try to take into account that (they) are ruining a British export.”
Coles and his fellow international school leaders hope that the language of trade - of imports and exports - will be the kind that this government understands best. And as he ambles down his school’s corridors, filled with pupils speaking perfect English in countless different accents, Coles makes his point succinctly. “We’re not after money,” he says. “All we want is a little recognition and, when we need it, a little support from the government.
“Basically, we just want people to realise the crucial role we play in the UK economy.”
BUYING THE BRAND
2,728 - Number of schools using the English curriculum globally, in part or in full
46% - Proportion of all international schools using the English curriculum
80,000 - Number of British teachers working in schools overseas
£15bn - Highest estimated value to the UK of education-related exports
£26bn - Estimated worth to the UK of education-related exports by 2025
4% - Annual growth rate of education-related exports.
Illustration by Adam Simpson