Is a British Education (Still?) the Best in the World for Power and Influence? Does it matter? Updated.
Is a British education the best in the world – and in what ways? For many parents, the choice of a British curriculum is still driven by the reputation of its delivering the “gold standard” education for children – culminating in equally gold standard A Levels and a bullet proof spring board into top tier universities, roles in business and industry worldwide. So too a driver for choosing British schools often remain the networking contacts that follow and last a lifetime.
UK independent schools and universities have a significant population of international students – so much so that the British government treats the numbers as a fundamental part of its foreign policy and accumulation of soft power.
In ISC schools (which make up around 80% of the 620,000 total number of pupils in circa 2500 independent schools in the UK), there are currently around 25,000 non-British pupils whose parents live overseas, which represented around 4.5% of the total ISC pupil population in 2021. This reduced because of the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic but In 2020, there were circa 30,000 students, around 5.5% of total pupils – this probably a more indicative figure.
55% of non-British pupils whose parents live overseas choose ISC schools in the sixth form (Years 12 and 13). 88% of non-British pupils whose parents live overseas board. By far the largest numbers of overseas pupils come from China.
In addition, around 81 overseas campuses of ISC schools educate another circa 53,000 pupils. This has grown from 69 campuses and 46,407 pupils in 2020:
“There are, therefore, more pupils being educated in overseas campuses than there are overseas pupils in ISC schools in the UK.”
ISC. Census 2021.
Far more illuminating, the ISC estimate that, in total, there are around six thousand British schools in total worldwide – these defined as schools that are “UK-orientated.” A British education at any level buys children into a network that is at the least linked by language, and more broadly, culture – and with qualifications that open doors. Alternative curricular schools open up different “clubs” – but they are by definition not British. Many still believe, on the numbers, that this Britishness counts for something.
The 2020 Soft Power Ranking, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), finds that over 1 in 4 countries around the world have a Head of State and/or a Head of Government educated in the UK. This places the UK second to the US in the rankings (58 countries) a drop from its first place ranking in 2017 where 58 leaders of 49 different countries had studied at a higher level in the UK – compared to 57 leaders of 51 different countries who had studied in in the US. In 2020, 57 leaders of 52 different countries studied at a higher level in the UK, compared to 62 leaders of 58 different countries who studied in the US and over 25% of countries (53 out of 195) were led by someone educated in the UK.
HEPI Research: World Leaders Educated in Countries other than Their Own.
|United States of America||57||58||62||61||65|
Take just one example, since the 70’s, hundreds of leading Emiratis have graduated from the Royal Military College including Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed attended Gordonstoun. Top British schools have educated a who’s who of historic figures, politicians and leaders in the global Arts and Sciences…
Even as questions are asked about the future of Britain’s royal family in the wake of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s Caribbean Royal Tour, the draw of British celebrity and royalty seem relatively undiminished, at least if measured in media coverage.
In the UAE, the draw of big brand schools like Brighton College Abu Dhabi, Royal Grammar School Guildford Dubai, Kent, Cranleigh, Repton, Durham School Dubai, and North London Collegiate, is built in no small part on capturing, accurately, the very best of what a British education provides – schools that take you directly to the “real thing.” Even outstanding schools, say, like Dubai College, JESS, DESSC and the British School of Al Khubairat cannot compete on these celebrity terms – however deserved their reputations in delivering an outstanding education for children and their Tier 1 “local” brand status.
Muddling matters still further, China is now removing entirely the branding of international schools, arguably in a not too dissimilar manner to the removal of branding on cigarette packets in many parts of the world – with all that remains a health warning.
Arguably it is hard to argue against the power of these drivers with parents. It seems for many that child happiness is still not a primary driver – otherwise you would expect much more demand for truly child-centred progressive schools like Summerhill over the Eton’s, Winchester’s and Harrow’s of British education. And it is not as if British schools, however elite, have avoided controversy. Debates about the lifetime psychological impacts of boarding and culture on mental health are still discussed, even excluding the more extreme individual examples of British schools failing children.
Perhaps the best known alternative for cache are the Swiss boarding schools. Even in elite circles, the Swiss “finishing school” remains the icing on a grand cake initially founded on a British education. But even the highest fees cannot guarantee a happy education. Institut Le Rosey, the private Swiss IB curriculum boarding school, for example, has annual fees rising to AED 550,000 – and, as with other Swiss boarding schools, educates a significant share of the children of the world’s wealthiest families, including royalty. Its alumni stretch from the Rockefeller dynasties to the Shah of Iran, and King Juan Carlos of Spain. But it too has been subject to legal action by a family for bullying and racism, even seeking to silence the claims in the courts.
Ultimately, what drives parents, so the argument goes, is securing the best possible outcomes for their children – and, at every level, that means ensuring, maintaining or perpetuating their eventual wealth, cache and power. For some parents this will be a bleak and depressing analysis. But look at the fascination for exam league tables every year and it is hard to question that this ranks highly in the list of attributes parents look for.
But just perhaps there are other places we should, and increasingly are, looking, for what truly makes schools outstanding. In this context, you will find many cases of families who have moved on from these older metrics, having direct experience of schools that have made their children unhappy, or worse. For these parents, a school that offers their child a happy education becomes absolutely, and beyond peradventure, the most important, all encompassing, single factor that matters in choosing a school. It is when education fails individual children, and their parents, that what really matters becomes dramatically clear – and child welfare and happiness tops that list.
For many more families today, exam results and cache are simply not nearly enough. Child happiness is no longer a “nice to have.” In the UAE, creditably, you will rarely find a school that does not now focus at least in part on the happiness of children – and we know that the KHDA, the Dubai school’s regulator, rates it absolutely integral to what makes a school outstanding. Look through the mission statements of British schools today, big brand or otherwise, and you will find a nod to the softer, and older, British educational values of supporting the underdog, and basic human kindness, now ranking higher on what makes their Britishness mean something. An example can be found here. Schools like Victory Heights, Horizon, Hartland International, both Safa British and Safa Community Schools and South View School (and there are others) place happiness absolutely centre stage – and tellingly that transforms into results when you look away from baldly stated test scores into added value. Parents choose these schools not because of brand – but because they care about their children, and their children come home happy and adoring school.
A new democratisation of power is also emerging in the digital economy. ‘Who you know’ is not a golden ticket into Silicon Valley in the way that an old British family name still is in British banking. Creativity, innovation, flair and imagination rank much higher for the Googles of this world and other upstart disruptors that increasingly dominate and create the economic and cultural world around us. Perpetuating elites is no longer fashionable – you are ever more likely to secure a role in the BBC if you don’t proffer up received pronunciation and stuffy privileged white Britishness.
Maybe, just maybe, then, the future, power and meaningfulness of a British education and its undoubted power rests increasingly today in a different focus on traditional British ethics: those built around kindness, an embrace, rather than rejection, of wokeness, internationalism, the avoidance of arrogance in favour of confidence, and the questioning of historic associations with privilege, results and the elite. If so, British schools in the UAE, precisely because of the international context in which they operate at the meeting point of East and West, pioneering approach to forging their own way in the world, and the pioneering work of regulators like the KHDA, really do shine a light on how British schools will, and must, evolve if a British education is to maintain its crown as the best in the world.
More progressive, not less. Child happiness first, not last. Breadth of curriculum, not only subjects catering to the academic or limited world views of subjects that count. Schools that define achievement individually for every child, not through sterile exam tables. Schools celebrated for the love that children have for them, rather than the fame or bank balances of their parents. Schools that judge themselves on delivering the happiest most inspirational days of all our lives, not the worst, or delivering a tired old exercise in stiff upper lip, snobbery, resilience and survival. Recognition that power and influence count for nothing if you do not know how to wield them.
The world is changing – and many of us who have been through the worst excesses of a British education, will be breathing a sigh of relief. All this, however, whilst remembering the best of a British education and the values that really counted, those that never got lost, in making a British education something to be both proud of, and, in terms that count, valuable.
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