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UK: independent schools “key” as Brexit nears

The UK government is working to help independent schools expand internationally with a focus on China, Vietnam, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Brazil, delegates heard at the Westminster Education Forum policy conference in October.

Vipul Bhargava, educational technology and international schools specialist at the Department of International Trade. Photo: The PIE

His department was set up post-referendum to identify Britain’s commercial strengths and help companies export abroad

Held in central London, the forum saw discussions about the future of independent schools in the UK, beginning with Lord Bhikhu Parekh asking delegates to consider how the UK’s independent schools might “maintain their competitive international position”.

But Brexit, and clashing policies on fees and charitable status of schools in this sector, threaten the ongoing health of this business sector, according to key stakeholders who spoke with The PIE News.

Caroline Nixon, general secretary of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students, said she was concerned about “our standing and how we look abroad”.

She expanded, “The people I know in international education are saying, ‘we cannot believe that a major political party is threatening independent schools given we are a global world leader’.

“That plays into a side effect of Brexit where people are beginning to look at the UK and the things they thought they knew are all called into question.”

The news of Boris Johnson’s deal with the European Union came in during the forum. Suddenly the discussions about the international expansion of the UK’s independent school sector felt more vibrant – even though the deal has not been approved to date. 

“The main threat is our standing and how we look abroad”

Vipul Bhargava, Educational Technology and International Schools specialist at the Department for International Trade, explained how his department was set up post-referendum to identify Britain’s commercial strengths and help companies export abroad.

“There are about 13 or 14 sub-sectors of which education is one. I think it is pretty amazing that education is considered as a key export given its size, as education is quite small compared to aerospace or defence,” he said.

Key markets the DIT has identified are China – despite recent changes in regulation to international schools – and Vietnam, which has a population of 95 million. A recent Vietnamese government policy has uncapped local student enrolments at foreign-invested schools by 50%.

Other markets include Morocco, where a new agreement for international schools has been signed with Britain, as well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Brazil.

Nixon noted that international students are big business, contributing £1.8bn to the UK’s GDP. The industry “supports a large number of jobs, it generates half a billion pounds a year in tax revenue”, she added.

She told delegates that many of the BAISIS members are small rural boarding schools which are the primary employers in their areas of the UK and provide crucial support to their communities. 

Such schools need international students for revenue, especially now, given the threats posed by VAT on fees and charitable status being removed.

“Schools need that fee revenue because, contrary to the lazy media image of all independent schools being Eton, most independent schools don’t have rich foundations and they rely totally on their fee income,” said Nixon.

“A very large part of it is used to subsidise children in independent schools whose parents could not afford to pay the fees otherwise.”

“55 of the current world leaders have been through some form of British education”

The renown of British education was also highlighted by CEO of the Council of British International Schools, Colin Bell.

“We know that 55 of the current world leaders have been through some form of British education, 38% of Nobel Peace Prize winners again have had a British education, 160 countries worldwide follow our GCSE’s and A-Levels,” he said.

“So our heritage, our innovation, our reputation, is certainly unquestioned.”

The question, according to Bell, is how British schools maintain their reputation, quality, safeguarding, innovation and how they continue to scale up as demand for the British brand of education increases.

With the low value of the pound, international numbers in UK schools have prospered so far, added Nixon.

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