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Brexit unlikely to impact UK schools

Long an export article, the appeal of a British education in the UAE is expected to remain undimmed

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GN Focus

The names of great British schools are rooted deep in the cultural memory of millions across the globe. In a brand-conscious world, the British school is king.

So in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, the education sector — whose members overwhelmingly voted Remain — trembled. Independent schools in the UK feared a drop in numbers even though the devaluation in sterling provided hope by lowering school fees for foreign students. 

Brighton College Dubai’s Headmaster, Marco Longmore was interested in the generational differences in Brexit voting patterns. It reinforces his belief in the importance of a broad and balanced education: “Education helps people to understand why demographic behaviours such as this exist and also appreciate different view points on major issues,” he says.

The question arises as to what impact Brexit could have on UK schools abroad and indeed whether the highly esteemed British education system might consequently be devalued. There are thousands of English-language schools across the globe and the UAE heads the list with more than 500 international schools teaching some 455,000 students.

British schools  are well represented: Dubai alone has 65 UK-curriculum schools, ten of which are rated outstanding, nine as very good and ten as good by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.  It seems highly unlikely that Brexit will dent this track record. 

“British education is a timeless export recognised all over the world,” says Michael Lambert, headmaster of Dubai College, one of the oldest independent schools in the UAE. “It was a tradable currency long before Britain joined the EU in the 1970s and will remain so long after Brexit. There are very few, if any other curricula, which are seen as an educational gold standard the world over and are consequently globally transferable.

“The central tenets of the Western style of teaching and learning — critical thinking, collaboration and creativity — are the 21st century skills which the World Economic Forum predicts will be most in demand by 2020,” he adds. 

Branded education

Just two decades ago wealthy Asian families — whether Emirati, Chinese or Indian — could only achieve a British education for their children by sending them to a boarding school in England. All that changed with the franchising of famed UK schools. 

Notable among them are Harrow International Hong Kong and Wellington Bilingual Shanghai. Opening this year is Brighton College Dubai, whose mother campus in East Sussex may soon count  Prince George  of Cambridge among its students. It joins a list that includes Repton Dubai, Malvern College and Cranleigh Abu Dhabi.  

Britain’s huge success in selling its brand identity around the world is a remarkable story. Much of this new educational empire has been built since the turn of the millennium, including franchised British schools. Now with the growing uncertainty thanks to Brexit, can the British school brand still rule the waves? 

Curricula such as the International Baccalaureate and the International Primary Curriculum continue to gain strength. Could parents perhaps feel that a European, American or even Chinese school system may serve their offspring better in the future? Will they in short abandon the new crop of British franchised schools? 

Sustained demand

John Hutchinson, chief officer of Gabbitas Education who has been looking at the Brexit issue in-depth, believes not. “We are confident that brand Britain is secure in the global education sector and will remain in high demand for decades to come,” he says. 

On one point almost all voices are agreed. English is the international language of commerce and this will not change despite the now famous statement made (in English) by Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, at the Florence conference of 2017 that “English was losing importance”.

This core asset of  a British education cannot easily be undone. Architect, Andrew Lemon of property development company Xtreme Vision, who has lived in the UAE  since 1998, put both his children through the school system in Dubai and is a passionate advocate of the international school system. He feels  Brexit is a side issue at best. “Personally I don’t think Brexit will impact education here much, if at all. I’m afraid to say I am in the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s camp. My view is that it will be like the Y2K millennium bug when the world was going to end and then nothing happened.” 

The independent schools sector is grappling with the same economic challenges faced by global businesses. And education is a multibillion industry today — in Britain alone independent schools are calculated to contribute  £11.7 billion (Dh58.24 billion)   to gross value added (GVA). This pot of gold is naturally attractive to start-ups everywhere in the world.

In theory anyone can start a British school, so parents will want the reassurance of the known brand. 

There are those who ask whether branded schools are a good development. Harrow-educated Charles Pocock, Director of the Meem Gallery, Dubai, is not convinced schools such as Harrow International Hong Kong are on the same level as his alma mater. He does not mean the 300-acre leafy estate in North London or the ancient charter granted by Elizabeth I that it boasts, but the quality of schooling. “They are more about teaching kids to pass exams than giving them an education,” he says. This is arguably a good thing given the importance attached to recognisable qualifications by universities and global business. 

Lambert believes  students who studied the English national curriculum tend to significantly outperform other curricula in new tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. “As governments increasingly cotton on to this fact, you are going to see the continued rise of British education the world over,” he says. 

With Dubai’s population expected to reach 5 million by 2030, the emirate will soon require more than 100 new schools. Some may feel that Brexit should drive them to consider a curriculum that is less UK-focused but at present, according to Gabbitas Education, over 30 per cent of all the independent new builds still opt for the English curriculum. 

“The British independent school brand is more than safe; it excels,” says Gabbitas Director, Tim Wilbur.