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Independent Schools under Covid-19: How has the international market reacted to the crisis?

By Talk Education
28 September 2020

When school closures were announced on 18th March, most schools – state and independent – shut up shop overnight. Overseas pupils returned home, and children, teachers and parents were forced to adapt to a new way of remote learning across countless different time zones. As pupils finally start settling back into school after six months away from the classroom, how have international pupils reacted to the UK’s response to the crisis? What lengths have schools gone to in order to ensure pupils’ safe return? And crucially, how has the popularity of UK independent schools been affected by the impact of Covid-19, at home and internationally? 

At the height of lockdown, the confidence of many international families took a significant knock. ‘It was quite obvious that there was a level of anxiety among international parents about their children potentially not returning to school, because there was a feeling that the UK hadn’t handled Covid-19 as well as it might have done,’ says Andrew Nott, chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS).  

Some parents we spoke to in Hong Kong had made contingency plans to keep their children at home long after lockdown ended, enrolling them in online lessons as an alternative. One expat mother in Singapore told us of risk-averse locals who were planning to withdraw their children from their UK schools completely. 

Fears were exacerbated by the government’s response to the pandemic. Many saw a lack of mask wearing, ongoing blunders with testing and tracing and England’s lighter-touch approach to lockdown as a serious concern. Chinese pupils are the number one nationality in the mix of 29,000 international boarders in British boarding schools – and many of the UK’s measures stood in stark contrast to the more draconian efforts across Asia. 

Most parents recognise, of course, that UK independent schools are among the best in the world. One mother in Lagos told us, ‘There just aren’t enough decent schools here to make parents think twice about not sending their children back to the UK eventually.’ Indeed, the majority of families we spoke to believed that the benefits of sending international students back this term far outweighed the dangers. 

Many nations battled with travel restrictions – and ensuring that families had the means to return their children to school quickly and safely became a top priority. Caroline Nixon, the international director of the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA), stepped in to help, telling us, ‘One of the major problems for Chinese pupils coming back to their UK boarding schools was the lack of flights. The Chinese authorities were only allowing one flight to the UK per airline in and out of China each week. We block-booked seats on two flights through a Chinese travel agent and offered them to our 500+ UK boarding schools for pupils who couldn’t get back any other way.’ 

Once students were back on UK soil, the next obstacle was quarantine. Some schools, including Queen Anne’s Caversham, Repton and Rugby reacted by opening up their boarding houses early – and offered to put pupils up during their mandatory two-week isolation. This was a huge bonus for families arriving from countries excluded from the UK’s travel corridor list – many of whom were considering sending one parent back to the UK with their children as a safety net. 

Heads and staff used their summer holidays to adjust to the new normal. ‘I spent the summer doing webinars for worried parents in various countries, reassuring them it was safe for their children to return,’ says Nixon. The BSA published its own Covid-safe Charter: ‘An additional layer of protection and reassurance for international parents with children at school in the UK,’ said minister of exports Graham Stuart MP, who wrote to all overseas parents with children at school in the UK.  

The document includes guidelines on safe journeys between the airport and school – and a warning that ‘any bullying related to the pandemic will not be tolerated’. More than 350 member schools signed up. ‘Early indications are that this has worked and the vast majority of international boarders have returned to school,’ Nixon told us. 

Some schools are capitalising on their location. Gordonstoun, sandwiched between the sandy beaches of the Moray Firth and the rugged terrain of the Scottish Highlands, has moved music and art lessons outside – and even constructed forest canopies for outdoor lessons. ‘Some families regard Scotland as safer than their home country, due to lower levels of coronavirus and firm government controls on social activity,’ says Lisa Kerr, the school’s principal.  

Others are taking preventative measures. Uppingham tested all pupils and frontline staff before the start of the September term, using a well-established private clinic to avoid putting any additional pressure on the public health system. It plans to do this again at the start of the next half-term. The school has also taken over a local hotel to use as an off-site base for students who need to isolate, allowing the school to continue running as normal. Repton is looking at the possibility of keeping a boarding house open over October half-term to look after pupils who – for practical reasons – can’t return to their families. 

There’s never been a more important time to stay in touch – and many schools have used the pandemic as an opportunity to become more inventive. ‘By switching to virtual open days, more international parents are able to get a taste of life at Gordonstoun without having to travel here,’ adds Kerr. ‘While this has been an extremely challenging time for everyone, we have learned some valuable lessons – and several innovations which parents have found helpful are probably here to stay.’   

In these uncertain times, we suspect British schools will be keener than ever to continue opening their affiliates abroad. UK independent schools have been busy leveraging their reputation to increase their presence on the global market – and many seem largely undeterred by the pandemic. North London Collegiate School and Brighton College both opened outposts in Singapore this term; Harrow plans to launch another five campuses in China by the end of this year.  

It’s a win-win for UK schools; they recoup some of the revenue from their international ventures to top up their own bursary and development coffers. Of course, these sites will never replace their originals (as one father in Hong Kong pointed out: ‘You can’t replicate 450 years of history overnight’), but for expats concerned about sending their children too far from home, these affiliate schools are the next best thing. 

It’s been an unprecedented, topsy-turvy year for schools – but despite the upheaval, everyone we consulted agreed that the UK will always remain a sought-after education destination. And there’s no sign of long-term interest waning: Google searches for the term ‘British private school’ increased threefold at the beginning of July, compared to the same period last year. ‘There is such an insatiable appetite for good schools that I don’t think demand will ever become an issue,’ said one mother in Hong Kong. 

While a small minority of pupils have chosen not to return, numbers aren’t significant enough to be a cause for concern. At Repton, all but six international pupils arrived back in time for the start of term; anyone yet to return is due to be back by January. Rugby, meanwhile, expects all 20 of its students who chose to delay their return to be back within the next few weeks – or January at the latest. The school currently has the highest number of pupils in its history and the international admissions market is as healthy as ever – in fact, there’s been an increase in applications. 

With the ongoing threat of Covid-19 showing no sign of going anywhere; the risk of job losses, mounting political uncertainty and a rise in anti-China sentiment pushing many out of the USA, there’s never been a better moment to profit from the safety and security of a school place in the UK. It’s obvious that boarding schools are very much open for business and the future is still looking bright for the international market.  

‘Most schools, of course, are just “bricks and mortar” without their pupils and staff,’ says Peter Green, executive headmaster of Rugby. ‘They bring the place to life and we missed them so much during remote teaching.’ ‘The buzz of having the boys back is tremendous,’ adds Tom Bunbury, headmaster of Papplewick School. ‘I can happily report that Papplewick is once again full of energetic, enthusiastic boys who are delighted to be back. For those international students who wondered, “Will I see my friends again?” – the joy of being able to do that has just been the greatest pleasure of all to witness.’  

 

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