In a class of their own

5 July 2008, Financial Times

By Catherine Moye

OVERSEAS INTEREST IN BRITISH SCHOOLING IS FUELLING THE DEMAND FOR HOUSES IN PRIME AREAS, writes Catherine Moye

Like Oxford’s spires, British fee-paying schools evoke notions of educational perfection. For many affluent non-Britons, names such as Eton and Harrow share a pedigree with buildings such as Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s cathedral: traditional British institutions that cannot be out-sourced to China.

Thus many overseas parents move to the UK, be it as non-domiciled aliens or relocators, as buyers or renters, full or part-time. Their search for British schooling for their children helps fuel demand for housing in prime areas, especially in London.

“Business, tax and education are the main reasons that overseas nationals come to live in London,” says Richard Sharples of buying agency Property Vision. “The perception is that the British [education] system is the finest in the world and most people think it’s a good idea for their children to learn English. There’s also an element of prestige in having your child go to Harrow or wherever.”

That might be the case but securing your child a place at Britain’s most venerable scholastic institutions can be like obtaining a seat at King Arthur’s round table – especially for an overseas national. Pressure on places is tough and growing and only a lucky few are admitted.

“We get hundreds of overseas enquiries. I would say that number has more than doubled in the past three years,” says Kirsty Shanahan, communications manager of Harrow school, where fees are approximately £26,500 a year. “The bulk of the increase is from the emerging economies of India, Russia and China.”

Yet only about 10 per cent of Harrow’s pupils are from outside the UK, according to Shanahan. “That’s been fairly consistent throughout. It’s not set in stone but we do keep one eye on the quota, otherwise it’s not good for the school as a whole.”

Historically the overseas clientele were wealthy parents from Asia, the Middle East and commonwealth African countries. They sent their children to British public schools that they had almost invariably attended themselves before going on to the universities of Oxford or Cambridge. (In Britain, in one of those quirks apparently designed to fox foreigners, independently run, fee-charging schools are termed “public” because historically pupils were gathered in public to be taught rather than privately at home by a tutor).

“To a certain extent it’s snob value and the fact that children are worked much harder in the English publics school system than, say, the American system,” says buying agent Robert Bailey, many of whose clients want second homes for education related reasons. “That is, the American system is more sports-led and a lot less arduous academically. We are very results-orientated.”

The attraction of a British boarding school is also perhaps an unconscious backlash against the globalised era of You Tube, the IPod and the other relentless technology assailing children. The public school boarding house is seen as a bastion of discipline and offers the original and unsurpassable version of social websites such as Facebook and Bebo: the old school tie network. Not that all parents are up to speed with the protocol. “I am constantly being asked if I can try and pull a few strings and, you know, offer a school a sizeable ‘donation’,” says Bailey.

Education consultant Martin Humphrys says he has never been so inundated with requests for schools and has witnessed a marked increase in interest from emerging countries, especially Russia and China.

”The demand for places is very high at the moment,” says Humphrys. “We’ve been in that situation for about the past nine years.” But if overseas parents’ dreams for their children are somehow bound up with the public school system, Humphrys reckons that 99 per cent of his job is about managing their expectations.

“Places are at a premium in the key schools such as Eton and the entrance exams are incredibly tough for children whose first language isn’t English,” he explains. “And there are certain schools that, if parents haven’t registered their child by the age of 10 and a half they’re not going to get them in at 13.”

Even if the star names are over-subscribed, Humphrys is firm in his conviction that British public schools offer the best education in the world. “London especially has excellent schools, from nurseries right through to senior schools,” he says. “People come here because you will not find schools bettered anywhere.”

Although there are no specific statistics on how many overseas nationals relocate to the UK to buy second homes, many parents will want somewhere in the capital for family get-togethers, especially during boarding school holidays. To that extent their housing needs are more prêt-a-porter than couture.

“These buyers are looking for easy maintenance, lock-up-and-leave apartments that are secure, with 24-hour porterage,” says Camilla Dell of buying agents Black Brick Property Solutions. “They want them in safe areas such as St John’s Wood or Knightsbridge for when the children reach 16 or 17 and stay there by themselves, and that are good for public transport.”

But matching the right child to the right school often means looking outside London.

“The most important thing is that the school is a genuine boarding school and not dominated by flexi or weekly boarders with just a trickle of overseas children left at the weekends,” says Catherine Stoker, director of education and guardianship services at educational consultancy Gabbitas. To that end, schools such as Marlborough and Haileybury in Hertfordshire and Uppingham in Rutland are popular choices.

Berkshire schools close to Heathrow airport are also popular choices for overseas parents with children returning home at the end of each term – notably Bradfield College, Wellington College, and St George’s at Ascot. And different nationalities have their own reasons for being often drawn to particular parts of the UK.

“In Tokyo they tend to live in apartments the size of postage stamps and so they love going to boarding schools set in large historical buildings,” says Stoker. “We just took a Japanese girl to see Gordonstoun [in Scotland] and she loved it.”

That blue-chip schools attract great wealth and prestige to the nation is music to the ears of Tony Little, head master of Eton College. “Ours is very much a British school and we are already over-subscribed from our British market. We don’t actually have figures for nationality but the figure that springs to mind is about 100 boys [from overseas] out of 1,300,” he says.

“UK independent schools have the strongest track record of any sector anywhere,” he explains. “When you speak to people in, say, Russia or China, what they admire most is our great tradition of liberal education.”

By this Little means that it is holistic and centred upon the person. “The Chinese, for example, are very conscious of the fact that they are strong in theoretical ‘Confucian-style’ education but the British system has the X-factor of building students’ confidence and practical abilities in the wider world.”

London also has highly regarded international schools serving the needs of foreign families, especially those relocating for short periods. Notable examples include the French Lycée in Kensington, Marymount in Kingston upon Thames, Woodside Park in Frien Barnet and Egham International in Surrey, all of which operate the International Baccalaureate system.

Those of us who live in the St John’s Wood district of north London can be in no doubt as to the knock-on effect that a prestigious school can have on an area. The American School, which has existed in various incarnations since 1969, is one of the principal drivers in the local economy. Its presence is felt in everything from the cost of quality housing to the lengths of the queues at Starbucks.

Americans are the dominant group in relocating to London. “[They] represent a large percentage of our sales and lettings, “says James Simpson of estate agency Knight Frank’s St. John’s Wood office. “Most Americans rent but we also get investors looking to buy to rent to American families. Principally they want detached five-bedroom Victorian homes in side streets.”

Greek-board Alicia Cornelius and her husband, Alex, a banker, divide their time between New York, Athens and London, where their 14-year old daughter is at boarding school. “We have a two-bedroom flat in a new-build block overlooking the river that just takes care of itself,” says Cornelius.

Her own upbringing as much as her regard for the British school system came into play when deciding upon her daughter’s education. “My parents were diplomats, so I went to at least a dozen schools around the world,” she says. “I meet a lot of people today who went through the same and want nothing more than to settle their children in one place throughout their schooling.”

Naomi Heaton of property investors London Central Portfolio, finds that mapping out your child’s educational needs is not so different to mapping out an investment plan. “In both cases you are looking at around an eight-year cycle,” she observes. “Your child is likely to be here at school or college for eight years and we see that time as the normal doubling of the London (market) cycle. In my experience, buying for the children is just a good rationale for something that people were going to do anyway.”

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