When asked to name the three priorities of his government, Tony Blair stated firmly ‘Education, education, education’. So it was appropriate that during a tour of China he should open three versions of Dulwich College in Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou. Now all three schools thrive in buildings reminiscent of the mother school here in SE21, and places for pupils are in huge demand. The students are international, but lessons are in English (apart, obviously, for modern languages) and academic results are outstanding.
So why do such schools exist? A couple of decades ago they were very rare, and expat British parents seeking a British education probably had to send their children home as boarders. My own father didn’t see his parents in Burma for three years whilst he boarded in Scotland. Clearly a good school teaching English eases many problems.
Dulwich College was one of a handful of schools that led the way in starting schools overseas (it now sponsors 10), but literally hundreds have followed suit. So, what is their motive? Surely it isn’t some latter-day imperialistic condescension, loftily offered as an ideal to a needy neighbour? Absolutely not. Those colonial days are thank goodness over. The very first thing we insisted on in China, was that every child learned both Cantonese and Mandarin, absorbed the stunning Chinese culture, so many thousand years older than ours, and experienced the joy of working with different but delightful friends.
When Sherborne set up its school in Doha it was realised that the Qataris needed a place to worship. Hitherto they had to pray in any old space available, but we quickly adapted a classroom for the purpose. By chance the Crown Prince’s tutor was a parent and with his help we soon converted the room it into a mosque with a carpet so deep you could barely see over it! Again, the essential message to all the pupils was that they respect each other’s beliefs.
Of course, the native British school hopes to make money out of the venture, and a sizeable chunk of the fees usually reverts to the UK. But these are not Dotheboys Halls and the profits are very largely ploughed back to the original school, often creating scholarships for the eligible in Britain.
Other advantages are very fruitful. Sporting fixtures, teacher and student exchanges, concerts, plays, indeed everything that makes schools worthwhile, creating above all fun, is immensely enhanced by the excitement and enrichment that comes of foreign travel. Friendships are made that may have a huge impact. The three times prime minister of Thailand, Anand Panyarachun, owes his love of Britain to the fact that he went to Dulwich College. From such overseas links, made in so many ways, much good can surely come.
In our troubled political times, we can be thankful that these international schools will make people literate and competent in other languages, broaden minds and foster mutual respect.
Editor’s note: Colin Niven OBE was the founding headmaster of the three schools opened by Dulwich College in China from 2002, and later in Doha for Sherborne School, St George’s School in Tbilisi, Georgia and is currently helping to start the British School of Latvia.