Westminster School, one of the UK’s most prestigious, has scrapped plans to develop a series of academies in China, in one of the highest-profile reversals to the rapid expansion of international education in the country in the face of a growing clampdown by the authorities.
The elite private institution had been working since 2017 on plans for a 2,000-pupil school in Chengdu in Sichuan province. It was the first of six bilingual establishments for Chinese students to which it would have lent advice, support and its brand name for the first time beyond its own historic campus in central London in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament.
But in a letter to past and current staff and students on Tuesday, Mark Batten, chair of the governing body, wrote that a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and “recent changes in Chinese education policy” had led to the cancellation of the project.
“It is with great regret I write to tell you that this project has come to an end for Westminster School,” he said. “It is highly unfortunate the landscape for developing such schools now is very different from 2017.”
Chengdu Westminster was the latest in a growing number of British schools developing franchises, consultancy operations and partnerships in other parts of the world, often using local partners and generating income that was sometimes used to support bursaries and scholarships in the UK.
ISC Research, an educational consultancy, has identified 66 schools in China with an affiliation to 29 in the UK. Those include 12 for children born overseas to Chinese citizens, who can hold foreign passports and Chinese identity cards until they have to make a choice of nationality when they turn 18. There are also 52 bilingual private schools open to other Chinese citizens. ISC said it was aware of a further 28 schools being planned.
Ralph Lucas, chair of the Good Schools Guide, which has tracked the expansion of British education in other countries, said: “This isn’t the time to pitch in with a new school in China if you haven’t established the relationships and shown you are a good partner. Schools who are already operating may stay but for someone to start out fresh now would be foolish.”
Beijing this year stopped approving new private schools for the compulsory first nine years of education. Several provinces have announced plans to cut the proportion of students attending them, while imposing tighter controls on the curriculum and the use of foreign textbooks.
Westminster had licensed the rights to use its name via its company, Floreat Overseas Holdings, to a Hong Kong operator, which it said had faced “numerous financial and logistical challenges” and had been unable to restructure and successfully seek refinancing.
Floreat reported a loss of £76,000 in the year to 30 June 2020, compared with losses of £149,000 in 2019. But Batten said in his letter that Westminster provided no financing to the Chinese schools and was unable to help support the closure of the operation.
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