Chinese investors poised to buy British private schools

Interest in the UK independent market is booming in Asia

Significant numbers of UK independent schools could end up in the hands of investors from China and other Asian countries, TES has learned.

Chase Grammar, a boarding and day school in Cannock, Staffordshire, was bought last year by Achieve Education, a Chinese-owned company. Now agents involved in the highly secretive world of private school sales say that many more UK independents are likely to be sold to Asian investors.

Peers Carter, founder of the School Transfer Company, which acts as a go-between for people wishing to buy and sell schools, said enquiries from the Far East had been growing significantly. “There’s a terrific amount of interest from Chinese, Singaporeans, Filipinos, Indians, Hong Kong and Pakistan,” he told TES. “There’s a vast amount of money trying to find its way to the UK – they have discovered that education is a very good long-term investment.”

Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association – which represents 370 independent schools, around half of which are privately owned – said he knew of a number of sales to Asian buyers that were in the pipeline.

Smaller, proprietorial schools often needed a significant injection of cash to develop and grow, he said, so foreign investment in new buildings, for example, was “very positive”. And parents were unlikely to be put off by the idea of foreign owners as long as the school was offering a good education.

But Mr Roskilly warned: “These groups come in and as proprietors they have to have oversight of things like safeguarding and child protection, and it might be completely foreign to them. They need to take advice before they enter the market.”

Pat Carter, owner of National School Transfer, another company involved in school sales, said: “There’s quite a lot of interest from China, probably more than from anywhere else. There have been foreign companies on my books for many years but the number has certainly been increasing. There’s an image of education in the UK that quite a lot of foreign countries want a slice of.”

Asian investors are understood to be attracted by the growing market in offering UK education to overseas pupils. UK boarding schools are increasingly reliant on foreign pupils for income. According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) 2015 census, there are 27,211 non-British pupils – including 5,683 from mainland China – attending its member schools.

Chase Grammar’s new owners said they hoped the school would appeal to Chinese families looking for a school specialising in educating overseas pupils alongside British young people. Until now their business has focused on recruiting Chinese students to foreign universities, including in the UK.

Tong Zhou, a director of Chase Grammar, said Chinese people previously came to the UK for university, but now wanted a school education as well. “Chinese are starting to invest because the demand in China is there,” she said, adding that the directors would consider buying more schools if the opportunity arose.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the ISC, said: “The Chinese greatly admire the English independent school system and increasing numbers have been coming to this country for these reasons.

“I regard the investment of the Chinese in the English independent system as an inevitable and welcome next step.”

Chase Grammar’s story: a ‘smooth’ transition

Chase Grammar in Staffordshire was sold to Achieve Education, a company backed by Chinese investors, in 2014.

The school has 220 British pupils and 120 from overseas, including 40 from China. The new owners say they want to preserve its “family feel” and are not planning to expand by more than 10 per cent or change the mix of pupils.

“We want to improve the quality of education and maintain the flow of students,” says Tong Zhou, one of the school’s directors.

The school now has offices in Shanghai so Chinese parents can conduct all dealings with the school in their own language.

Principal Jackie Medhurst, who was appointed in January but has taught at the school for 14 years, says the change of hands was “surprisingly smooth”. Some local parents did raise “questions and concerns”, but were reassured that it would be business as usual, she adds.

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInGoogle GmailShare