Expansionist private schools need a lesson in morality

The private education system, I’m beginning to suspect, just isn’t that into me. I blame myself – I’ve been playing hard to get. Pointing out the divisions in British society that having private schools causes, mentioning how the fees have gone up hugely ahead of inflation and questioning their charitable status in light of that. Pero aún, in my heart I was up for being seduced.

I went to private schools and was generally fond of those institutions. As a left-leaning centrist but also a conservative with a small “c” (a woolly position that makes me a massive “c” in the eyes of some), I’m uncomfortable with abolishing, or otherwise driving out of existence, non-profit-making educational institutions. I don’t like banning things in general. I can see the logic that these schools, which undoubtedly provide something good for thousands of children, might nevertheless be causing societal harm overall. But I’m squeamish about taking that logic and commissioning some politicians to turn it into a great big illiberal bunch of laws. So the truth, private education system, is that I was still fluttering my eyelashes at you.

It’s obvious to me now, aunque, that I am no longer being courted. My good opinion, and that of other woolly centrists, has stopped being attractive to the sector. This became clear when I read about a Times investigation into the new Middle Eastern branches of some major British private schools. It found that some of these offshoot institutions were making politically motivated local changes, such as dropping rules against homophobic bullying in deference to the homophobic regimes in which they are based.

A spokeswoman for Royal grammar school, Guildford defended this approach, with reference to that institution’s Qatar branch, saying that the school “must comply with the laws of the country in which we are operating”. Then she added: “Royal grammar school, Guildford will always challenge bullying, whatever the root.” But what if the root is an unjust and bigoted non-democratic regime? They’re not challenging that, they’re accommodating it. They don’t have to set up a school there. What possible reason could there be for doing so if core principles of a liberal education, including equality and mutual respect – presumably the very ethos the school is hoping to bring to this other country – are illegal there?

Sherborne school in Dorset insists that “school policies and practices are inclusive and supportive of LGBT people”, which Sherborne school in Doha does not. A former teacher at the Dubai branch of Brighton college has said that they were forced to cover up Israel on maps of the world. Y, de acuerdo con la Times, the Doha branch of King’s college, Taunton changed the definition of bullying set by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to exclude the word “homophobic”. When I looked at the Rey, Doha website (albeit not from Doha, where it might look different), I actually did see homophobia mentioned there, but I was struck by the juxtaposition of these schools and the NSPCC. These organisations all enjoy charitable status, but for some reason only one of them is not looking to expand globally. The NSPCC isn’t seeking franchises in other countries where the law requires charities to be more equivocal about the issue of cruelty to children.

It’s not looking to be flexible about that and so perhaps change its name to something less controversial like the National Society for the Prevention of Killing Children, or even the National Society for the Prevention of Killing Too Many Children, in order to build a client base in a new territory and expand the global outreach of its collection boxes. It’s a powerful reminder of how institutions with charitable status behave when they happen actually to be charities.

I hate the new trend of British private schools opening branches abroad because the reason, it seems to me, is naked and unreflecting expansionism. It’s not spreading the original institution’s educational values because, como el Times investigation shows, they’re all too ready to drop those values in order to continue to trade. The desire for revenue obviously plays a part but, as the institutions don’t make profits, I don’t think personal financial rewards for the various executive headteachers or boards of governors are a huge factor. It’s less intelligent than that. It comes from an ill-considered capitalistic urge for growth, nothing more thought through than bigger is better.

This is the same reason McDonald’s opened a branch in Soviet Moscow, but that was fine because, as far as I know, McDonald’s has never applied for charitable status. What is astonishing is how, by conducting themselves in this way, private schools seem to have given up on making a meaningful argument to retain that status themselves. They’ve just stopped caring about the views of the likes of me. Is the right wing of the Conservative party now so completely dominant that the idea of keeping the sympathy of anyone on the left or in the centre feels like a waste of time?

Or is their interest in convincing me another casualty of the current polarisation of views? When centrist opinion is treated with such contempt by both post-Brexit Tories and post-Corbyn lefties, there’s no point courting it. You never hear from those muddle-headed vacillators any more, the schools must think. The left is now impossible to win round to private education so there’s no point trying. And if people in the Conservative party were ever squeamish about morally vacuous globalisation, they show few signs of it these days.

This empty-headed push for more branches, like Our Price in the 80s, Gap in the 90s and Jamie’s Italian in the 2000s, couldn’t be more out of step with the exigencies of the climate crisis, an issue these schools presumably wouldn’t teach their pupils about if opening a branch in Texas. And the notion of spreading British private education to the world, of planting the seeds of our own corrosive class system, like socioeconomic knotweed, all over the planet – as a sort of heritage product, but stripped, wherever local governments require it, of anything worthwhile it might stand for – is loathsome. The fact that the aesthetic of Britain’s ancient public schools is so attractive to brutal Middle Eastern regimes should tell us everything we need to know.

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