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The Rise of Asia: U.K.-Style Education

If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the 21st century just might belong to the East. The British boarding school system is spreading throughout Asia, and fast. Centuries-old schools with alumni like Lord Byron and Winston Churchill are successfully establishing satellite campuses in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and beyond. The response from the host countries is positive, to say the least:

The schools are tapping into the demands of Asian parents who want their children to get a high-quality foreign-style education while staying close to home. There is also the desire to escape local school systems, which focus more on exams and rote learning.

Vivienne Fung, 40, a former lawyer and mother of two, said by telephone that she and her husband were put off by the traditional approach in many local Hong Kong schools, whose pupils tend to spend much of their after-school time doing homework or in private tutorial classes. Her children, aged 5 and 4, are among the first pupils of the newly opened Harrow. […]

Harrow, she said, takes “a much more holistic view than many other schools in Hong Kong, not just focusing on academic results but also putting a great deal of emphasis on developing each individual into a citizen of the world.”

Everyone involved in this development stands to benefit. Besides offering a more Western-style education, these sister campuses are significantly cheaper for Asian families than the cost of sending a child to live in the UK.

Likewise, this development is of great benefit to the host countries themselves: countries like China and South Korea want to keep their best and brightest talent in Beijing and Seoul, rather than losing them to London during the students’ most formative years. As a result, many of these satellite schools are getting generous loans and preferential tax treatment from local governments. It’s also a way to import know how and to ensure that locals learn how to teach what the old schools teach.

Lastly, there are benefits to the schools’ English-speaking students as well. While most of the satellite schools follow the English national curriculum of their parent institutions, many of the Asian campuses offer languages like Mandarin and Korean, rather than the French and German taught in the UK. With Asia on the rise and Europe in decline, this is a desirable bonus for many parents.

English boarding schools are not perfect. If they battle of Waterloo was won at Eton, the battle for economic development and leadership in the twentieth century was lost there as well. And there are signs that even Britain’s snootiest schools are falling prey to the educational laxity and intellectual vacuity of modern educational methods. It’s also likely that many of the families sending their kids to these schools — and the kids themselves — have very little idea of what a liberal education is and why one should want one. For some, a diploma that says Harrow on it is like a pocketbook with a Louis Vuitton label: a luxury consumption good and little more. It’s far from clear that schools in this setting will be able to maintain the rigor and independence that good education requires. Finally and perhaps most significantly, the question of adapting a traditional British ruling class education, steeped in a knowledge of western cultural history, into an Asian educational setting isn’t a trivial one.

Even so, the shift of elite secondary school culture to the East could be a historic shift. Generally speaking, these schools deliver an almost infinitely better education than the soggy mediocrity of the average American high school. If the Asia elite is moving to educate its best and brightest in this way, Asia’s brainpower advantage in the new century will be large.

Fortunately for us in the Anglosphere, however, Howgwarts does not appear to have joined the journey to the East; only the muggle schools are on the move.

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