Diss, Thetford - where next? Independent schools a target for overseas investors

PUBLISHED: 16:19 11 June 2017 | UPDATED: 16:19 11 June 2017

Hethersett Old Hall School headmaster Stephen Crump with head girl Anna Reed. Picture: Dave Guttridge

Hethersett Old Hall School headmaster Stephen Crump with head girl Anna Reed. Picture: Dave Guttridge


Burgeoning interest from Asia in the country's independent schools could see significant numbers end up in the hands of overseas investors, according to experts.

Having secured a strong reputation around the world, Britain’s private schools are now catching the eye of foreign investors hoping to offer a UK education to overseas pupils.

And for schools - many of which rely on income from international students - the lure of cash injections to invest in growth is equally as tempting.

It is an issue noticeable both nationally and locally - on Wednesday, the 900-year-old Thetford Grammar School revealed it will be bought by overseas investors, a move it says will put its future on stable ground.

Once the deal is final, it will be run by Thetford Grammar School Limited, a UK company funded by the Hong Kong-based China Financial Services Holding (CFSH).

Hethersett Old Hall School. Picture: Dave GuttridgeHethersett Old Hall School. Picture: Dave Guttridge

It comes two years after Riddlesworth Hall, near Diss, announced it was to have a “change of direction” when its ownership transferred to the Confucius International Education Group (CIEG), an operator of international schools in China.

Riddlesworth principal Susan Hayes said the interest was a reflection of “how highly other countries view our education system”.

Since the change, she said, little had altered in school life, with its traditional British values unaffected.

“It was very important to us that we kept our values,” she said, “but it was even more important to the investors. They don’t want an international school - they want a British school, a slice of Britain and the tradition that comes with that.

Riddlesworth Hall. Picture: Sonya DuncanRiddlesworth Hall. Picture: Sonya Duncan

“It’s not about anyone coming in and changing anything. We are careful of how many international students we have, and our children do learn Mandarin, but I would say that’s as much about business sense as it is having Chinese owners.”

For Thetford Grammar School, the move came amid a fall in pupil numbers. Hit by the financial downturn, headmaster Mark Bedford said CFSH, a “non-bank financial institution”, would enable growth.

MORE: 900-year-old Thetford Grammar School to be bought by overseas investors to ease stretched budget

“We will continue to take all decisions with the best interests of our pupils and students at heart, and I want to reassure parents that it is very much business as usual – with the added bonus of being able to plan to make investments in the school for the future,” he said.

Mark Bedford, headteacher of Thetford Grammar School. Picture: SubmittedMark Bedford, headteacher of Thetford Grammar School. Picture: Submitted

The British way of life has attracted the eye of Asian investors in other fields - several football clubs, including Aston Villa, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich Albion, have gone into Chinese ownership, while China hopes to have a pivotal role in the UK’s nuclear industry.

But education seems to be a key piece of the puzzle. Stephen Crump, headmaster at Hethersett Old Hall School, said there had been something of a “cultural cross-fertilisation”.

“There has been two way traffic,” he said. “I go to China once a year and there is certainly growing respect for our schools. Many are asking if we have one-term language programmes or summer schools in the region as a step towards taking A-Levels, so perhaps by buying British schools they are able to create more of those opportunities.

“The primacy of British language in commerce is also an incentive.”

Thetford Grammar School.Thetford Grammar School.

But he said many English public schools were setting up satellite schools in Asia - with money from those being reinvested here at home.

“Investors are recognising the value of this market, which is something I think we should be very proud of,” he said.

Pat Carter, owner of National Schools Transfer, which deals with school sales, said a rise in interest from China had been noticeable over the last decade.

He said: “Of the clients registering with me, there’s certainly a far higher proportion of Chinese buyers than there used to be.

“There is a perception that British education is good value. What they would like, rather than just sending their children over here for education, is to own the school they are sending them to.”

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