Normally an email from the head of governors at my old school bringing “exciting news” about an ambitious new development is cause for trepidation and accompanied by the inevitable plea for funds. A new theatre here or the irresistible offer of immortality there via my name chiselled on a flagstone.
This one, however, was different. Westminster School in London had signed an agreement to set up six new establishments in China in the next decade, the latest example of a British private school embracing the biggest education market in the world.
Under the terms of an ambitious deal, Westminster will export its successful teaching methods to Chengdu and other cities. In return the school will boost its bursary funds, making more money available to help families on lower incomes access an education at one of the UK’s leading — and pricier — academic independent schools, whose former pupils include politicians, writers, rock stars and the odd trapeze artist. The venture sits within an initiative to promote collaboration between future leaders of both countries.
This all seems to tick many boxes. These range from a need for a “global Britain” to seize new opportunities, to Westminster acquiring the means to fulfil its obligations as a charity to make its schooling as widely available as possible.
The move is also in keeping with a broader trend. For years now British schools have been operating offshoots in China (and elsewhere), selling various brands of top-drawer education directly in to fast-growing markets. Some have done very well, others have struggled, while one or two have faced concerns from parents that global expansion has become a distraction from the core mission back home. If anything, Westminster is a bit late to the China party.
On one level I am impressed by this outburst of commercial savvy. The entrepreneurial spirit underpinning the China gambit seems a world away from the shabby, bohemian atmosphere that reigned at the school during my years of badly dyed hair, winkle-picker shoes and clandestine smokes in the shadows of Big Ben, amid fraught attempts actually to talk to girls. The facilities were varied — breakfast in a gem of a medieval refectory followed by language lessons in a couple of leaking Portakabins — and the teaching was excellent, if at times unorthodox.
Yet something about this venture jars. In particular, Westminster’s agreement to deliver the compulsory Chinese national curriculum, which includes political education. This is different from the way other UK schools operate in China, where they tend to stick to an international curriculum. It also seems at odds with the tradition and spirit of Westminster itself, which takes an almost perverse delight in a culture of defiant individualism, independence of mind and distrust of authority. It prides itself on having resisted the 19th-century reforms of the English “public” — ie private — system that placed so much emphasis on games and team spirit as a basis on which to raise a ruling class that would govern the world.
Or at least that is what they used to tell us. The whole point about Westminster was that it was supposed to be slightly different. If it was a traditional education that offered polish but few surprises you were after, this could easily be had in London’s commuter belt or in one of the gracious, if pallid, cathedral cities.
There is a broader question closer to home: what are overseas parents actually paying for? As the numbers of foreign students have increased, schools have adapted to their new customers. At what point do they lose the qualities that attracted overseas students in the first place?
The truth is that you can never really know how things are going to turn out. For all the Establishment types bred by English private schools there have been a fair number of rebels and scoundrels. The roll-call of old Westminsters includes Kim Philby — a consummate child of the British ruling class and arch traitor to it. The one-time Kings Scholar and later KGB colonel reportedly kept up with news from school long after he had taken up residence in Moscow, having inflicted massive damage on the system he was raised to serve. One can’t help wondering what China’s ruling cadres might think about that.
事实上，你永远都无法知晓事情会如何发展。尽管英国私立学校培养出了众多建制派人物，但也培养了相当数量的叛徒和无赖。老威斯敏斯特学校培养出的毕业生包括金?菲尔比(Kim Philby)——出身于英国统治阶层的天之骄子，却成为英国统治阶层的主要叛徒。据称，曾经获封国王学者(King's Scholar)、后来成为克格勃(KGB)上校的菲尔比在定居莫斯科很长时间后，仍然关注母校的消息，而他已对他原本应该服务的系统造成巨大伤害。人们不禁想知道中国的统治阶层对此有何感想。