It is summer term at Maidwell Hall prep school. The boys and girls are back from holidays. Among them, and fresh off the plane from St Petersburg, is a new Russian pupil, Gosha Nikolayev.
“I’m a bit scared and a bit excited,” Gosha said.
His father, Sergei, has come to the UK with his 11-year-old son to drop him off. If all goes well Gosha will spend two years at Maidwell Hall, before moving to a top boarding school. Dad has ruled out Eton, so this could be Charterhouse or Stowe.
Gosha’s new school near Northampton is a vision of how foreigners must imagine the land of Harry Potter. The main building is a dreamy turreted mansion overlooking its own boating and fishing lake. Maidwell Hall’s Web site shows pupils reading on the lawn under a perfect blue sky, playing rounders or sharing a mealtime joke. The ethos is old-fashioned: boys wear tweed jackets, corduroy trousers and ties. Good manners are encouraged; mobile phones banned.
“We are trying to create a country house atmosphere,” headmaster Robert Lankester said. “It always existed in prep schools before, but has been lost in many cases.”
“Parents from abroad love the tradition. They want to buy into something British,” he said.
Gosha is the school’s second Russian; the first — “a lovely chap, loads of friends,” the headmaster said — is happily settled at Stowe.
Last month, figures from the Independent Schools Council revealed a stunning increase in the number of Russian pupils studying at UK private schools, up from 816 in 2007 (3.9 percent of all overseas pupils) to 2,150 this year (8.3 percent).
The largest number of overseas boarding students come from Hong Kong and China, followed by Germany. However, it is the Russians, in fourth place, who are the fastest-growing national group, with Britain and its private schools increasingly attractive to parents from Moscow and St Petersburg.
But why? According to Irina Shumovitch, an educational consultant who runs a placement service for Russian parents, British education has an unbeatable reputation. For the vast majority of Russians the fees are unaffordable. However, for the rising upper-middle class it remains the top choice.
Shumovitch puts this in part down to “herd mentality.”
“The myth says the best place to send your kids to school is England. The best place to ski is Courchevel and the best diamonds are de Grisogono. I welcome the myth because education here is fantastic,” she said.
Shumovitch helps Russian-speaking parents navigate their way through the entrance and exam system. She arranged tours for Sergei and Gosha to various prep schools including Maidwell Hall; Gosha also went to summer camp at Gordonstoun, Prince Charles’s alma mater. British schools nurture individuality and creativity, and teach pupils critical thinking, encouraging them to write essays and see both sides of an argument, she added.
The more rigid, fact-driven Russian system, by contrast, relies on “fear and pressure,” meted out by older, Soviet-trained teachers.
In a Russian context Shumovitch’s liberal, child-centered ideas are quietly revolutionary, and at odds with the xenophobic, often paranoid thinking that comes from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. The Russian Duma recently considered a motion to ban top Russian officials from sending their children to UK schools. (Deputies dismissed it, arguing that contrasting the British and Russian systems might be helpful.)