Sun, May 12, 2013 - Page 9 News List

How the Russians came to Hogwarts

The number of Russians at British private schools is rising as the rarified world of Harry Potter is increasingly seen as a fashionable passport to a better life

By Luke Harding  /  The Guardian, LONDON

One Russian father got his son into a leading private school after making a large donation; however, his second, less academically able son was turned down.

Most Russian children adjust well to their new environment; they rapidly absorb Britain’s jokey, understated culture, where showing off how rich you are is regarded as vulgar. The son of one well-known Russian oligarch, according to Shumovitch, switches phones when he returns to his boarding school after the holiday break. (He hides his Vertu and swaps it for a battered Nokia.) Others adopt British upper-class sartorial habits: they buy shirts from Jermyn Street, shoes from John Lobb.

A minority of Russian kids struggle. One observer describes the scene at the Lanesborough hotel in London, where a Russian mum with KGB connections had taken her 12-year-old son at a British prep school out for breakfast. The boy waved away his egg twice, complaining that it was not done the way he liked it. The mother was delighted with his behavior, reading it as a sign of his assertiveness.

“Some parents think Eton is Dolce & Gabbana,” the source said.

Graceless or not, the influx of Russian students is a boon for British boarding schools, amid the UK’s recession. Stowe, Charterhouse, Wellington College and Shrewsbury accept large numbers of Russians. Lankester said he tries to limit overseas numbers so as not to dilute the “British cultural experience.”

“I think there is a downside to having too many [pupils] from one country. Russians are an attractive prospect for schools that have places, but families don’t want lots and lots of Russians in the year group,” he said.

Generally speaking, Russians seek out schools within easy reach of Heathrow airport. Those in London and between there and Oxford are prized. Shumovitch tries to persuade her Russian clients to bring their children to the UK as early as possible, to immerse themselves in the British system and to improve their English.

The competition for places at top senior schools is intense, she said.

“Eton is now highly academic. You have to have very high grades and do common entrance. It’s almost impossible for a Russian child at 13 to get from Moscow to Eton because of insufficient English, no matter how bright the kid is,” she said.

As for Gosha, he has already taken a step towards integrating into British society. He has told his new teachers and schoolmates he wants to be known as George.

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