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No-Frills Public Schools: Independants' Day

January 22nd, 2005

High Quality affordable private education is many parents' dream. So can a businessman from Dubai make it come true?
Article by Wendy Wallace
Photographs by Stewart Freedman

In entrepreneur Sunny Varkey’s fledgling chain of English private schools, Sherfield outside Basingstoke is calibrated as “premium”. Its vast, oak-paneled lobby is more plush hotel than school, eerily quiet, with car magazines on the coffee table. Varkey draws inspiration partly from hotels, with front-of-house staff having hospitality training in how to meet and greet his parent-customers; the silence is because this is its reception area, and not for children. Launched last autumn, the school has just 113 students and 22 teaching staff rattling around the extensive grounds and buildings; meanwhile, more parents come daily to look at what is on offer.
Sherfield School senior pupils walk to class.

Dubai-based Varkey, 47, is throwing down a gauntlet to independent schools in this country. His company, Global Education Management Systems (GEMS), promises affordable but high-quality private schools for those fed up with both hit-or-miss state provision and overpriced independents. Varkey, who plans to invest £100 million here, has recently acquired 13 schools in England to add to his portfolio; within five years, he aims to buy 30, build 20 new ones and have 120 more under GEMS management.

The Varkey schools in the United Arab Emirates – there are 25, including one with 5,000 students working on two shifts – were inspired by English public schools. After starting out by teaching in their own home, Varkey’s parents opened their first school, Our Own English High School, in Dubai in 1968. Varkey went into banking, but remained close to the family firm. When he took over in the Eighties, he opened four more Our Own English Schools – plus “Cambridge”, “Winchester” and “Westminster” schools.

Now, Varkey is invoking the characteristics of his Middle Eastern schools in his bid to reinvent public schools here. He promises a forward-looking, all-round education at a reasonable price to aspirational working families. For day pupils only, they will come in three price brackets – budget, mid-market and premium. The budget schools, pitched at around £5,000 per year, are divested of some of the non-essential trappings of privilege. “The schools are for parents who want their children to go to good universities,” he says, “who are really not into golf and squash courts.”

GEMS schools will court a potentially lucrative market segment – the half of all parents who would pay for the quality private education if they could afford it, according to one survey carried out by MORI last year. Currently, only seven per cent of children go to private schools. In the longer term, GEMS directors must hope that British governments might go the way of Dutch and Swedish ones, by handing out vouchers for families to spend where they wish. The fact that the Government, in its new five-year plan for education specifically rules this out, proves that it has at least been considered. The Tories, in recent policy statements, are promising if elected to give vouchers of £5,500 per year per child for “core education”; parents would be able to buy private provision if they chose, but could not use the money to subsidise a place costing more.


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