The number of Russians at British private schools is rising as the rarefied world of Harry Potter is increasingly seen as a fashionable passport to a better life.
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 says. 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 here 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 website 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,” says headmaster Robert Lankester. “It always existed in prep schools before but has been lost in many cases.” He adds: “Parents from abroad love the tradition. They want to buy into something British.” Gosha is the school’s second Russian; the first – “a lovely chap, loads of friends”, the head says, cheerfully – is happily settled at Stowe.