Packed into a grey minibus, 22 Chinese parents are trundling down a bumpy driveway towards Cobham Hall, a girls boarding school set in 70 hectares of Kent countryside.
The red-brick Tudor mansion, with its octagonal wing turrets, looks like something out of an Enid Blyton novel. But there is nothing fanciful about the battle Asia’s rich are waging to secure places for their children in top British boarding schools – an export market worth about £1bn a year to the UK.
The Financial Times joined the Chinese parents on part of a week-long tour organised by Gabbitas, an education consultancy which advises on applications. By day, the group visits schools and by night, they enjoy retail events laid on by Harrods, the Bicester Village designer shopping centre and Asprey the jeweller.
“These parents are extremely high net worth,” explains Ian Hunt, the organisation’s managing director. “These are people who would not blink at spending £30,000 a year for 10 years for their children’s education . . . They start with the premise that Chinese education is too linear and constricting, and we try to show them the holistic environment in which the English system operates.”