Stay there: we’ll bring UK education to China

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Online company hopes to exploit the Chinese demand for a British education, writes Gabriella Swerling

Wealthy Chinese parents may be scrambling to pack off their children in search of a blue riband British education, but one company is heading in the opposite direction, albeit in cyberspace.

The owner of InterHigh, the UK’s first online secondary school, believes that it is set to enjoy an international boom, with a deal to export the concept to Asia within months.

Founded in 2005 by Paul and Jacqueline Daniell in Crickhowell, Powys, InterHigh began as a niche outlet for bullied children, those gripped by anxiety or pursuing sporting and theatrical ambitions and others whose parents were often travelling.

While continuing to recruit from the pool of 80,000 UK home-schooled pupils and from local authorities that consider it as a stop-gap for children out of education, David Massie, chairman of Wey Education, which acquired InterHigh in February last year, also aims to woo the lucrative Chinese market.

“Look at China, the numbers are astonishing,” Mr Massie, who visited the country recently, said. “One education group I met said that it had 400,000 students go to university and 100,000 went overseas. Another group, a language teaching one that started in 2003, has 80 million students on its database. If I can get a few thousand from China, there’s plenty to keep me busy.”

InterHigh believes that, unlike its bricks-and-mortar counterparts, it cuts both time wasted and red tape. Its hours are shorter, lessons are recorded and pupils, once logged in, can private message teachers and each other. Troublemakers can simply be “muted”. Communication occurs via computers through webcam, voice, text and interactive presentations. Lessons can be replayed.

The school offers a full curriculum and its annual fees, at £2,500, are a fraction of the tens of thousands of pounds that some Chinese parents are willing to pay. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that last year 58,810 first-year students from China enrolled at UK universities, compared with 57,190 from the European Union, excluding Britain. This is a 59 per cent increase on 2009-10, when 36,950 Chinese students enrolled.

InterHigh has “everything that a [non-virtual] school would have, apart from playing fields and a dining room”, Mr Massie said. It was, he claimed, “the next big thing . . . This generation is like no other and they are different from those in their 20s. If you watch four teenagers walk down the street, they do not talk to each other, they send each other a PM [private message].

“They are used to and happy sending texts. The worst thing that can happen in their life is losing their phone. We are just at lift-off point. We are just at the start of it.”

Research by WH Ireland, the AIM-quoted Wey Education’s house broker, predicts revenues for the present year of £1.5 million, set to rise to £3.2 million next year and £5 million in 2018.

However, Wey Education’s history is not completely blemish-free. Revenue as of August last year was £520,000, yet its pre-tax loss rose from £312,908 in December 2014 to £355,711 to August the following year. Bernie Hogan, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that InterHigh had limitations because “there’s still a real competitive advantage to being in a place in person”.

He said: “This is a private institution marketing itself as British education, and not in the league tables and not what people think of when getting British education. You don’t want to dilute one of our last competitive advantages in knowledge economy. You can’t just throw that around or people will stop believing the reputation.”

In contrast, the Oxford system emphasises one-on-one tutorials, which cost substantially more. “We don’t do it because it’s efficient,” Dr Hogan said. “We do it because it’s high quality. These students come out with extremely high writing and literacy rates. They are the benchmark.”

Wey Education already has a sales representative in Africa, but during recent trips to China Mr Massie has been meeting those who run independent and government-run schools. He expects a deal with education groups to be made before September.