For centuries, their ivy-clad buildings, lofty arches and hallowed eaves drew British parents wanting the very best education for their children.
But now the UK’s leading boarding schools are increasingly looking abroad for pupils to fill fee-paying spaces that are beyond the wallets of most middle-income British families – and Dubai is proving a popular place to find those with deeper pockets.
Hundreds last weekend visited the two-day British Boarding Schools Show Dubai, one of a growing number of exhibitions to match schools with parents looking for institutions for their children.
And while the 32 schools exhibiting in Dubai’s Sheraton hotel were a magnet for British expatriates familiar with historic sites such as Cheltenham College and Wellington College, Berkshire, they account for only half the new pupils signing up.
Cheltenham Ladies’ College, in rural Gloucestershire, was founded 162 years ago as a school for “the daughters of gentlemen”, but has increasingly been filling spaces from afar.
Dragana Hartley, director of marketing at the school, said one in three pupils there came from overseas.
“This is our first trip to Dubai but we felt it was an opportune time to visit,” she said.
“We have a feeling this is a good region for us.”
She said its single-sex status and traditional values, such as modest dress, would sit comfortably with the region’s conservative population.
The school, whose alumni include millionaire businesswoman Nicola Horlick and Mary Archer, the wife of author Jeffrey Archer, has eight pupils from Dubai, with another four due to start in September.
With fees of £33,000 (Dh171,384) a year, the school is beyond the reach of many middle-income Britons. Instead, the institution has been recruiting from financial centres such as Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Malaysia via agents for 20 years.
But entering the international market to find pupils was a development.
“Inevitably, if you are paying that kind of money, financial centres are the way of finding parents who can afford them,” Mrs Hartley said.
That has been reflected by UK figures, which show that one new pupil in every five in British boarding schools now comes from abroad, with China providing the largest number of pupils.
Schools at the Dubai show included Bedales in Hampshire, which the late Princess Margaret’s son, Viscount Linley, attended; The King’s School in Canterbury, Kent; Wellington College in Berkshire; Harrogate Ladies’ College; and Marlborough College in Wiltshire.
Monkton Combe boarding school in Bath, Somerset – another that was at the show – has 120 foreign pupils in its senior school, with most coming from Hong Kong and several a year joining from Dubai.
Registrar Issy Hartnell said: “We have some wonderful families from Dubai already. It is a market that has always been quite good for us.”
Cheltenham College, which charges £34,000 a year, said 17 per cent of its senior pupils were from abroad.
The 175-year-old school first took in foreign pupils when a Malaysian prince joined 140 years ago and, today, its pupils now hail from Nigeria, Japan, Thailand, China and Russia.
Half of the Dubai contingent at the 660-pupil school are Emirati, while the rest are British expatriates.
Director of admissions Amanda Naylor said: “It used to be the domain of doctors and dentists, but if you have more than two children, fees like ours go beyond what is affordable for many people.
“In order to keep the top schools completely full, we do need to be looking as widely as possible. It is a balance.”
The show’s organiser, Ben Hitchman, first brought the event to Dubai four years ago and has since extended it to Turkey and Singapore.
After holding similar events in London, he realised that 35 per cent of people attending had flown in from overseas, so he decided to cast his net wider.
He said: “These schools are looking for the diamond in the rough who might be good at sports or drama.
“One pupil recruited will pay for the trip out here for years and years.
“British education is world famous and the number of international students has increased over the years. Maybe British people are being slightly priced out of the market.”