The Yorkshire school where Chinese pupils go to learn how to behave like royalty
When eight Chinese schoolchildren arrived at a 16th century manor house in Yorkshire this summer, all were keen to become model English subjects. Over the following days, the pupils – mostly children of the super-rich Beijing elite – were given intensive training in the art of “the perfect handshake”, “afternoon tea etiquette” and “how to sit like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge” (otherwise known as deportment). The summer ‘charm’ school, organised by private tutoring firm The English Manner, may sound like a bizarre chapter from a Jane Austen novel, but the teaching of English etiquette is becoming increasingly popular among the parents of the international elite, as Chinese and Russian financiers compete to get their sons and daughters into Britain’s leading public schools and universities. Founded in 2001 by Alexandra Messervy – formerly a member of the Queen’s royal household – the firm offers year-round tuition for children and adults looking to become immaculately-mannered members of traditional English society. There was, of course, a time when ‘finishing school’ was a popular destination for the upwardly-mobile British middle classes. Lucie Clayton, founded in 1928, became one of the country’s most prestigious avenues for parents looking to land their daughter a rich husband, but strides in gender equality saw demand dwindle by the Sixties, with a similar picture across the Continent. By the year 2000, the Swiss Institut Alpin Videmanette – attended by a young Lady Diana Spencer – had shut its doors, as had Mon Fertile, attended by Camilla Shand, now Duchess of Cornwall. “Etiquette became a dirty word,” says Jimmy Beale, managing director of The English Manner. “Societal views changed. Girls didn’t feel the need to ‘be finished’ so they could find the right husband.” But just as such schools looked set to become a quirky relic of Britain’s class-bound history, the international market stepped in. Globalisation has made British universities a lucrative route for ambitious youngsters from the far East, with some 60,000 Chinese students travelling to study here each year. Having been raised by super-wealthy families and gone through some of the world’s most rigorous education systems, they have the grades and work ethic nailed. The only thing they lack – or at least believe they do – is the easy confidence that some of their British counterparts take for granted.
Beale, the former headmaster of Taunton Prep School in Somerset, says many of his Chinese students at The English Manner come to Britain on a quest to acquire that hard-to-define charm associated with the English public-school system. “If a child turns up at prep school aged 11 with hundreds and hundreds of pounds worth of ‘stuff’ – in China that may be a way of showing how cool a person you are; the UK doesn’t work like that.” Similarly, when his students arrive at their first UK job interview, they want to ensure they don’t let themselves down by “tapping away on their mobile phone” but “know to look him in the eye, and shake a hand properly.” Demand for the school’s services is also driven by a growing fascination with the more quirky, romantic elements of British culture: think Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Prince George. “A lot of it is to do with the Royal Family,” says Beale, “that still carries great weight, that element of tradition.” The school even used a Downton Abbey theme to launch its Shanghai operation in 2014, taking advantage of the 160 million Chinese viewers the ITV show pulled in each week. “They’re absolutely fascinated by it. We can give them experiences they can’t buy off the peg.” The highlight of the school’s year is its summer programme at Yorkshire’s Broughton Hall. Amidst the 3000-acre Tudor estate, children are taught dining etiquette (from napkin placement to correct usage of the tools of the table) and deportment. Afternoons involve trips to York Minster and Skipton Castle. For the parents, however – all of whom have doled out a “decent four-figure sum” – it’s far from a quaint retreat to the English countryside. All have their eyes on a place for their progeny at a British school or university. May Huang, the wife of a Shanghai financier, sent her two daughters, Cherry, 13, and Elana, nine, to summer school last year to prepare them for studying abroad: “I want my girls to be ladies in the future,” she says. But in a world of turbo-charged cultural sensitivity – not least as Cambridge University moves to ‘decolonise’ its English Literature curriculum – are etiquette tutors squeamish about teaching foreign students English mores? “We have to be careful not to say that the British way is the only way, or the right way,” Beale admits. “What we are saying is: if you want to do it the British way, we will teach you how.
“That’s a really fine line.”