Kazakh Elite Get A British School

ReutersBritish teachers listening to Kazakhstan's national anthem during the opening ceremony of Haileybury Almaty, the first British private school in Central Asia.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh businessman Serzhan Zhumashov says some of his friends laughed when he came up with the idea of opening a British school in his home country five years ago.

Last week, some brought their children to the opening of Haileybury Almaty, the first private British school in Central Asia and a concrete sign of the economic prosperity brought to Kazakhstan by oil and gas.

About 300 students and their parents attended the opening ceremony at the school, a stylish glass-and-concrete building in a newly developed area of Kazakhstan's commercial hub, Almaty.

"We decided to do it so our children could stay here and at the same time get the education that would allow them to enter any university," said Zhumashov, chairman of construction firm Capital Partners.

Regular schools, offering classes mostly in Kazakh or Russian, are free, but many school buildings are in need of repair and a shortage of space means children have to study in three shifts in some areas.

The graduation certificate that students in the mainstream system receive is only recognized by local universities, so those wanting to study abroad have to arrange exams themselves.

Zhumashov and six other Kazakh businessmen, including Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, chairman of Kazkommertsbank, and Margulan Seisembayev, key shareholder of Alliance Bank, spent about $100 million on the project.

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
A student with his name written on a sticker at Haileybury Almaty's opening.

Haileybury, a private British school founded in 1862 in Hertford Heath, 30 kilometers north of central London, was the most enthusiastic of the foreign private schools the group contacted for advice. Its best-known alumnus was Britain's post-war Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. It is among several British private schools opening affiliates abroad to generate new income, including top names such as Harrow, Repton and Shrewsbury.

Fiona Rogers, general secretary of the Council of British International Schools, said there are roughly 2,000 schools abroad teaching parts of the British curriculum and her organization is receiving a growing number of inquiries from individuals, companies and governments outside Britain seeking British independent schools interested in opening an international branch.

Haileybury was already a favorite among wealthy Kazakhs who started sending their children to Western schools in the 1990s.

"Haileybury always had Kazakh children," said school governor Jean Scott. "One of the parents was Serzhan."

Zhumashov said he and his partners were not trying to make a profit and that the school would charge fees that would only cover its costs. Still, with tuition costing students $16,000 to $20,000 a year, the school is off-limits to most Kazakh families. The average monthly wage in Kazakhstan is $500. "We plan to provide about 10 scholarships for students from families with low incomes, starting next year," Zhumashov said.

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
Cars parked in front of Haileybury Almaty on Sept. 1, its first day of school.

Kazakhstan, which is home to seven billionaires, according to Forbes magazine people, is seen by Western economists as the most successful market reformer in Central Asia.

The government spent about $3.8 billion, or 3.6 percent of gross domestic product, on education in 2007, compared with 5.8 percent in the United States.

Nonetheless, the school's opening ceremony looked like a demonstration of what petrodollars can buy, with new SUVs lining up outside the building just across the street from a gleaming Marriott hotel.

Parents, many of them former or current government officials, exchanged hugs and handshakes and fretted about whether their children would be able to understand the teachers, most of whom are foreigners.

One parent, who asked not to be identified, said he was worried about how the offspring of Kazakhstan's rich and powerful -- used to having their own way -- would behave. "It might be pretty hard with so many children from rich families -- they need to be very strict right from the start," he said.

Those who cannot afford the fees see the school as just another elitist club. "This is how they separate themselves from us," said a taxi driver taking a reporter to the school.

The growing gap between rich and poor has become more visible in Kazakhstan as many families struggle to cope with rising food prices. Official unemployment is running around 6 percent, but people say jobs are harder to find.

Seeking to soften potential criticism of the school, Almaty Mayor Akhmetzhan Yesimov, who attended the opening ceremony, said his office would finance several scholarships for children willing to study at the school.

Zhumashov said investors in the Kazakh capital, Astana, were interested in setting up a second British school: "We could manage a school there if they build it themselves."

He has other plans, too.

"We are in talks with an Ivy League university," Zhumashov said. "We are thinking about setting up a business school here."