Overseas schools given ‘British’ accreditation despite anti-equality curriculum

<span>Brighton College (pictured) has a partner school in Dubai that does not teach pupils about civil partnerships or sexual orientation.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy</span>
Brighton College (pictured) has a partner school in Dubai that does not teach pupils about civil partnerships or sexual orientation.Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

Ministers are allowing private schools abroad to brand themselves as “British schools” despite not teaching about same-sex relationships, equality or drug abuse as required in England, the Guardian has learned.

Overseas schools are able to be officially accredited as “British Schools Overseas” (BSO) by the Department for Education (DfE). This came after the government U-turned and exempted them from using the same curriculum it requires in England if doing so would conflict with local laws.

In England, private and state schools must teach “British values” that encourage respect for gay people, those in civil partnerships and other protected characteristics enshrined in law by the Equality Act 2010.

The DfE initially required BSO-accredited schools, many of them linked to exclusive private schools, to adhere to the same standards, but agreed to the exemptions after lobbying by private schools.

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The BSO is a voluntary scheme that allows schools “to demonstrate that they provide a British education that has similar characteristics to an education in an independent school in England”, according to the Association of British Schools Overseas.

Brighton College Dubai’s website claims it teaches with a “distinctive British independent school ethos” and displays its BSO accreditation badge. But the school’s BSO inspection points out that “UAE law precludes the school from addressing [the protected characteristics of] marriage and civil partnership, gender reassignment, sex and sexual orientation”.

The United Arab Emirates, which also hosts Brighton College Abu Dhabi and a number of other BSO accredited schools, criminalises sexual acts between people of the same sex.

A spokesperson for Amnesty International UK said: “The Department for Education shouldn’t be giving the BSO accreditation to UK schools operating in the UAE if they don’t abide by at least the same standards set by the Equality Act.

“It’s vital that our schools operating abroad uphold protections against discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Brighton College did not respond to a request for comment. The DfE said it could not comment because of the impending UK general election.

In 2016 the DfE intended to bring British schools operating overseas in line with the curriculum in England. Nick Gibb, the then schools minister, said: “We cannot issue a standard that doesn’t reflect the values of this country.”

Most schools objected that they could not meet the stricter standards. One argued: “These principles [contained in the UK’s Equality Act] are at odds with the values of the host country.”

The DfE pushed ahead, stating that “the government believes that it is important that the values which are promoted in BSOs match the requirements for schools in England and that pupils in BSOs are exposed to the same expectations concerning respect for others and for fundamental British values”.

The Guardian understands that about 70 British schools globally lost their BSO status. But following lobbying from the Council of British International Schools and others, the government quietly allowed schools to opt out of the requirements if they conflicted with local laws.

In a letter to schools and inspectors in October 2018, Lord Agnew, the then education minister, said: “We clearly do not wish to do anything to undermine the absolute commitment to uphold fundamental British values and respect for those with protected characteristics. However, we have come to the position that we should acknowledge the quality of schools which meet all the BSO standards other than those which would set them against local laws.”

Harrow, whose former pupils include Benedict Cumberbatch and James Blunt, has a partner school in Thailand that is BSO-accredited but cannot teach children about respect for civil partnerships and gender reassignment as neither are legally recognised there, and restricts education on drug use, according to its inspection.

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi describes itself as “based on the rich academic heritage and family values of Cranleigh UK”. Its BSO inspection report says its curriculum is unable to “include material relating to gender reassignment, civil partnership and same sex unions … the promotion of any such related issues is precluded by UAE legislation”.

Private schools in England have opened satellite schools abroad in recent years, often through commercial partnerships, repatriating profits to fund their activities at home. Cranleigh’s accounts show that it received more than £1m from its overseas operations last year.