The idea that David Cameron is contemplating allowing state secondaries to recruit international students - albeit free schools and academies rather than state schools - seems to have caused surprising amounts of consternation. Presumably from her comments, many like Fiona Millar are unaware that international students are already studying at secondary level in the state sector - in FE sixth form colleges.
More to the point might be a question mark about the attractiveness of the proposition. Given the challenges the FE sector has already faced since the introduction of Tier 4 it's hard to imagine many state secondaries will be queuing up to get into international recruitment. The FE sector has found it a challenge competing with private sector alternatives such as embedded colleges. How much more so will new entrant secondaries find existing independent schools way ahead of them in the market? And although the Tier 4 child route is less politically sensitive than Tier 4 (General), it does require a significant investment in compliance systems and expertise in immigration advice for pupils. Moreover, unlike the independent school sector where most big international recruiters already have boarding facilities, the academies and free schools Cameron proposes could take on international pupils are overwhelmingly day schools. Developing residential accommodation or recruiting host families and extending the school's pastoral care systems will represent an additional challenge. The likelihood of significant new recruitment in this sector therefore has to be questioned.
While discussion of an Education Industry Export Strategy - clunkily named, as all would agree - may have surprised outsiders, the key players in international education have been party to these discussions. It is very welcome to see David Cameron's office supporting a boost for an international education strategy, but until he reigns in the excesses of the anti-immigration lobby - from bonds to NHS charges to landlords being asked to check immigration status - initiatives like international pupils in free schools and academies are just futile tinkering at the margins.