Altitude sickness: Inside the world of the elite Swiss boarding school

Macbook Pros for umbrellas, Loro Piana for uniform, and future dictators for classmates — just what do the world's most expensive schools say about the modern elite?

Here’s a good bit of trivia. Can you guess what the lead singer of The Strokes has in common with the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia? What ties Sean Lennon with King Juan Carlos I of Spain? How are the Niarchos shipping magnates connected to the Bhutanese royal family? You’ll find the answer on the shores of Lake Geneva, where, among the neat vineyards and chestnut trees, there is a boarding school that caters exclusively to the rich and powerful. Since the 1880s, Institut Le Rosey has taught Brazilian heiresses, Congolese politicians, Italian fashion tycoons and enough European royals to keep the revolutionary guillotine operators on the Place de la Concorde busy for at least a month.

Most things about Le Rosey can only be spoken of in superlatives, not all of them positive. For starters, it’s the most expensive school on Earth. Prepare yourself for the following sentence. Tuition and boarding fees are £110,000 per year for children aged 13-18. That’s the equivalent, if you’re into fatuous comparisons, to five new Volkswagen Golf Mk 8 cars, six Patek Philippe Aquanaut watches, or two Jetlev jetpacks. For pupils aged 8-12, it’s £80,000 per year. To fully educate one child there, it would cost £870,000 — that’s assuming fees don’t go up over nine years of schooling. That figure also doesn’t include the cost of trips abroad, extracurriculars and potential private jet flights to ferry children between Geneva and the family island in the Exumas. Only the wealthiest dynasties or the most kleptocratic dictators can afford fees like that.

Switzerland, like no other nation, has cornered the tyrant education market. Ten of the most expensive boarding schools in the world are in Switzerland, attracting the glitterati and oligarchy who want to be assured that their offspring will not be studying with anyone they don’t have to. Your conception of a school as a place where children learn sums, eat in canteens and use jumpers for goalposts does not apply to these elite Swiss institutions. These aren’t schools so much as pubescent versions of Davos.

Ice Hockey at Le Rosey's Gstaad campus, 1950s

So what does a million pound education actually get you? Does Pol Roger champagne come out of the changing room showers and do they serve Strottarga Bianco caviar for lunch? Is the headteacher the reanimated corpse of Socrates? Well, almost. Many of the swankiest schools teach horse-riding, yachting and yoga, organise skiing trips to Argentina and hiking excursions to Kilimanjaro. They offer on-site spa treatments and serenade the kids with private performances by Phil Collins and the Berlin Philharmonic. Which sounds incredible. The question is, can you justify spending that amount of money on a 13-year-old boy’s education, especially when his principal interests at that time in his life are limited to Juventus Football Club and onanism?

There are around 400 pupils at Le Rosey who live like they are honeymooning at a grand hotel. The main campus is built out of a 14th century chateau in the town of Rolle. It boasts three pools, a wellness centre with sauna and steam baths, a skate park, an open air theatre, an 18-hole golf course, a shooting range, an equestrian centre, and a boating school with a 38-foot yacht. In winter, the entire school decamps, like some Russian tsar, to a second campus in Gstaad, the chichi ski resort. In any other country, pupils their age would be staring out of the window, disassociating from a lesson on simultaneous equations. Meanwhile the Rosey kids are racing through the Swiss Alps, perfecting their carving techniques and thinking about how many beers they’re going to sneak in afterwards.

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