A world of opportunities?

Could your school benefit from an overseas ‘sister’ branch? Steve Wright examines the potential advantages, and challenges, of international expansion

Over the past two decades, many of Britain’s leading independent schools have begun to look overseas, and to consider bringing their historic, trusted educational brand to new markets around the world via sister schools, developed in conjunction with a local education partner in the host country. The fast-growing economies of the Middle and Far East, in particular, have seen a huge growth in ‘sister schools’ of major UK independent schools, as has Europe.

The Council of British International Schools (COBIS) now has 261 member schools, in destinations from Bulgaria to the Congo, Marbella to Mauritius, and holds its 38th Annual Conference this May, allowing international schools, UK schools with overseas branches, or those interested in learning more about the international market, to come together.

“An increasing number of UK independent schools have been entering the international school market in recent years,” confirms Dr Fiona Rogers, COBIS’ deputy CEO and director of professional development and research. “An international branch can raise the profile and increase recognition of the UK school brand name overseas, which can have a positive impact on the recruitment of overseas students back to the UK.” 

Overseas expansion prompts reflection on a school’s core educational ethos, and how far this might be able to be transferred to a different setting

According to data from ISC Research, the international schools’ sector has been growing, on average, by more than 6% per annum, with the number of new schools increasing, on average, by more than 450 each year. “There is significant demand for well-respected British education overseas, from both local families and globally mobile professionals,” Dr Rogers continues. “Parents around the world choose British international schools to give their children the best possible educational opportunities, including facilitating entry to the UK education system at the school or university level.”

The full experience

Overseas expansion is clearly a route being taken by many schools, but what are the potential benefits and the pitfalls to keep in mind? Ian McIntyre is international development director at Rugby School, whose first sister school opened in Thailand in 2017, Rugby’s 450th anniversary year. “Rugby School Thailand is an expression of our ambition to be able to offer a Rugby education to families around the world,” Ian explains. 

“It allows boys and girls in Thailand and across the region to enjoy the full Rugby School boarding experience within a culture identical to Rugby’s, where each pupil aspires to academic excellence, and where the development of the whole person is the whole point.”

And so far, the strategy seems to be working, not least the boarding-school format, which is appealing to Thailand’s busy parents. “We are finding that many families in Thailand are choosing Rugby in order to avoid sending their children to day schools in the capital, where the inevitable pollution and traffic can mean children spending hours each day in cars. Rugbeans in Thailand have plenty of time and space in their day to enjoy the huge range of co-curricular activities on offer.”

Continuing the initiative, Rugby School and Rugby School Thailand will be running their first pupil exchange next term. A group of Rugby pupils will spend time at Rugby Thailand, enjoying all aspects of school life, including opportunities to explore Thailand; at the same time, a cohort from Rugby Thailand will spend time at Rugby UK, taking a full part in school life. Rugby are also developing a professional culture of shared best practice among teachers at both schools, where teachers can share teaching ideas and resources online.

“A well-considered extension of a school’s educational mission overseas offers three related benefits,” adds Dr Cameron Pyke, deputy master external, Dulwich College. “Firstly, it prompts reflection on a school’s core educational ethos, and how far this might be able to be transferred to a different setting. 

Malvern College Egypt

“Secondly, it symbolically underscores a school’s commitment to internationalism and outward-facing values, whilst offering considerable opportunities for student engagement and staff professional development in a different context. For example, the Dulwich Olympiad 2019 (the second such event – the first was hosted by Dulwich College Beijing in 2015) brings together over 600 pupils and staff from across the family of schools for a series of creative and sporting events in London in the year of the founding school’s quatercentenary. 

“Finally, overseas engagement has the potential to offer a long-term source of income to reinforce a school’s educational mission in its local context, through providing a relatively secure source of funds for bursarial access.”

Benefits can be experienced everywhere across school life too – not just in financial terms. Allan Walker is director of international schools at Malvern College, which since 2012 has opened four sister schools – in Hong Kong, Cairo, and Qingdao and Chengdu, both China – to accompany its parent school in Worcestershire. “The development of our international portfolio has opened the door to a wide range of initiatives, from teacher and pupil exchanges to the development of a platform for sharing teaching resources between our schools,” Allan explains. 

“For example, we are currently working on an initiative to run an inter-campus curriculum project involving pupils from our associated preparatory school, The Downs Malvern, and pupils from the same year group at two of our international schools.” 

Renewed enthusiasm

Staff recruitment can also benefit from the extra opportunities and career experience that overseas expansion can bring. “An international branch can also support staff retention, providing opportunities for UK staff to spend time overseas within the same school family and return to the UK with renewed enthusiasm for their chosen career,” says Dr Rogers. 

“Recent COBIS research into Teacher Supply revealed that international experience can play a significant role in teacher retention. Nearly a third of teachers entering the international school sector were thinking about leaving the profession before taking an international job, whereas some 80% of teachers who work internationally are happy or very happy with their experience. Furthermore, when teachers leave the international sector and return to the UK, they bring with them a wealth of transferable skills (cultural awareness, global outlook, EAL experience) as well as a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.”

How, though, should schools ensure that their identity and ethos remain strong across all sister schools? Can a new sister school in, say, south-east Asia, with all the latter’s variables in terms of culture, climate, professional practices and more, always hope to embody the same values as its centuries-old parent school here in the UK?  

“Setting up sister schools abroad is exciting. It is also hugely time-consuming,” Ian McIntyre reflects. “Putting in place a robust quality assurance programme is important. Our goal is to develop genuinely authentic sister schools that share Rugby UK’s aims and ethos. A strong quality assurance programme prevents ‘brand dilution’ and ensures that Rugbeans the world over can enjoy the same outstanding quality of education for which Rugby is renowned. For example, I will be making annual visits to our sister school with senior staff from Rugby, to check that it is operating in accordance with Rugby’s operating standards.”

Choosing your host location – and, in particular, partner organisation – is key. “A school should consider carefully where in the world it might wish to engage,” Dr Pyke advises. “In doing so, it should not underestimate the amount of time required to set up and sustain an educational institution at a distance. However, the most important area of due diligence will be the choice of partner, which must be wholly aligned with the school’s ethos, educationally driven as well as commercially astute, and sensitively attuned to the local political, cultural and regulatory frameworks. 

“It is the subsequent legal arrangement between a school and the partner which will define the position and relationship of the founding school in the future. The latter should be clear on its ‘bottom lines’ in terms of brand control, define its desired response to every eventuality, and set up a formal mechanism and institutional framework for preserving control and oversight.”

Allan Walker at Malvern echoes the need for both a reliable (and embedded) partner in the host country, and for robust contractual controls. “These controls – for instance the right to appoint the head and the right to quality-assure the strength of the educational provision – are an essential starting point in overseas brand management,” Allan Walker stresses. “Ultimately any successful international strategy relies heavily on the strength of the partnership developed with the school’s local in-country operators.” 

Your chosen partner must be wholly aligned with the school’s ethos, educationally driven as well as commercially astute, and sensitively attuned to local frameworks

When looking at chosen destinations, an awareness of the strength of the target market is crucial and there are clearly some buoyant markets out there. Dubai, for example, is experiencing a surge in demand for a UK-style education. “The Royal Atlantis Residences has seen a number of expat families with young children moving to Dubai, and the Emirate’s large and comprehensive education sector offers a breadth of choice for all age groups,” explains Maria Morris, head of residential, Knight Frank, Middle East. “The schools on offer include well-recognised global institutions offering curriculums from Britain, America and Switzerland amongst other locations, and with an influx of schools continuing, like North London Collegiate, there are an increasing number of options every year; in 2018–2019 alone 13 new schools were opened.”

Access for all

Elsewhere, the UK-based Nisai Group delivers quality, internationally recognised education to students across the globe. Beginning 20 years ago in the UK, Nisai is now one of the nation’s most established online education providers, specifically catering to young people who are unable to access mainstream education due to health, personal situation or geographical location.

Some years into its existence, Nisai made the decision to plan its overseas expansion. “The decision to proceed with expansion was based on the international market supporting and complementing the existing UK offer, rather than replacing it,” explains Veebha Subchak at Nisai.

“After becoming approved as a Cambridge International School and running pilot programmes in Australia and the Philippines, we identified south-east Asia as our target market. We were aware that local educational needs would be different, and so it was important for us to form partnerships with local organisations.” 

Nisai’s first international partnership was with Thailand’s Amnuay Silpa School (ANS). Nisai offered ANS students primary and secondary Cambridge programmes leading to Cambridge IGCSE and A-levels, allowing ANS students to progress on to further and higher education anywhere in the world. 

Nisai then used a mix of technology and tradition, and British and local expertise, to deliver their education overseas. “Aware of the risks of overseas recruitment, we decided that our own UK teachers would deliver their international Cambridge programmes to students abroad, at a time suitable for the students. ANS local teachers provide classroom support while the Nisai Virtual Academy is projected on to a screen with a Nisai UK teacher delivering a live lesson, creating a blended learning environment.” 

Nisai are now in the process of agreeing the delivery of Cambridge programmes in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, all through local partnerships. 

Finally (and crucially), the advantages, whether financial or otherwise, of overseas expansion will depend on that most essential criterion: the educational excellence of the host school being reproduced at the new site(s). “The financial benefits of internationalisation can seem obvious but, without strong academic performance, parents will not choose to send their children to the school,” Walker continues.

Setting up sister schools abroad is exciting. It is also hugely time-consuming

“Financial reward is dependent on the quality of the educational outcomes delivered by international offshoots. This aspect of the internationalisation process requires particularly careful attention and sympathetic management.

“Around the world, British education is seen as cultural capital, and the success of this export market over more than two decades has relied primarily on a reputation for strong educational provision. So, the quality of education is fundamental to the commercial success of any international school project. However, managing this sustainably is challenging and relies not only on internal factors such as teacher training and upgrading facilities, but also on external social and cultural factors which are inherent in any international business arrangement in today’s society.”

It is also important, Walker continues, to be honest about the nature of the school’s international offshoots and not to be too strict in your blueprinting of the original ‘parent’ school. 

“It is naive to expect an international campus to be an exact replica of the UK school, since the cultural and educational context in which it exists is likely to be very different. 

“The ability to understand and embrace these differences is, in my view, fundamental to building a group of schools with a shared global vision and outlook. This requires a shift in view from seeing the UK school as the ‘mothership’ to seeing it as one member of a global family of schools with a shared ethos and common values, appropriate for life in the globalised 21st century.”


Useful information:

The Council of British International Schools: www.cobis.org.uk

COBIS report on teacher supply in international schools: https://resources.finalsite.net/images/v1536159762/cobis/bu6zyw9c7cdxpjsbq2uk/COBISTeacherSupply_FinalReport_July2018.pdf

38th COBIS Annual Conference: 11–13 May, InterContinental London O2: https://www.cobis.org.uk/cpd/annualconference

Nisai: www.nisai.com/about.html