Opening overseas: how British independent schools are leading the way

Demand for premium independent school brand education continues to expand globally, says Will Bedford, senior manager of the schools division at ISC Research

The impact of Covid-19 and other economic factors on British independent schools means that a growing number of schools are looking at diversification for alternative revenue streams. One solution is foreign development.

Taking an independent school into a foreign market is not new; some schools such as Harrow and Dulwich have used this approach very successfully for two decades and more. It offers a number of benefits that directly impact the founding school; broadening enrolment potential, extending awareness of the school brand overseas, and creating exchange and career opportunities, as well as raising income.

Meeting a demand

The international school education sector is one that has seen phenomenal success over the last 20 years. In 2000 there were 2,584 schools in non-English-speaking countries that were offering an international education in English to less than one million students. By July 2020 there were 11,616 international schools, attended by 5.98 million students generating more than $US54bn in income from school fees.

Many parents select an international school because it offers English as the language of learning. Others are attracted by the standard of learning their children will receive and the global qualifications they will gain giving them a passport to most universities around the world and, ultimately, global career opportunities. For some of the wealthiest parents, rather than sending their child to board overseas, they are turning to the international school in their local city that is a sister school of a foreign independent school instead.

For some of the wealthiest parents, rather than sending their child to board overseas, they are turning to the international school in their local city that is a sister school of a foreign independent school instead

The emergence of such schools has increased notably in recent years. Several British independent schools have followed the early examples of Harrow and Dulwich, including Marlborough, Haileybury, Wellington, Repton, Shrewsbury, Brighton, Malvern and Cranleigh. So too have respected independent school brands from the United States, Canada and Australia, including Branksome Hall, Dwight, Chadwick, Basis, Shattuck St Mary’s and Haileybury Melbourne, but nothing like the extent of British schools.

Wellington’s Huili School Hangzhou, which opened in September 2018

Current foreign campus presence

Today there are 129 independent brand campuses overseas. These exist either as sister schools, or as international schools that are supported through a service or education management agreement by a foreign independent school. Thirty-eight are new for the 2020–21 year including King’s College (Wimbledon) in Bangkok, Cranleigh in Changsha, and two schools for The Perse School in Singapore and Suzhou.

These schools remain a small sector (just 1%) of the entire international schools market, but nevertheless, an extremely prominent one.

Many lead learning standards in the cities and countries in which they are located and attract high demand from the wealthiest, brand-conscious families. This demand has not declined as a result of Covid-19. Many international schools associated with British independent schools gained an excellent reputation for responding well to the challenge of maintaining their education offerings during the global pandemic.

A number of those in China – which were impacted sooner than others in other countries – were singled out by the global media for their good practice and adaptability during the pandemic. This included innovative use of technology for both academic and pastoral purposes which enabled the schools to respond to their students’ needs for personalisation and direct support despite the lack of physical contact.

They were also highlighted for their campus reopening procedures, onsite safety precautions and staffing solutions. Many other international schools have followed their good practice.

Popular business models

To date, 28 independent school brands have not only established a sister school overseas but have also expanded their campuses to new cities or countries. They tend to use a range of business models for their schools in order to maximise the potential within their host countries.

For example, Wellington College has joint ventures in Thailand and China as well as service agreements with China’s Huili schools. These service agreements enable Wellington College to deliver some elements of education management to Chinese-owned private schools which are allowed to enrol Chinese nationals.

Many international schools associated with British independent schools gained an excellent reputation for responding well to the challenge of maintaining their education offerings during the global pandemic

Founding schools rarely invest their own funds in an overseas campus; most partner with investors, collaborate with existing operators or become full-scale operators overseas. Some schools are exploring other models, such as delivering online learning solutions overseas.

Demand for premium independent school brand education continues to expand globally, particularly in most global cities in east and south-east Asia, and opportunities for more brand development is expected to remain high, even with – or some might say as a result of – Covid-19.


Will Bedford supports British independent schools with international development plans and investor sourcing for international partnerships. Contact him at will.bedford@iscresearch.com

ISC Research has published a white paper evaluating international business models for independent school development overseas. Free copies are available from Will.

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