International schools are flying high

There has been a significant shift in the market for international schools in the UK and globally over the past year, with many seeing substantially higher demand for places than ever before. Nicky Hawkwood finds out what lies behind the post-pandemic popularity of the international school

It’s always breakfast time somewhere in the world and, having tucked into their morning meal, a staggering 5.7 million students will head off to an international school, where they will spend the school day following an academic curriculum not typical of the country in which they are living and learning.

International schools have always had their niche, often catering mainly for the children of ex-pats studying towards largely English or American public exams and, at the same time, growing up with an understanding of the global community. However, since the pandemic there has been increased interest from parents who are considering international schools in preference to the local educational provision.

In fact, the popularity of international schools globally has been growing for some time.

“Student enrolment at international schools has leapt by 54% since January 2012 and there are now 59% more international schools for them to attend,” reports Anne Keeling, communications director for ISC Research, which supplies data, trends and intelligence on the world’s international schools market, and she anticipates that places will continue to be in high demand.

Even more international schools are rising from the ground to meet it, and many under the umbrella of long-established names in independent schooling.

“We are currently tracking a further 378 international schools that are likely to open this coming year or in the near future,” adds Keeling. “Sixty-seven of these future schools are sister schools of independent school brands – 58 of these from Britain; the other nine from the United States. Most will be located in Asia, although there are future developments planned for Africa and the Americas, and one in Europe.”

The number of international students attending City of London Freemen’s School has increased since 2019


Local markets

Around the globe, international schools have seen a dramatic shift in their market in recent years. Significantly, they are the domain of Western ex-pats no longer. ISC Research’s latest analysis concludes that the majority of students now attending international schools are, in fact, local children from the country in which the school is located, as well as ‘third culture’ children who do not associate with any single nationality or culture, and ex-pats from all countries of the world.

“Parents are recognising that top British international schools in particular have delivered exceptional opportunities and support for students during the pandemic” – Dr Fiona Rogers, COBIS

“We have seen a real ‘flight to quality’,” says Dr Fiona Rogers, deputy CEO and director of professional development and research at the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), whose own research shows that 2021/22 admissions were up in more than half of its member schools.

“Parents are recognising that top British international schools in particular have delivered exceptional opportunities and support for students during the pandemic. In other cases, the return of families from overseas, or parents choosing to keep children close to home rather than boarding abroad, has also had a positive impact on admissions. A high-quality education continues to be a priority for parents.”

Certainly, the experience of the pandemic focused the minds of parents everywhere on the aspects of education that are particularly important to them, and international schools were well-equipped to deliver.

“Many international schools were able to respond quickly as they already had in place management information systems, virtual learning platforms, and technology to support teaching and learning,” explains Keeling.

“The nature of international schools is that wellbeing was already a priority prior to Covid-19, mostly to support the high number of expatriate and marginalised students and staff, and to develop an ethos of belonging within their communities. Parents continue to be attracted to international schools and parental word-of-mouth is powerful.”

Future locations

Asia continues to dominate the international schools’ market, with 58% of all international schools (7,433 schools as of January 2022, teaching 3.6 million students, according to ISC Research). This presence is split equally between east Asia, south-east Asia, western Asia (the Middle East), and southern Asia.

Countries with the most international schools are China, India, UAE, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and the UK curriculum is the most popular foreign curriculum offered by international schools across Asia.

Even in the face of political and economic challenges, the number of international schools around the world is expected to continue to climb, and new locations are gradually opening up.

Japan is tipped by ISC Research as one of the top future growth markets. Active encouragement of foreign direct investment by the Japanese government over the past 10 years has brought big business and wealth to the country, which in turn supports the development of international schools.

Japan’s reputation for safety and clean air, as well as its excellent transportation links, are attracting families, too. Several premium international schools, including Harrow, Rugby School and Malvern College, are opening this year and next in Japan, partly to respond to an increasing demand caused by government restrictions to international education for Chinese nationals in China.

In India, the number of local families with the financial means and aspirations to enter the international education sector has grown in recent years and schools there are seeing a rise in popularity. Enrolment demand for international schools in south-east Asia is also on the up, largely due to the fact that there are far fewer regulations restricting the enrolment of local children here than in east Asia.

“The nature of international schools is that wellbeing was already a priority prior to Covid-19, mostly to support the high number of expatriate and marginalised students and staff, and to develop an ethos of belonging within their communities” – Anne Keeling, ISC Research

“Some positive opportunities for international schools resulted from the pandemic in south-east Asia,” explains Keeling, “including a general dissatisfaction with the online provision of the national education systems during campus shutdowns and the closure of many national private schools, while international schools were seen to serve children well. As a result, there is movement of children to international schools, particularly to the mid-market fee international schools that are more affordable to local families.”

Halcyon London International School is looking to establish a primary school and a new campus to meet demand from local as well as international families



Seeking new markets appears to be the way ahead for international schools in the UK, too. Although a very small sector of just 22 international schools serving 9,000 students, most of whom are studying for American or specific non-UK qualifications, it too has seen strengthened demand for places since the pandemic.
The international student body at City of London Freemen’s School in Surrey, for example, has grown from 6% of the roll in 2019 to 13% in 2021.

“Freemen’s student recruitment remained resilient throughout the pandemic and we are enjoying an increase in demand for international places, which on the basis of current registrations shows no sign of waning,” says Sarah Sergeant, head of communications at Freemen’s.

Not resting on its laurels, Freemen’s is widening its recruitment net to ensure a steady stream of international students well into the future.

“We are mindful of particular over-reliance on specific overseas markets, which is why diversification is crucial to the continuing success of the boarding and international student community at Freemen’s,” adds Sergeant. “In the coming years, we will be seeking to diversify into new overseas markets, such as Nigeria and Mexico, and this September we are launching Freemen’s Global, a digital immersive teaching programme in partnership with schools in a number of international locations, which we anticipate will engage more than 500 students across the world in the next three or four years.”

“We have remained stable through altering our marketing and communications strategies to expand our market and encourage local families to apply, as well as international families” – Khushi Hunt, Halcyon London International School

In the tough market of the capital, Halcyon London International School experienced a dip in recruitment of pupils aged 11 to 18 for its enriched IB curriculum in 2020/21, but has recovered well since.

“Many international families returned to their home countries in the first year of the pandemic,” explains Halcyon’s communication manager, Khushi Hunt, “but we have remained stable through altering our marketing and communications strategies to expand our market and encourage local London families to apply, as well as international families. Although mainly British passport holders, most of these London-based families have an international background and family elsewhere in the world.”

Halcyon London International School expanded its marketing strategy to attract local London families as well as international ones, in order to maintain student numbers


In common with other schools, Halcyon moved many of its marketing events online.

“During the pandemic, we introduced Virtual Open Houses – live Q&A sessions with key staff and student ambassadors, to make it easy for families all over the world to attend,” says Khushi. “We continue to offer these as an option for families with working parents or parents who are stationed overseas, so that has boosted recruitment, too.”

Like Freemen’s, Halycon has welcomed an influx of students from Hong Kong since the introduction in January 2021 of the British National (Overseas) visa, which allows Hong Kongers to live, work and study in the UK. This has encouraged Halcyon to forge ahead with plans to add a primary school and establish a new campus.

The continued uptick in demand for places at international schools is testament to the fact that the sector has risen to the challenges of the past few years and proved itself well-placed to meet parents’ evolving expectations for their children’s education, wherever in the world they may be.

International schools’ statistics:

● 54% increase in student enrolment at international schools around the world since January 2012
● 12,853 international schools globally
● 172 independent school foreign campuses
● 5.7 million international school students aged 3 to 18

(ISC Research data, correct as at January 2022)

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