The international success of schools such as Wellington, Dulwich and North London Collegiate has meant that more and more independent UK schools are trying to compete internationally using the same basic model.
As a result, the market is becoming increasingly crowded and there is downward pressure on the level of income these overseas bricks and mortar schools can generate.
Whilst there is still a strong market for UK independent schools in Asia, those that have already established themselves in the main markets are facing the prospect of entering less attractive markets, which deliver lower income streams but require more investment.
As a result, an increasing number of schools are now considering new channels of income generation, through which they can differentiate themselves by offering different pedagogical visions, age ranges, enrichment programmes and subject focus.
They are using a bandwidth of offerings based on educational technology (edtech) service delivery. Scalable online edtech services can be accessible almost anywhere that has reasonably modern internet access arrangements.
Good examples of this are Eton X’s future skills programme and the virtual sixth form venture between Harrow and Pearson, with Harrow providing the educational content and Pearson providing the technology that underpins the course.
However, these are not the only examples. A good number of schools are currently in the process of developing some form of edtech offering for the international market and it is likely that these will hit the market over the next year or so.
These edtech channels take careful creation and require a strong technology platform that is beyond the abilities of any school. As a result, schools are entering into joint ventures with software companies and using the digital platforms as a way of exploiting their brand.
It requires a significantly different skill set to set up and run an online service as compared to that required for a bricks and mortar school. As well as the technology-related issues involved, they will need access to educational publishing skills to make the product appealing and user-friendly. Most fundamentally, schools need to be aware that they will be moving into a very dynamic and innovative area.
This will, of necessity, involve a lighter touch and responsive management approach. The great advantage is that online edtech solutions allow schools to roll out their pedagogical vision over a far wider field on a very scalable basis and with less dedicated resource.
The first step for a school considering using a digital platform is to ensure that it is able to use its brand in the target markets. This can be done by way of a brand audit that identifies any potential problems and enables the school to create an appropriate international brand strategy.
Once that is done, the school needs to identify the need it wishes to fulfil. Whether it is tutoring for A-levels or other exams, making study more relevant and enjoyable for young girls or creating enrichment offerings to add onto vanilla curricula, it is essential that a clear market strategy as regards to both product and distribution is developed.
It will then be necessary to find an appropriate technology partner and structure a relationship with it that will benefit both parties. Joint venture arrangements have something of a bad reputation as being difficult to establish and operate in practice.
However, if the parties are clear over their objectives in the first place and do not over-commit on the level of resources that can be devoted to the operation of the joint venture then an operational joint venture can be a sensible vehicle to open up new areas of business.
Of course, for an international expansion programme it may also be advantageous to have a local service delivery partner.
This can be simply to bring in local marketing expertise where the primary partners do not have the local experience, but it may also involve some educational element so that the online service can be embedded in a local educational environment. The addition of a local partner will create additional complexities and risks, but these may well be worthwhile.
Whatever the delivery mechanisms, we can be sure that the educational marketplace in the near future will include a range of online service delivery solutions. Schools can ignore this phenomenon but they then risk missing out on business opportunities and others will gain the benefit.
Whilst today it is seen as a significant added value for a school, in due course it will be an essential part of any school’s educational offering.