All around the world

International schools have changed beyond recognition over the last 25 years. Anne Keeling reports on this ever-expanding market

The global international schools market continues to attract the UK’s well-established independent schools where reputation and brand image offer significant potential for international growth.

Schools like Dulwich College, Harrow, Marlborough College and Shrewsbury can now be found in such countries as Malaysia, UAE and China, responding to an increasing demand for high quality, English-speaking education from both expatriate and local families. These schools are part of a highly influential international schools market which is currently meeting the learning needs of over 3.5million students using English as the language for learning.

The changing face of the international schools market

Market intelligence and data on the world’s international schools is collected and evaluated by The International School Consultancy Group (ISC), a UK-based organisation which has been researching the sector for over 25 years. During that time, the international schools market has changed dramatically, increasing in size from under 1,000 schools to 7,030 schools today.

The first international schools were mostly located in remote areas that could not otherwise provide an education for the children of expatriates working in such industries as oil and gas. Those early international schools delivered a national curriculum (usually British or American), were invariably small and limited in resources, and most were not-for-profit. Those schools bear virtually no resemblance to the international schools of today. The demographic breakdown, learning approach and business model have all changed and it is no longer a small market catering for a niche group. The international schools market is now big business, teaching 3,557,000 expatriate and local children, employing over 331,000 full-time staff, and last year generating £20.7billion in annual fee income alone.

Driving growth

In many countries, today’s international school enrolment is very much driven by the richest 5 percent of non-English-speaking parents. The reason for this is that as incomes rise, so an international school education becomes a possibility for more local families, many of whom place it high on their list of priorities. This is based upon the wide acceptance that a student who attends an international school, with its English-speaking education and typically high standards of teaching and learning, has access to a much wider choice of higher education.

The result is that today, local children fill 80 percent of international school places. This figure varies from country to country according to government quotas for attendance and an increasing number of governments are reducing these quotas or releasing restrictions altogether. However, there are still some countries, such as Singapore, where strict restrictions for local children apply. In these locations, international schools are populated on the whole by expatriate children.

It is the expanding middle class that is helping to generate an incredibly healthy market, one that ISC predicts will reach 11,500 international schools, teaching 6.4million students by 2024. It is for this reason that so many UK independent schools are developing their brands internationally.

The expansion of UK independent school brands

A number of UK independent schools such as Dulwich College, Harrow, Shrewsbury and Brighton College have been well-established internationally for several years. These schools are predominantly in South East Asia and the Middle East and typically came about via licensing arrangements with local operators. A significant number of other independent schools such as Repton, Wellington College and Oundle have started developing similar operations in more recent years. A smaller number, including Marlborough College, have established directly managed schools.

According to market intelligence by ISC, all these brands, along with the proprietary school groups such as Nord Anglia Education, Cognita Schools and GEMS, which directly own and operate multiple schools in a number of countries, have ambitious plans to expand. Wellington College and Harrow International, for example, will be opening campuses in China this September and Dulwich College will open in Singapore.

However, says ISC chairman Nicholas Brummitt, “it isn’t easy for a UK independent school to start an international operation. Every country has different expatriate and local demographic profiles. Some countries (China in particular) don’t actually allow their nationals to attend foreign-owned and -run schools. Then there are different regulatory environments, different levels of competition and so on. In most instances a local partner is either obligatory or highly desirable. All in all, there is much to know.”

Regional developments

Independent schools considering new international opportunities will be following the recent developments in the market. Growth of the international schools market in the last few years has been focused predominantly in Asia. Twenty-one countries now have over 100 international schools, 11 of which are in Asia (including the Middle East). The country leading the global market is the UAE, with 428 international schools, followed closely by China, which has 417. Pakistan and India both have over 350 schools and Japan has more than 200. Other countries with over 100 are Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in Asia; Mexico, Argentina and Brazil in the Americas; Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain in Europe; and Egypt and Nigeria in Africa. The countries that experienced the most significant growth in 2013 were the UAE with 45 new schools and Brazil with 41. Other countries that saw major growth last year were Saudi Arabia, India, China and Indonesia.

China is one country generating much interest right now. China has 200 million school-aged children and a rapidly growing middle class. An increasing number of these families are demanding an international education. Developments in China’s international schools market are going some way towards meeting this demand. The formation of Chinese-foreign cooperation programmes to create international schools which will enrol both Chinese nationals and foreign students has created new possibilities.

Supporting the international schools market 

The growth of international schools comes with an increased need for the provision of high-quality educational services and supplies to support the schools in the region. Details from ISC’s latest country reports, which provide specific market intelligence on major growth countries for international schools, identify many examples of how the infrastructure behind school development is helping to maintain standards.

Some educational providers are investing directly. Fieldwork Education, for example, which offers the international primary and middle years curricula has, this year, opened an office in Kuala Lumpur specifically to support and provide training to schools in South East Asia, such as Harrow International in Bangkok, which deliver the IPC and IMYC.

An increasing number of educational technology and school suppliers are establishing field representatives in the region. And recruitment specialists are reporting increased demand from international schools for the targeted search and placement of skilled and experienced teaching and leadership staff. The majority of hires are fully qualified, experienced expatriate educators who speak English as a first language, mostly from the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, USA and South Africa, adding an additional international perspective to the school’s teaching community.

“The expansion of international schools comes with a need for quality staffing, premium learning-focused provision, and the very highest performance and accreditation standards in order to maintain the reputation that many international schools in the region currently have,” says Nicholas Brummitt. “This is particularly so for the independent school brands where the highest quality of learning facilities and provision attract some of the wealthiest of families. The market as a whole has a responsibility to keep these standards high if it is to see continued vibrant growth into the future.”

The International School Consultancy Group (ISC) is the only research organisation to focus exclusively on the international schools market. It provides a range of services to schools considering new developments and expansion, investors, developers, school suppliers and higher education institutions. These services include market intelligence reports, bespoke data, an online data service and personal representation.

Anne Keeling, The International School Consultancy Group ISC T: 02920 712265 E: W:


Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?

Would you like to share this report with your friends and colleagues?

You may enter up to three email addresses below to share this report