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International schools: local enrolments fuelling huge market expansion

The outlook for the already booming international schools sector remains bullish as ISC Research forecasts that by 2026, the K-12 international school market will almost double, reaching 16,000 schools teaching 8.75 million students generating $89bn globally.

Hong Kong International School. More than half (54%) of the world’s international English-medium K-12 schools now operate in Asia. Photo: ISC Research

The number of international schools worldwide has increased 41.5% in the last five years

According to the latest ISC Research Global Report, the number of international schools worldwide has increased 41.5% in the last five years to 8,257 schools– mostly at the middle to lower end of the tuition price scale as children from local middle income families increasingly fill seats.

The number of students attending international schools has also risen in the last five years to 4.3 million.

Asia, which includes Western Asia and the Middle East, accounts for the majority of this rapid growth. In five years the number of schools in the region has increased 55.7% headed by world leaders the UAE and China, with 548 and 547 schools respectively.

In terms of students, the UAE also dominates with 564,200 enrolees, followed by Saudi Arabia with 265,400.

“The number of international schools offering fees at this middle and lower end has increased in recent years”

More than half (54%) of the world’s international English-medium K-12 schools now operate in Asia enrolling 60% (2.55 million) of all international school students.

The development of local student demand is now driving growth in the sector, marking a shift away from reliance on expatriate families living and working in the country.

The research notes that Malaysia, where some schools are currently experiencing a significant loss of expatriate children because of the oil and gas crisis, has seen strong demand from local families for international school places helping to keep enrolments high.

Local middle-class enrolments have also served to move the needle on tuition fees. Average annual tuition fees at international schools globally has dropped for the fourth year in a row to $9,330.

According to the ISC Research’s report, this is 0.2% lower than in 2011.

While demand remains high at the premium school level, an increasing number of middle income families can only afford to pay fees at the middle and lower end of the fee range, Richard Gaskell, director for international schools, at the International School Consultancy explained.

“The number of international schools offering fees at this middle and lower end has increased in recent years and this trend is continuing because of the growing demand from middle income families,” he told The PIE News.

“This has opened up more opportunities for investors and not-for-profit organisations to establish affordable schools.”

Despite the drop in average tuition fees, the total annual income for the K-12 international schools market has increased by 45.9% over the last five years to $39bn as a result of the huge market expansion.

National legislation in key markets including Vietnam, Malaysia and South Korea is supporting the swell in demand by relaxing or removing altogether policies restricting local children from attending foreign-owned international schools.

In China, laws still don’t allow children to attend foreign-owned schools, however a number of new Chinese-owned bilingual schools offering classes in Mandarin and English are flourishing.

According to the research, current international school growth in China is being fuelled entirely by the local market.

“The growth in the number of schools has created pockets of need that cannot be easily filled”

But as demand from students rises globally, demand for teachers grows even more rapidly. The sector is already struggling to find quality teaching staff but ISC Research predicts that the number of teachers required within 10 years will be 780,000; double the current number of full-time staff employed in the sector.

“The growth in the number of schools has created pockets of need that cannot be easily filled,” Diane Jacoutot, managing director at Edvectus, a global teacher recruitment agency, told The PIE News.

National policies are also creating friction in the teacher recruitment pipeline, said Jacoutot. For example, leading markets Abu Dhabi and China, as well as countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Malaysia, require two years of teaching experience before a visa can be obtained.

“We are noticing many schools in these markets that have a modest fee structure, and correspondingly lower teacher salaries, who used to hire lots of newly qualified teachers have either had to raise salaries to compete for the two-year experienced teachers, or they have decide not to hire many western teachers, much to the parents’ dismay,” Jacoutot said.

In a bid to control teacher quality, many countries are also limiting the types of teacher qualifications they will accept.

“We are having huge difficulty, for instance, placing UK and Irish primary teachers without a Bachelor of Education in many parts of the Middle East, even though the traditional university-based Bachelor of Education is something from which the current UK government is moving away,” she said.

For a comprehensive view of the international school market, read our analysis.

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