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International schools sector explores Saudi as Asia market toughens 

Saudi is the “land of opportunity” for K-12 schools with international expansion plans, experts have suggested, pointing to the Kingdom’s plans to attract more international private operators.

The IPSEF Global conference took place on June 28 in London. Photo: The PIE News

The pandemic and a clampdown on regulation has made China a very tough market to enter and operate in

The international schools market has shifted as a result of the pandemic, with markets like Southeast Asia becoming “tougher” to operate in, and teacher recruitment more challenging than ever, speakers at the IPSEF Global conference in London said.

The conference, which is aimed at independent and international schools looking for overseas opportunities, explored how to open a school abroad and which markets to look at. Throughout the day, speakers kept coming back to Saudi as an interesting market.

“Saudi truly is the land of opportunity,” said Anita Gleave, founder and CEO of Chatsworth Schools and its international arm Blenheim Schools, which recently opened its first school in Riyadh, Beech Hall. There’s increasing place for “high quality British education” across the world, which presents “endless opportunity”, she added.

Unlike many other countries, the opportunity for international schools in Saudi is “a local opportunity”, said Vipul Bhargava, partner at Novistra, a boutique advisory firm.

It’s estimated that there are 1 million local students going to the private schools sector and 1,000 schools are required. A lot of Saudis have the funds to afford private education and the demand for English-medium schools is very high, making it a very attractive place for international and British schools, the panel agreed.

“It’s not recognised what is being done for women and girls in schools”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very keen to attract private international schools. Education is one of the key pillars of the government’s Vision 2030 to transition the economy away from an over-reliance on oil and diversity revenue.

Of course, opening up a school in a country like Saudi can come with some challenges. Pam Mundy, director of schools and education, NEOM Education, said one has to be “ready for arguments” that will come from the board of the existing school. Many schools will have to make changes to their practices and curriculum to make them suitable to the target families, she said.

“It’s not recognised how much things are changing and what is being done for women and girls in schools,” she said. She recommended that school operators explore different cities in Saudi and think hard about how to sell the idea of Saudi to the board, parents and alumni.

Ross Barfoot, partner at law firm Clyde & Co, said Egypt could be the “next China”. “When China got too difficult, we saw British schools popping up quickly in Egypt,” Barfoot noted. But the fee point in most other African countries is simply too low for international schools to be able to operate, he added.

The pandemic and a clampdown on regulation has made China a very tough market to enter and operate in.

As a result, a lot of schools across Southeast Asia have seen an influx of students from China looking for international schools in the region, especially Singapore and Thailand, Ian Callendar, COO and director at North London Collegiate School International said, speaking on a panel about Asia.

He highlighted that Asia is “a tougher market now” because of its existing high-quality school provision. Vietnam and Indonesia are still developing markets, with interesting opportunities, the panel agreed.

Another interesting country that was in the spotlight was India. Fiona Carter, director of education at Wellington College International, shared the experience of working with a local partner to open a school. She said there are some regulatory challenges, such as schools having to be not for profit and tax implications for foreign teachers.

While the fee point in India is generally lower than China and Singapore, Bhargava from Novistra, stressed that it “has lots of opportunity because its different”.

Indians spend money on education, fees are increasing, universities are now allowed to set up branch campuses in India and the government is making “the right noise” to attract foreign higher education institutions, he added.

“A lot of those who would normally be attracted to teaching are now choosing other industries”

Attracting teachers to international schools has become a major challenge post-pandemic. Diana Jacoutot, managing director at teacher recruitment firm Edvectus, said the teaching profession is losing steam and fewer people are training as many more jobs can be done from home, allowing a better work-life balance.

“This means a lot of those who would normally be attracted to teaching are now choosing other industries,” she said.

According to Ian Hunt, chairman of the Board of Governors, Haileybury Kazakhstan, there are 571,000 teachers in the international sector.

“There’s massive teacher shortages in the UK, Australia and the US. Teachers are interested in money and this will not change,” Jacoutot said. It’s a more “transactional” arrangement now than it used to be.

A country like Saudi may be an attractive destination for teachers who wish to go overseas. Salaries are generally higher while cost of living is low.

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