NB: I spent the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s building up international book fair and exhibition businesses and it was during this time that the international school market began to grow rapidly. I founded The International School Consultancy (ISC) in 1994 to provide data and consultancy services for a small group of high-level clients. The sheer volume of information and the number of people requesting specific market data made it very clear that a single source of comprehensive and up-to-date information was required.
Over the years, as a result of demand, we expanded our services and provision. ISC now has current, online data on the entire international schools market; our field-based researchers carry out visits to 600 premium international schools each year; ISC has research agreements with all key international school associations; we produce demographic studies, market intelligence reports and statistical analyses for cities, countries and regions; and we have clients all over the world.
The PIE: How does ISC define an international school?
The international schools market is now big business, often leading the world in pedagogy, learning technology and facilities
NB: For the purposes of market intelligence, analysis and data collection, ISC defines an international school as one that delivers a curriculum to any combination of infant, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. American schools in the UK for example, British schools in America, and also schools in countries such as India, Pakistan and several in Africa where English is one of the official languages. Schools in these countries are only included if they offer an international curriculum.
The PIE: How have you seen the international schools market develop since you have been involved in the sector?
NB: The international schools market has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, growing from less than 1,000 schools to 6,885 schools today. Those first international schools were mostly located in remote areas that couldn’t otherwise provide an education to the children of expatriates working in such industries as oil and gas.
Local children fill 80% of all international school places; a complete reversal of 30 years ago when most were taken by expatriate children
In the early international schools, an expatriate student intake dominated, a national curriculum (usually British or American, based on the priorities of the founders) was used, the school was 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, often leading the world in pedagogy, learning technology and facilities, teaching 3.485 million expatriate and local children, employing over 320,000 full-time staff, and last year generating US$34 billion in annual fee income alone.
It’s an incredibly healthy market. ISC is confident that within the next 10 years there will be 11,500 international schools teaching 6.4million students.
The PIE: So what is driving this growth in demand?
NB: Enrolment is increasingly driven by the richest 5% of non-English-speaking parents around the world who are looking for places for their children at international schools in their own countries. The result of this is that today, local children fill 80% of all international school places; a complete reversal of 30 years ago when most were taken by expatriate children.
As incomes rise, so an international school education becomes a possibility for more local families, many of who place it high on their list of priorities. This is based upon the wide acceptance that students who attend international schools – with their English-speaking education and typically high standards of teaching and learning – have access to a wider choice of universities, including the very best in the world.
Enrolment is increasingly driven by the richest 5% of non-English-speaking parents around the world
The PIE: Which are the dominant brands in the international schools sector?
NB: Some UK independent schools including Dulwich College, Harrow, Shrewsbury and Brighton College are already well-established internationally; predominantly in Asia and usually via licensing arrangements with local operators. A significant number of other independent schools have started developing similar operations in the last few years. A smaller number, including Marlborough College, have established directly managed schools. And then there are proprietary school groups like Nord Anglia Education, Cognita Schools and GEMS that directly own and operate multiple schools in a number of countries. All these brands have ambitious plans to expand.
The PIE: How difficult is it for domestic operators to start up overseas and what are the typical hurdles they face?
NB: It isn’t easy for a UK independent school or group 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 and many potential pitfalls.
The PIE: Which countries will dominate this sector in terms of demand for Western-education in-country by 2020?
NB: China has 200 million school-aged children and a rapidly growing middle class (including at least two and a half million US$ millionaires), and 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 rise in demand. The formation of Chinese-foreign cooperation programmes to create international schools which will enrol both Chinese nationals and foreign students has, in particular, created new possibilities. The potential for growth of international schools in China looks enormous. If this potential is realised, growth in China is likely to dwarf growth in any other country.
The potential for growth of international schools in China looks enormous. If this potential is realised, growth in China is likely to dwarf growth in any other country
In addition to China, several countries in East and South East Asia (including Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong) and the Middle East (Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar) are growing rapidly. Parts of South America (such as Brazil) also have great potential. The numbers of students in the international schools in Southern Asian countries are also huge. But, to date, fee levels at the international schools there are too low to attract many of the major operators. This may well change within the next five years.
The PIE: The PIE is supporting ISC with a forthcoming seminar about international student recruitment. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
NB: Over 5,000 international schools have upper school students; a very high proportion of who have their sights set on tertiary education overseas. This seminar will share some of the latest research and data of relevance for higher education international recruitment managers, as well as offer insight from a range of experienced service providers who know and understand this highly influential and lucrative market.