Independent school overseas expansion: what to consider

Expanding internationally provides many new opportunities for private schools. Justin Smith explores what to consider and looks at the benefits and challenges

Author details

Justin is managing director of Chameleon Training and Consultancy. He previously worked at Wymondham College as director of marketing and development and has expertise in bid writing and income generation.

Research from the Independent Schools Council (ISC) suggests that British independent schools now teach more students overseas than foreign students in Britain.

The ISC schools represent around 80% of all independent school students in the UK and its 2018 annual census found that over 32,000 students are studying at their schools overseas.

British education overseas is extremely appealing; families are attracted to access to British universities and schools see the security of establishing a substantial long-term income stream, securing their future and improving their offering.

Operators and partner​s

These schools are typically set up via licensing arrangements with local operators and partners. In more recent years, other independent schools such as Repton, Wellington College and Oundle have started developing overseas operations in a similar way.

One option is to collaborate with experienced operators such as EduReach of International Schools Services. Some, such as Marlborough College, have set up directly managed schools.

The ISC and British Council both offer advice on the types of partnership arrangement available.

Traditionally, international schools have served the children of ex-pat workers who decided that the local education system wasn’t appropriate for them or it couldn’t be accessed. Now, local children from generally wealthy families account for almost 80% of all enrolments.

Key drivers of growth within the sector are the aspirational and growing middle classes of developing economies who are attracted by learning in English, gaining a recognised qualification and securing a pathway to a reputable UK university.

Benefits to expansion

Opportunities for establishing sister schools abroad exist not only for those schools which teach years 7 to 11, but also prep schools and pre-prep schools.

In some countries these schools are aimed predominantly at expatriates with children who need schooling, but in others they are aimed more at the local population. These differences all have an impact upon the nature and structuring of the various opportunities.

There are several reasons behind this growing trend for establishing overseas operations. One such reason is that the overseas ’sister’ school acts as a marketing tool for the ’mother’ school by raising its profile internationally, encouraging affluent, middle and upper-class parents in Asia, the Middle East and beyond to send their children to the UK institution.

Another benefit is the greater opportunities for educational visits, gap years and other exchanges. Dulwich College has introduced an Olympics-style sports tournament for students from its international network, for example.

Another reason is that overseas profits are often used to pay for bursaries to give children from less advantaged backgrounds access to the UK schools.

Nearly 30% of students at Dulwich College, which has schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Seoul and Singapore have bursaries.

Challenges

Clearly an undertaking of this magnitude doesn’t come without its challenges and a certain amount of risk. That said, these risks can be mitigated, especially when it comes to ensuring control over ethos and brand, and in choosing the suitable partner to work alongside.

Reputational damage

Reputation is synonymous with success and can be a significant influencing factor in parental decision making when it comes to choosing a fee-paying school for their children.

The reputation, respect and credibility afforded by the school brand plays a significant role in deciding whether parents, sponsors and other stakeholders decide to engage with a private school.

It is critical that due consideration is given to the school brand, ethos and values when establishing an overseas operation. The best way of reducing this risk to an acceptable level is to ensure that the school chooses an appropriate partner.

Putting in place a comprehensive agreement that ensures control over the ethos and operation of the overseas school is vital, as is a clear mechanism that allows for the termination of the arrangement if the operators of the overseas school fail to maintain agreed standards.

Although the government operates a system of inspections for British schools overseas, checking the quality of curriculum delivery, and school premises, it is important that the school itself adopts an ongoing and systematic scrutiny of the sister school.

Insufficient demand

Any school considering an overseas presence in a country needs to ensure there is sufficient demand and developing an understanding of the local market before embarking on the project is key.

Establishing a new enterprise such as this will take time to grow, cement its own reputation and become a viable educational alternative for the target market.

It would be wise to structure any revenue streams so that the project still makes financial sense even if initial demand does not meet the projections and expectations of the school and its partner.

Local conditions

Every location has its own set of very different regulatory environments and demographic influences.

Government controls and stipulations vary significantly and may include complex licensing procedures, strict standards and accreditation expectations, controls on fees and student quotas, teaching licences etc.

It is important to get advice from a trusted legal advice on the nuances of local regulations.

Administration

Schools recruiting students from outside the European Economic Area must hold a tier four sponsor licence from UK Visas and Immigration. Schools also have a responsibility to carry out regular checks on the immigration status of students in their care.

The number of teachers working in international schools is expected to increase and rise to approximately 613,000 by 2021. As in the UK, the necessity to attract teachers of a quality and calibre demanded by both the schools and by the parents, is becoming an increasing concern.

To recruit and retain the best staff schools need to be clear on their values and ethos, offer excellent development and training opportunities and create a tangible sense of community and togetherness in the overseas school.

Risk management

The benefits of establishing a sister school in another country can be many and varied for UK independent schools.

Aside from the financial benefits, valuable cultural and sporting links can be established, and exchange opportunities for staff and students can be unparalleled.

Developing an international alumni community can reap real benefits over time and sow the seeds for all sorts of positive re-engagement, financial and otherwise, in the future.

While undertaking an international project such as this can never be risk-free, and the damage caused by choosing the wrong partner or location can be significant, there is evidence that more schools are concluding that the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

These risks, with the right preparation and consideration, can be controlled, offering a win-win solution to all involved.

Last Updated: 
30 Apr 2018