The numbers speak for themselves: Between 2011 and 2021 some 9,000 new international schools opened their doors.
The pioneer was Dulwich College, landing on Phuket’s beaches in 1996. In the last decade, Dulwich has been joined by, amongst others, Repton School, Marlborough College, North London Collegiate School, Epsom College, and Wycombe Abbey.
Perhaps your brand is amongst them – or you want it to be.
You are certainly not alone. Ever more international schools are opening in ever more far-flung locations. Across China, for sure, but not only. It would actually be easier to list countries where there isn’t demand for international education – North Korea is one of the few places which comes to mind.
“Many independent school managers have ruined their expensive brogues by wading into markets with assumptions which don’t translate.”
If you have yet to embrace the adventure but have your gaze set on the lucrative shores of international schooling, tread carefully. International schooling isn’t the same as independent schooling – and nor should it be. Yet, many independent school leaders and governors have ruined their expensive brogues or Blahnik’s (metaphorically at least) by wading into markets with assumptions which don’t translate culturally, linguistically, or socially to international schooling.
To help keep your feet dry, a few areas where, in my experience, expectation sometimes doesn’t meet reality:
Your brand isn’t meaningless, but it means less
When visiting schools, I like to do a little test. As one might in the UK or US when heading to a “famous” school, I just give the taxi driver or hotel concierge the school’s name. Will they recognise it? How “famous” is the brand in Tokyo, Taipei or Tianjin?
The answer is often not very.
Sure, a local taxi driver isn’t the school’s target market, but the point remains. Your brand may be renowned, but that doesn’t mean it is internationally well known.
“Harry Potter may have more influence on your recognition than your school’s ‘famous’ name.”
This isn’t to say a strong brand won’t help. It will. Just don’t take for granted that the social and cultural capital you enjoy at home – your brand equity – will immediately and easily translate overseas. Harry Potter, James Bond or David Beckham may have more influence on your recognition than your school’s “famous” name.
Remember too that there are some very good non-franchised international schools. Just because a particular city doesn’t have a school with a “recognisable brand name” as you see it, doesn’t mean there aren’t strong schools, with excellent reputations, offering world-class education. As we are about to see, there very well may be.
Don’t expect expats
In aggregate, according to ISC Research, over 80 per cent of enrolments in international schools are local nationals. In some (so-called) ‘international’ schools the only non-local students are the teachers’ children.
Cities with large expat populations often have several excellent international schools. Many of these schools have been there for a long time. Tanglin Trust School, Singapore, opened in 1925; Alice Smith School, Kuala Lumpur, joined the fray in 1946; the International School of Brussels was founded in 1951, the same year as the International School Bangkok. There are plenty of other examples, many of which continue to flourish and thrive today.
“The very things which attract local parents such as traditional uniforms and values, may discourage expatriates.”
Very few new entrants have attracted expatriate students from these incumbents, at least not in large numbers. The established schools have brand recognition and, often, strong reputations amongst expat communities. Many also offer a culture and educational approach suited (perhaps even better suited) to an international clientele – the international baccalaureate, diversity in staff and students, and a global outlook. The very things which attract local parents – traditional uniforms, traditional values, quirky independent school traditions, and the associated prestige – may discourage expatriates.
If your war chest is big enough, and your investors patient enough, you may be able to attract some of these expatriates. Just don’t expect it to be easy – or cheap.
Boarding isn’t normal, nor necessarily popular
For independent schools in the UK, the number of boarders can be a large proportion of the roll; indeed, in some schools, boarding is compulsory. Internationally, boarding doesn’t have the same appeal. Exact data is hard to come by, but soto voce, many international schools report falling short of their boarding targets.
Boarding in international schools isn’t the same as boarding in the UK. It has a different history, is organised differently, and is valued differently by parents. This doesn’t mean that international boarding schools cannot be successful. They can, and some are. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that your approach will be different, that you will offer “authentic” boarding where others haven’t, that you won’t (as most have) sacrifice early day school growth to focus on a culture of boarding. In other words, that you will succeed where others have faltered.
“Demand for international school boarding may not be what you are used to.”
Covid may have shifted the axis of demand for international education, but parents who aspire to a boarding education are still likely to look to the West, to the original, not the replica. Demand for international school boarding may not be what you are used to.
International schoolteachers are different
While it is impossible to pigeonhole all international schoolteachers, each one is sprinkled with the dust of adventure. Perhaps not quite Indiana Jones but neither a homely hobbit. What they are not though, by and large, is independent school educated.
Mindful of over generalising, it is common for independent schoolteachers to have attended similar schools themselves, often as boarders. In international schools, this is less true. International schools are often staffed with teachers who have limited prior experience of independent education.
“The further afield you go though, the more adventurous your teachers will need to be.”
If you are lucky enough to be opening a famous brand in a famous (and Westernised) city, you may attract a roster of independent school staff. The further afield you go though, and the less well-known the city, the more adventurous your teachers will need to be – and the less likely independent schoolteachers will risk giving up their comfy, cloistered, and well-rewarded lives for an adventurous “hardship” posting.
Teacher turnover is higher, often much higher
At the end of my first year of teaching in a UK independent school, three colleagues retired. Between them they had over 100 years’ service at the school – one had even attended the school as a child. Extended tenure is a feature of independent schooling. It isn’t a feature of international schooling.
“Don’t expect stability in your staff.”
My research has found average international school tenure to be between 3 to 6 years; in other words, with two-year contracts being the norm, approximately two or three contract terms.
Don’t expect stability in your staff. International school heads spend a significant amount of time (and a significant amount of money) recruiting new teachers. And, with tenure for heads often being lower than for teachers, expect to spend time (and money) regularly replacing them too.
Different sports for different folks
The thwack of leather against willow isn’t heard in many international schools. Nor is the clatter of hockey sticks or the thunder of rugby boots. International schools (generally) play football and basketball. Baseball is popular too, as are tennis, swimming, golf and gymnastics.
Many schools offer the “traditional” independent school sports but find themselves without anyone to play against – interschool competitions focus on international school sports.
If you are used to managing or governing a not-for-profit school, the move into for-profit franchising will bring new decision-making criteria, new tensions, and new politics to navigate – and, with local owners involved, cross-cultural communication may result in some choppy waters.
“Many local owners are benign and generous; some do care deeply about education, but not all.”
As a reader of this magazine, your bottom-line is likely education. Know then that the local owners are in it for the money. Rhetoric about legacy, giving back, and community support may be just that, rhetoric. Many local owners are benign and generous; some do care deeply about education, even at the expense of profit. Some, but not all. You wouldn’t be the first brand to fall out with local owners, capsizing over which bottom-line matters most.
None of the above is to suggest that you can’t be successful.
Maybe you can do things differently, maybe your brand does have global meaning, maybe you will have full boarding houses, maybe your staff will be from the great and the good of independent school brands.
Or maybe not.
This isn’t virgin territory. In most corners of the world, it’s already well explored. Many of those who have gone before carried with them the same assumptions. Few crashed on the rocks, but most have had to adjust course. They have had to trim their sails to local conditions. International schooling isn’t the same as independent schooling.
Denry Machin’s latest book, ‘International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide’, contains essential advice for newbies and old-hands alike on the highs and lows of teaching internationally.