The unstoppable growth of British International Schools

Dan Lewis is a teacher with wanderlust. The Brit’s career has taken him to Australia, South Korea and now Dubai, where he established a new branch of the UK-based North London Collegiate School. “It’s a great opportunity for me, moving from being deputy head in...

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Dan Lewis is a teacher with wanderlust. The Brit’s career has taken him to Australia, South Korea and now Dubai, where he established a new branch of the UK-based North London Collegiate School.

“It’s a great opportunity for me, moving from being deputy head in a London school to principal in Dubai,” says the globetrotter. “It’s great for my children too, to get international experience and mingle with different cultures. Dubai is a thoroughly exciting place to live.”

North London Collegiate in Dubai is a coeducational day school with 1,800 students aged from three to 16. There are plans to expand to a sixth form by 2019. North London Collegiate, which charges £6,354 per term, was first established in Britain in 1850.

The school’s expansion is far from unique. Several top UK schools are due to open abroad soon, including King’s College School, Lucton School, Uppingham School, and Westminster School — three of which will be in China.

There has been a rapid explosion in the number of international schools across the world. Two decades ago, there were just 1,000 English-Language international schools globally, according to the education consultancy ISC Research. Today, there are more than 8,000, with 420,000 teachers and 4.5 million students.

And the growth is set to continue. Over the next 10 years the number of international schools is expected to double to more than 16,000, teaching 8.75 million students globally.

“For us, the move to Dubai made sense in many ways,” Lewis says. “Dubai is an international hub and a place where there is a lot of growth in international people coming into the city.”

Richard Gaskell, ISC schools director, says: “The majority of demand comes from local families who want and can afford quality education. In countries where state education is considered poor, local families with sufficient disposable income will choose fee-paying international schools to provide their child with a more reliable pathway to the world’s best possible higher education establishments.”

Geopolitics has also spurred recent high demand for international school education in Europe. Several schools in Frankfurt, for example, have been experiencing an increase in enrolment of up to 40%.

New schools are also being established. One example is Nord Anglia International School in Dublin, which opens in September and will be the first international school to open in the city.

“British and American families currently based in England are moving across the Irish Sea to maximize their access to Europe post-Brexit,” Gaskell says.

Nearly half of international schools globally are British in orientation, according to ISC. Why is the English curriculum so revered?

“What makes British education overseas attractive is the language of English,” says Colin Bell, CEO of COBIS, a network of 277 British international schools across 80 countries.

“It’s the business language of the world, which, along with our exam system of A-levels, can help pupils gain access to top universities, most of whom teach in English. In our network of schools, approximately 60% of students will choose an UK-based university post-18.”

Bell adds that parents value the pastoral care of British curriculum schools. “We have our own Patron’s Accreditation System and front and centre of it is safeguarding, which is incredibly important,” he says.

“We also put huge emphasis on the wellbeing of students. We look at facilities and governance, so ensuring from the very top we deliver high quality care.”

According to ISC, international school growth is strongest in China and the UAE. China, for example, has a compound annual growth rate of 10.6% for school growth, and 12.7% for student enrolment. There are currently 627 international schools throughout the Emirates, including 296 in Dubai alone.

Could the market in these regions become saturated? Experts agree this is a concern. But Cynthia Nagrath, marketing and communications manager at The International Educator (TIE), a teacher placement service, says schools in the Middle East are differentiating themselves.

“There are specialty international schools designed to serve the various expat populations. Dubai offers Canadian, French and Indian schools, for example,” she says.

“Schools also offer extensive sports programs for their students and many offer the IB program too.”

ISC’s field researcher for South East Asia, Sam Fraser, adds that “the mid-fee international schools sector has development potential throughout the region but, to date, has remained relatively untapped. Because of the increasing number of expatriates with trimmed benefits packages, and the growing number of local families seeking out international education options, there’s a real need for such schools that more people can afford”.

There are more headwinds for international schools, particularly in Asia. In Vietnam, for example, there are restrictions on the number of local students attending foreign-owned schools.

“Strict government restrictions can put off some schools from opening a sister school in certain countries,” says ISC’s head of Asia research, Sami Yosef.

“However, with the right legal, research and operating partners who have expertise within a specific market… such challenges can be well managed.”

Security is another test for international schools, says TIE’s Nagrath: “Because international schools are located all over the world, it’s only natural that there will be hotspots at various locations. This is always a very major concern at international schools and one they don’t take lightly. International schools have hired security personnel to guard the gates and all entrances to the campus, and have taken a host of other precautions to ensure the safety of their students.”

Equally important is the internal security issue. “International schools have become increasingly vigilant in this area due to a couple of recent highly-publicized incidents of child abuse in the international school community,” Nagrath says.

“Because international school teachers rotate every few years to new schools, there is a need to do very stringent vetting of candidates before hiring. Conducting criminal records checks in the candidate’s home country alone are not adequate among the nomadic teaching staff who have moved from country to country.”

Nevertheless, the international schools market appears to be on an unstoppable growth streak that is benefiting teachers, local residents and entire economies.

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