PRIVATE SCHOOLS SEEK FOREIGN PUPILS -WHILE EXPORTING THEIR BRANDS
Though foreign students now account for a small proportion of the ISC’s 628, 000 pupils, the inflow of foreign boarders has become critical to the financial health of many of Britain’s independent schools.
A census in January showed that of the 628,000 children in schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council, 21,533 were offspring of non-British parents residing abroad. In addition, nearly all are boarders, not day pupils. So it seems likely that of the 68,131 boarders at UK independent schools, getting on for 31 per cent – nearly one in three – are from overseas.
So, the contribution of fee-paying foreign parents to the UK independent education sector has become enormous and is offsetting some of the damage inflicted by the current recession and credit crunch, though smaller schools remain vulnerable. As private schools seek to attract more boarders from abroad increasing numbers are seeking to establish their brands abroad too, seeking to franchise their operations.
There are a number of motivations. There is limited scope for expansion in the UK. What expansion there is seems to be happening in the lower and middle fee bands as no frills schools tap in to demand aiming to deliver excellent education while largely opting out of the facilities race. Cognita is exploiting this area of the market to good effect. It has acquired 46 British schools since it was formed in 2004, but was reported earlier this year to be in talks with a further “dozen or 15” about a possible takeover. Some profit and non-profit making companies such as NordAnglia and CFBT Education Trust have found that big ticket education contracts in this country are hard to find, let alone to win when you have found them, given that subsidised quangos are now competing for the same contracts. So ,they are expanding their interests abroad, in education support services (Cambridge Education Associates is also active here providing ,interalia, international schools inspection services) ) and in managing schools too. Nord Anglia Education has been operating International Schools since 1992 and currently operates schools in Beijing, Bratislava, Budapest, Prague, Shanghai (three) and Warsaw. CFBT Education Trust runs the International School in Cape Town, RSA, and is currently exploring other opportunities abroad.
Margins can be tight in the UK and with increased regulation and the Charity Commission breathing down schools necks, revenue from schools abroad might help spread risk .The proceeds of the overseas branches can be ploughed back into the mother school and enable it to offer more scholarships and bursaries to children whose parents could not otherwise afford the fees The charity Commission has appeared to signal that bursaries are its favoured route for schools to meet the public benefit criterion, though this remains controversial. Some schools also believe that as we live in a global village cross fertilisation of ideas and practice is a good idea and brings mutual benefits. This can also enable teacher and pupils exchanges over the short and longer term bringing added value to their educational offers. The UK private education brand remains attractive to many abroad despite the antics of some cowboys who operate under established school names but with no connection formal or otherwise to the respective UK school of the same name (schools have been lax about protecting their brand names in law)
Many feel that, so far, this is an underexploited market and a rich seam to mine, although they should be careful. They should have an exit plan and ensure that if things do not turn out right, they have limited liability and the mother school is not left exposed financially. Reliable local partners can help too. Overseas branches in China and other countries are growing more common. Harrow School has a branch in China and one in Bangkok, for example, and Dulwich College, after some problems with its Thai franchise has opened three schools in China. Gordonstoun wants to expand in India, despite the countries difficult reputation for bureaucracy. Brighton College will start with two schools in Abu Dhabi and plans to establish others in Oman, Jordan, Romania, Mauritius, Vietnam and India. Wellington College is starting a school in China and is seeking to attract more foreign pupils through its IB/Middle Years programme. The Girls’ Day School Trust is building a school in Lavasa, an upmarket new town about three hours by road from Mumbai. The town is still under construction and described by GDST as “the first hill city since the Raj”. The co-ed school will accommodate day pupils and boarders and is aimed at pupils from across India. Sherborne is operating a branch in Qatar. Haileybury School in Hertfordshire has just opened a branch in Almaty, Kazakhstan, educating a handful of expats and hundreds of local Kazakhs eager for an English-language education that will stand them in good stead in later life. Repton School has had a branch in Dubai since 2007. Bromsgrove School a leading independent co-ed has licensed Bromsgrove International School in Thailand to use its name. State schools, as well as the independents, are starting to take an interest, with the City Academy, Bristol, for example exploring the possibility of branches in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. Wellington College hosted a conference last year on exporting education which was over-subscribed attended by both private and state schools and universities too. Nottingham University presented on its on-going expansion plans for China (University of Nottingham, Ningbo)
Baroness Morgan, Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills, announced at the conference that draft standards were being drawn for British schools overseas, similar to the benchmarks applied to independent schools. At the moment, an estimated 2,000 schools worldwide claim to offer a British curriculum, but only about 150 are inspected by the British Independent Schools Inspectorate. It is all too easy for a ”traditional British education” to be nothing more substantial than a Union Jack on the letterhead of the school.
The Government has only recently developed an interest in promoting British schools abroad and in protecting the reputation of British education but schools and education companies are, by and large, on their own when it comes to opening up abroad , so don’t expect much from the Government.
And as for the grant funded British Council, don’t hold your breath they are too busy promoting their own ‘commercial’ enterprises to help market UK education services, although funnily enough its part of its brief.