Reflections on the growth of international schools

Attending any conference can be quite a self-indulgent activity. As well as the opportunity to network, it provides the time and space to reflect on “bigger picture” issues.

The recent ISC International schools conference was one of several on this topic that Educate has attended during the past year, and there has been a consistent message. The drivers of demand for international schools remain very strong and are a function of three phenomena: firstly, the enormous rise in the ‘middle’ class, which is expected to almost double globally over the decade to 2020; secondly, the cultural willingness of this aspiring cohort to spend more of its household income on education; and finally, a desire by many around the world to learn English and enjoy a Western curriculum.

For this reason, the international schools market has grown rapidly over the past decade, culminating in 10% growth last year, and is forecast, by ISC, to compound at 7% p.a. for the next ten years. Naturally, most of the demand is in the Middle East and Asia; however, of the 700 new international schools launched last year, 100 opened in Europe, which was a surprise to many.

Despite the fact that there are over 7,000 international schools already, conferences on this topic still have the feel of new frontier investing. It all feels very reminiscent of Asian tiger and Russian investment conferences in the mid nineties, which I attended in a former life. Why is this? Well, despite strong growth, the market is still quite small. ISC estimates that 3.5m pupils are currently educated in international schools, which is less than one quarter of 1% of the estimated global middle class. It is also because, like the UK, the international schools market remains extremely fragmented. There is a growing number of groups operating internationally, but with the exception of a few household names, most operators are quite parochial. Finally, it is not only the client market which is fragmented, but school suppliers too. There are few dominant providers of any service, despite the significant need for these services; for example, ISC estimates that 100,000 new teachers will be required for international schools over the next five years.

Having recently carried out international support for schools in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Educate has seen first-hand the demand and reputation of UK education support services. Our expertise in staff appraisal, teacher training, recruitment and project management, whilst focused on our domestic market, is directly applicable and highly valued in an international context.