Future thinking about market development
By Nalini Cook

Some of the latest ideas and new thinking for international school education were shared at the IPSEF conference in London at the end of 2018. Here are views on the international schools market from some of the speakers there:

Mick Farley, Director of Group Operations at Asia International School Limited discussed demand and supply of students and staff.

“In South East Asia the growth is predominantly being driven by an expanding middle class who, for a variety of reasons, are seeking English-medium international education and are willing, and increasingly able, to pay for it. This demand is being supported in many South East Asian countries by an attractive operating environment, often due to lenient governmental policy, either as a concerted course of action or in response to the poor performance of the public sector.


The teacher shortage is being much discussed. The top-flight schools continue to be able to make strong appointments and also to hold on to teachers; lower-tier schools are having to be more creative. An issue less widely discussed is the lack of availability of strong heads who are able to deliver high-performing schools in ‘vibrant’ South East Asia.


Looking at the international school development in China, given the rise in spending power, there’s more growth to come. That said, China’s central government is clearly committed to greater regulation for schools enrolling Chinese nationals, while at the same time pumping investment into the public sector; both in terms of the facilities and the people. Therefore, I anticipate the environment will become increasingly complex for international schools offering bilingual curricula. As for provision for the tradition western expat market in the first-tier cities, we’re now in a situation of oversupply.”

Vanessa Cumbers, Director at Explore CRS and Recruitment Director at Dipont Education spoke about the opening of two schools in China.

“Dipont Education opened two new schools in September 2018 that were set up in a unique partnership model with local government, two highly regarded Chinese schools (Nanjing Foreign Language School and The High School Affiliated to Renmin University), and King's College School, Wimbledon.


Nanwai King's College School in Wuxi and RDFZ King's College School in Hangzhou have opened with over 800 students and 700 students respectively and will each grow to over 3,000 students at capacity. Opening two large schools at the same time was certainly challenging, but it allowed the management team to combine efforts across the two campuses and collaborate on all the intricacies of set-up. The Founding Heads were in post 12 months before opening, with other senior team members joining throughout the year, which ensured a well-planned and strategic start to both schools for recruitment, student admissions and policy development. In terms of recruitment, the original plan was well laid out, but tweaked as necessary as the year progressed. We appointed over 260 expatriate teachers, Chinese bilingual teachers, and teacher trainees to start in August 2018.   


There is considerable demand from Chinese families for internationalised schooling and the opportunity for their children to become bilingual through this. This is tempered, however, with concern that their abilities in their first language are still well developed, that the rigours of the Chinese curriculum are maintained, and that they retain a strong sense of cultural identity. Government policy, particularly in the compulsory phase for Chinese curriculum education between 6 and 15 years of age, will obviously continue to affect how schools and education groups operate.”

Ben Figgis Headmaster of Ardingly College talked about the challenge of recruitment for independent schools expanding overseas.

“The truism is true: you’re only as good as your staff. Any Head will tell you that leading a school is both exciting and challenging.  Any Head of an international school will no doubt say the same, but doubly so.  Planting and growing a flourishing school in a foreign cultural context, with a diverse group of pupils and staff, and a new set of parental expectations is one thing; being subject to suddenly changing regulatory requirements adds another complexity, as does the wider legal framework of the host country in relation to education and employment.


However, any conversation between school leaders working in the international sector soon becomes focused on staff recruitment and retention.  Of all the challenges, that of finding and keeping the best teachers and other staff surely requires the most determination and imagination. It is highly unlikely that applying the same formula as in one’s home country - taking out an advert in the TES, interviewing via Skype and offering a standard package - would succeed, while an increasing number of international schools chase a diminishing, or at best, static number of teachers. So, what to do?  


My starting point would be to consider what teachers want and need from their lives and careers. The COBIS research on this is instructive, and not surprisingly, at number one of their list of teacher requirements in the international sector is professional development.  Beyond this lies the challenge of helping new teachers settle into a new country and create personal and professional lives that they will find stimulating and satisfying for more than just a couple of years while they save a bit of money to pay off their mortgage back home.  And who will pay for all this activity to recruit and retain the best staff?  The commercial imperative of international schools sometimes leaves little room for additional cost for professional development, staff accommodation or generous social packages.  However, for any leader tasked with making an international school work, this is surely the main challenge.  You are only as good as your staff.”

Courteney Donaldson, Managing Director of Childcare and Education at property advisers Christie and Co discussed new development potential.

“The international schools and day nursery business market, in certain parts of the world, has not been without its challenges, but buyer demand and investor interest remain incredibly strong for businesses that demonstrate solid revenues, high-quality outcomes and stable earnings. There is high demand for early education in China. This demand has fuelled opportunities associated with the export of British early years expertise, with the EYFS being a much sought-after curriculum.


While there has been extensive talk about UK international schools and global expansion opportunities, looking closer to home, some UK independent schools are facing an increasing number of challenges. During 2018 we saw an increase in the number of independent schools in ‘distress’ principally associated with changes in local competitive environments, increasing operational costs and other factors impacting sustainability. While prospects overseas continue to draw interest, some UK independent schools are likely to face increased uncertainty during 2019 and the market will see a two-tier landscape developing for those successful schools and those that are facing distress.  


We have seen an increasing number of international investors and trade operators seeking to develop their business, brand, expertise and operations overseas. Despite challenges and potential risks, demand from prospective international partners, and those seeking international growth opportunities, remains incredibly high.”

Simon Noakes, Founder and CEO of Interactive Schools posed a provocative thought to school leaders.

“Schools waste too much money buying technology, hoping that it will be the panacea to solving current education or communication needs. Technology is evolving at an alarming, exponential rate, leaving behind our ability as humans to adapt and truly understand its true benefit. When decisions are led by technology needs, they tend to fail because the user experience is fitted around the technology.


This can be seen more readily within the school marketing department. Their focus on the school website being the most important channel for acquiring new families is outdated and costly. Marketing managers spend too much time replicating content across the ever-growing spectrum of channels, and publishing information in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is just noise in a world where the consumer’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter. Content needs to be targeted and relevant, but this can only happen if a school adopts a clear content strategy. Unfortunately, schools and the staff they recruit to carry out marketing activities, are unable to manage this effectively as the technology in place is restricting their ability to curate and deliver the right content, at the right time, to the right person.


The world is in a state of ‘content shock’, where the rate of content being produced has overtaken the rate in which humans can consume it. We are slaves to our devices, and the content noise being produced. If schools want to break this cycle of inefficiency, then they have to adopt a content strategy that can transform their internal processes too.”

Rhona Greenhill, Director and Founder of IPSEF summed up the popular topics of discussion.

“IPSEF has grown up a lot since our first events were held in London, with more diverse programmes. We always aim to hold IPSEF in countries where there is significant growth potential. Our events attract a cross section of schools, investors, operators, legal experts, recruiters, consultants and architects, plus a smattering of education suppliers wishing to be well informed of market developments and engage at a high level.  


At IPSEF London, the panel sessions on future trends in key regions went down very well. Each panel had a mix of thought leaders, from school heads, school group representatives and investors, to recruiters, legal experts, architects, education advisers and marketing specialists providing a range of viewpoints and advice.   The Europe panel spoke mainly about Brexit, what impact it is having now, and how it may affect schools in the future. The China panel discussed the complexity of setting up a school there. Our Middle East panel discussed the freeze on school fees in Dubai and where to open schools in the wider region. The networking vibe focused on the future, legacy, home schools and second-edition schools abroad, and preparation and research into each unique market.”

Nalini Cook is International Schools Relations Manager at ISC Research. She can be contacted at nalini.cook@iscresearch.com IPSEF 2019 events will be in Asia, Middle East and London. For more information visit www.IPSEF.net.

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