Last reviewed 10 August 2015

There are currently over 7500 English-medium international schools around the world teaching more than 3.9 million students — and the market is growing rapidly. In this article, Nick Swift examines what is fuelling this growth, and looks at the benefits for the UK.

Driving factors

Almost half of the English-medium internationals schools around the world are UK-oriented in their teaching and learning, according to The International School Consultancy (ISC)*. The statistics are all the more remarkable because that figure has doubled since 2000 and it is conservatively forecast to double again to over 15,000 by 2025; an even faster rate of growth. The growth was not dented by the global recession, largely because it was driven by Asia and the Middle East. Asia will be the main growth area in the next decade.

The driving factors behind this growth are economic and cultural. The growth of personal wealth and entrepreneurship, combined with the status of the English education system and the dominance of English as the language of business, are principal factors.

It is well known that the growth of these UK-oriented schools is fuelling demand for places at UK universities and that they will be looking at these figures with an eye to global investment. It is also well known that other English-speaking nations, Canada and Australia in particular, are working hard to catch up.

International curricula such as the International Baccalaureate and the International Primary Curriculum continue to gain strength, but a British education remains a consistently popular option for a vast number of international schools. The 3120 international schools globally are delivering (all or in part) England’s National Curriculum. Recent improvement of the A-level system by Ofqual will also underpin the importance of A-levels for some time to come.

There are now 22 countries in the world with over 100 English-medium international schools. This means that for expatriate and local families, the opportunities for their children to follow an English-medium education and to learn through a curriculum that is respected by universities and organisations around the world are becoming increasingly accessible. However, the expatriate demand is not the growth factor.

Countries leading the way

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) leads the world with 507 international schools teaching over 455,000 students and here British schools predominate. The 245 schools in the UAE are located in Dubai alone and although options are extensive, competition for the best schools is high.

China has 480 international schools. For such a vast country, this may seem a relatively low number. This is largely because most of China's earliest international schools are foreign-owned and, with few exceptions, are not allowed to enrol local children. However, there is a rapidly increasing demand from Chinese parents for English-medium education for their children, and the international schools landscape in China is changing in response. The number of Chinese-owned bi-lingual international schools is growing fast, as are Sino-foreign Co-operative Schools, several of which partner Chinese owners with British independent school brands. Crucially, local children are allowed to attend these schools. Of all the international schools in China, 27% are British in orientation.

Elsewhere, India, Pakistan, Japan, Spain and Saudi Arabia all have over 200 English-medium international schools, many offering a British-oriented curriculum. Countries with over 100 international schools include Thailand, Malaysia, Qatar, Hong Kong, Brazil, the Netherlands and Egypt.

“All of these countries are experiencing significant demand for international school places,” says Nicholas Brummitt, Chair of the ISC. “Most of this demand is coming from local families who want a high-quality English-medium education for their children so that they can achieve a place at a western university. As incomes rise, and as more English-medium international schools establish and become accessible, so such an option becomes a possibility for an increasing number of local families. The international schools market is currently an ever-expanding cycle of demand and supply, and this will remain so if international schools continue to deliver high-quality, internationally recognised, English-medium curricula, examinations, learning and teaching,” he adds.

Starting an international operation

Another developing trend in the market is the growing number of prestigious UK independent schools that are establishing themselves with significant success internationally. Schools such as Harrow, Shrewsbury, Dulwich and Wellington College have already forged significant reputations in Asia, particularly in South East Asia and the Middle East where the demand for high-quality, English-medium education is the greatest.

According to market intelligence by ISC, an increasing number of UK independent schools have ambitious plans to expand. Wellington College and Harrow International opened new campuses in China last September and Dulwich College, which now has seven schools in Asia, opened a new school in Singapore.

However, continues ISC’s Nicholas Brummitt, “It isn’t an easy proposition for a UK independent school to start an international operation. As well as restrictions on local students attending foreign-owned and run schools in some countries, and widely varying demographic influences, international schools face a variety of government controls and requirements which can include complex licensing procedures, fee controls, teaching licences, and strict standard and accreditation expectations. In most instances, a local partner is either obligatory or highly desirable. There is much to know and many potential pitfalls. Schools should expect any new international development to be challenging.”

Nevertheless, it is a market that a growing number of UK independent schools are looking to be a part of, as the demand for school places from wealthy local families grows. “For the international branches of UK independent schools, it’s down to the increasing number of affluent parents who are saying: ‘How much am I willing to pay for a quality, British education to ensure the best possible opportunities for attendance in one of the world’s premium universities for my child?’”

The future

It is tempting to think that the “gold standard” of UK education is a given and that the world will always beat a path to our door. However, we may find that the intellectual powerhouses of the future become more globally spread, and those in the leading UK institutions at secondary and university level understand this. The future may be the development of a truly global education system that will present as many challenges as opportunities.

* The author thanks Diane Glass and Anne Keeling from ISC for the data used in this article and their invaluable assistance.