25 Years of ISC Research and the International Schools Market

In 2019, ISC Research celebrates 25 years producing research on the international schools market.

The company was founded by its current owner and chairman, Nick Brummitt in 1994 who had been tracking the market informally since 1978. His aim for the company was to collect data and intelligence, and identify trends on English-medium schools around the world that were offering an international curriculum; a market that was emerging at that time.

There had been some international schools in existence for many years before that. Nick had worked with some of these schools supplying educational resources.

Why International Schools?

Those first international schools existed to meet the needs of an expatriate market, and the schools were few and far between. An international school, for example, was established in 1922 in Miri, a remote part of Borneo, by the Shell oil company which opened the school in order to attract oil field workers to the jobs there. Without the school, it would have been challenging for the company to recruit the type of workers it needed; young, skilled workers who, if their families were provided with the services and support necessary to maintain a quality family life, were content and stable employees. This school, now part of the Tenby Group of international schools, remains in existence today as Tenby Miri International School.

Other early international schools were established to support the staff of embassies, or to meet the needs of a small expatriate group in countries where the local education was considered unsuitable, either because of the language of learning or the quality of the teaching, or both. The United Nations Schools, for example, were originally formed by parents of children working in the United Nations offices in such locations as Vienna and Hanoi.

For these early international schools, an expatriate intake dominated, a national curriculum (based on the priorities of the founders) was used, the school was invariably small and limited in resources, and most of these schools were not for profit.

As new international schools were established and developed over time, so the characteristics changed.

Market Value

The international schools market is a profitable one. Based on annual fee income alone, the market is generating US $49.9 billion (March 2019).

The number of international schools globally has experienced a compound annual growth rate in the past five years of 5.6% to over 10,400 schools in March 2019. Student enrolment has increased at an even higher rate; a compound annual growth rate in the past five years of 6.7% to more than 5.8 million children.

The Next 25 Years

ISC Research continues to focus its business growth entirely on the world’s English-medium international K-12 schools and is recognised by government bodies, associations and the global media as the reputable, independent organisation for data and intelligence on this market.

As the market continues to evolve, so ISC Research aims to remain the most reliable, comprehensive and current source on the world’s international schools.

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Researching the Market

The sheer volume of data and information, coupled with the number of people interested in the market, as it began to develop as a sector in its own right, made it very clear that a single source of comprehensive information was required. This led to the formation of ISC Research.

ISC Research was established as the only independent organisation in the world producing research on the entire English-medium international K-12 schools market, and remains so today.

Over the past 25 years, the company has built up an extensive team of skilled, field-based researchers who visit schools year-round to collect primary source data and intelligence. They also meet with government and education bodies in key countries to gather intelligence that informs development trends and opportunities.

ISC Research also leads an increasingly broad range of sector-specific research to gather data and understanding on unique aspects of international school life; from wellbeing to inclusion to governance. A team of desk-based researchers in the UK support and verify data before it is analysed for market trends.

With this extensive combination of data, intelligence and understanding, ISC Research produces a wide range of reports and resources about the world’s international schools market which guide schools with their growth plans, advise investors for new school development, inform educators and suppliers in the market, and support universities with international recruitment and teacher training provision.

Market Changes

The first international schools bear little resemblance to the international schools of today. The demographic breakdown, learning approach and business model have all changed and it is no longer a small market catering for a niche group.

Curricula offered in international schools have changed too. No longer is the market dominated by a standard UK or American curriculum, although these are still used (entirely or in part) by almost half of the international school market. International curricula are an increasingly popular choice by many schools. 45% of today’s international schools choose to deliver the International Baccalaureate programmes, and other popular options include the International Primary Curriculum and Cambridge International Programmes, or hybrid models.

Many international schools today combine local heritage within an international or global bilingual learning approach. This prepares children for living and contributing within an interconnected world; developing learning skills and achieving qualifications that are recognised by universities and multinational companies globally, while retaining their local language and culture.

The Numbers

The international schools market has changed beyond recognition in the past forty years and has experienced sustained, significant growth since 2000.

In 2000 there were 2,584 international schools worldwide teaching 988,600 students and employing 90,000 full-time teaching staff. The countries dominating the market at that time were Spain (99 international schools), United Arab Emirates (97 international schools), Hong Kong (70 international schools) and Thailand (55 international schools) but there was little evidence of any regional domination. Although still predominantly a provision for expatriates, by the year 2000 international school places were also being sought out by wealthier local families.

Six years on (2006), Asia was beginning to dominate the market and by 2008 had 2,361 international schools; 49% of the total market. The countries fuelling the growth were the UAE, China and Japan. Europe was the other strong region with 1,205 international schools; 25% of the market, resulting from growing numbers in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.

Today, Asia including Western Asia (the Middle East), continues to dominate the international schools market with notable growth in China and South East Asia.

Transforming Demographics

Perhaps the biggest change in the international schools market - other than the overall growth - is the demographic breakdown of the student population. While today’s market still caters for expatriate families - with the total number of expatriate students continuing to grow year on year - demand for places is primarily fuelled by local families.

By the year 2000, as more international schools opened, so local parents become increasingly aware that their country’s state education, local private education, or a foreign boarding school hundreds of miles away from home, were not the only options available for their child during their years of compulsory education.

The experience of overseas boarding for a child at a young age, speaking a language and within a culture very different to their home, is now recognised to be very challenging for many children. Personal experiences of this, plus negative stories in the press and on social media, have raised awareness of these challenges amongst parents who, as a result, have increasingly looked for other solutions for international education. As a result, enrolment at international schools in many countries (where government legislation allowed) became increasingly dominated by the richest 5% of non-English-speaking parents looking for a place at a school in their own city or country, where their child could learn in the language of English and sit globally recognised exams as a route to higher education in the West and optimum career potential.

This education movement has increased as many economies have improved, and now an English-medium, international school education is high on the list of priorities for many families.

It is now widely accepted that, for students who have attended international schools, they are well prepared in many ways for the requirements of higher education. It’s not only the academic achievement, but the approach to teaching and learning at international schools which prepares students as independent, collaborative, creative, internationally-minded learners who can succeed throughout university and in the workplace.

It is this recognition, coupled with increased income, which is making attendance at an international school a real possibility for wealthier local families. The result of this is that today, local children fill 80% of international school places; a complete reversal of 30 years ago when 80% were filled by expatriate children.

The Emergence of School Brands

One distinct sector that has emerged within the international schools market is the school brand. This includes overseas campuses of independent schools, and school groups.

The development of the independent school brand abroad was led by British independent school Harrow which opened a campus in Bangkok in 1998, and Dulwich College which opened in Shanghai in 2003. These schools recognised a gap in the market amongst the wealthiest expatriate and local parents, who wanted the academic provision, extensive higher education opportunities, and brand prestige that a Western independent school could provide, that was accessible in or near their neighbourhood so that their child could live close to home.

A growing number of other independent schools have followed suit, mostly from Britain but also from the United States and Australia.

Another significant change in the international schools market in recent years has been the increase in the number of schools run for profit. Forty years ago, international schools were largely a non-profit phenomenon. Now however, many more international schools are for profit and the future will continue to be driven, to a large extent, by profit-making schools and school groups.

Several multinational groups of schools already exist and are moving from strength to strength. These include Nord Anglia, GEMS, Taaleem, Cognita and ESOL. Other school groups are expanding, either by buying existing schools, expanding existing operations or starting new schools and, in so doing, creating a powerful new sector within the international school market.

Government Recognition

Many governments now realise the value of the economic contribution made by a well-established and high-spending international school community and, as a result, are actively encouraging their development and growth.

Some countries that have previously restricted access to international schools for local nationals, are opening up opportunities. One recent example of this was Malaysia. By easing regulations including taxation, providing land and buildings in development zones, and removing limitations on the number of local children allowed to be enrolled, Malaysia has experienced major growth of its international schools market and attracted prestigious brands including Marlborough College, Epsom College and King Henry VIII International School (a sister school to Christ College, Brecon).

Until a few years ago, Chinese nationals had virtually no access to the international schools in their country. This is now evolving as the Chinese government has amended and clarified certain policies so, although still highly segmented and limited by strict regulations, a market accessible to local Chinese children is booming.

The Impact of Increased Demand

Dramatic growth nevertheless comes at a cost. The recruitment and retention of suitably qualified staff is challenging for many schools and likely to become more so.

In 2000, ISC Research identified a total of 90,000 full-time staff employed by international schools. That number has increased to 540,000 (March 2019), the majority of who are expatriate teachers; qualified, experienced, English-speaking teachers largely originating from the UK, US, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Within ten years an additional 450,000 teachers will be required to meet the projected demands of the market.

The challenge that ISC Research is hearing from specialist recruiters everywhere is that internationally experienced, top quality teachers and leaders are in extremely high demand, however, the talent pool is not expanding quickly enough. Although more teachers are seeking out the opportunities of working internationally, the number of suitable candidates is barely keeping pace with demand. Meeting the need for skilled, experienced teachers who are trained in the teaching and learning approaches that international schools require, could well be the biggest challenge for the future of the international schools market.

Solutions are emerging. Some schools and school groups have already introduced on-site teacher training provision affiliated by recognised training establishments, for local teachers and locally-based expatriates, and some universities are offering remote teacher training options. More such solutions are needed.