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As part of the Global International Schools’ event series, Informa Connect Singapore launched its first webinar session covering the latest regional updates on the International Schools’ market and implications of COVID-19 on the sector. The session was presented by Sam Fraser, Head of Asia Research with ISC Research.
ISC Research is the leading provider of market intelligence for English medium K-12 international schools, and we are grateful for the time and effort Sam has dedicated to preparing this well-anticipated presentation for a turnout of 250 attendees- most of which are school leaders from Asia-Pacific.
Changing landscape of international schools
Sam started by giving a snapshot view of how much the International Schools’ market has changed in the last 30 years. Student population back in the 1990s were predominantly children of Western expat professionals which explains the UK and US-centric curriculum largely delivered in English. Today, we’re expecting a broader range of school types like bilingual schools, serving more diverse student demographics coming from the East and the West; while the Western curriculum continues to dominate.
Moving forward, COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected people’s global mobility which has severe implications on the operating model for international schools, say the prevalence of online solutions for learning and teaching. Research suggests that a growing number of schools were already using online platforms for the said purposes and are adopting a “blended learning approach.”
Sam then moved into the growth drivers that will persist post-COVID-19. Some key drivers include:
Favorable government policies surrounding quota restrictions on local students- e.g. Malaysia, Thailand and most recently, Vietnam.
Increased demand for more affordable schools due to the tightening of compensation packages among expat parents, and mid-price point schools being a potential area of expansion.
Balancing need for international qualifications (employment, universities) and local learning (culture, roots), and the desire for a bilingual curriculum- e.g. Indonesia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia.
Continued demand for premium schools, and the growing trend of independent school brands- e.g. Wellington, King’s College.
Biggest growth driver in the last 30 years remains as the provision of learning in the English language and globally-recognized qualifications making for reliable pathways to higher education.
Students enrolled in higher education outside their country of citizenship are gradually increasing and the number is projected to reach 8 million by the year 2025. The significant increase in undergraduate mobility is fueled by the growth of the Asian middle class with a strong desire for their children to receive a Western university degree.
For some academically-aspiring parents, school choices are increasingly influenced by the university brands like Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard where they want their children to be associated with, and this heightens expectations for schools. That said, the challenge for admission managers and college counsellors is on educating parents about the importance of best-fit university choices, and more schools are initiating these professional conversations as part of their strategy planning to set realistic expectations for parents at the earliest possible stage.
Sam later deep-dived into the breakdown of the market growth. Key points raised were on the robust growth of the bilingual schools’ market particularly in Asia, and the increasing penetration of independent school brands from the UK, US and AUS although they remain a niche sector (making up only 1% of all schools as of the year 2020). In terms of regional spread and curriculum orientation, Asia makes up more than half of the world’s international schools (56.8%), and the UK-oriented curriculum continues to be the most popular (30%).
In terms of teaching staff recruitment, given an English-centric curriculum in most schools, leading teaching staff nationalities come from North America, UK, the Pacific, and some other European countries. More international schools are realizing the value of local teachers- through the local language and cultural understanding that they can bring to the school community. This includes challenges pertaining to employment which is particularly important in the wake of COVID-19.
When it comes to tuition fees, there is a dramatic difference based on school types. China is one of the countries with the highest average annual tuition fees, versus fees in UAE despite the number of premium schools in the region. Given COVID-19 and the expanding mid-price point market in many countries, most schools may eventually need to adjust their fees next year. From Sam’s experience speaking with schools, they are considering reducing fees amongst other coping strategies with the economic impact of COVID-19.
Schools in 153 countries around the world are currently closed, and education is being severely disrupted. However, many international schools have proven themselves to be well-prepared to shelter this crisis. Aside from developing extensive and well-structured e-learning programmes, schools are expressing an interest in adopting asynchronous learning in the future even after COVID-19. On top of this, learning outcomes are constantly being assessed and revised for online learning.
As examinations get cancelled, many college counsellors are guiding families with their university acceptances and plans for the new academic year, which many universities look likely to continue with distance-learning. Many international schools are providing crucial well-being support for their staff and students. The importance of social interaction in learning is noticeably absent now and hence, most schools are choosing to conduct their lessons live to generate some group discussions among teachers and students.
Re-opening schools after COVID-19
As the lockdowns and social distancing measures relaxed in some countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea, they are serving as “laboratories” and key examples that many others will use to guide their own practices. Many schools are re-opening in phases- beginning with Grade 9 and 12 in some Chinese provinces, some from Grade 4 and 5 up onwards.
Schools are also now required to implement some new systems which includes procedures for tracking campus access like temperature checks with QR codes, heightened sanitization regimes, systems to limit large gatherings such as staggering dining plans and assembly broadcasting at classrooms.
On learning outcomes, schools are setting up detailed assessments for individual students to identify learning gaps and preparing plans to address these gaps. Some schools are considering school day extensions, providing weekend lessons, operating summer schools, or extending term time.
Accompanying this issue, parents have also demanded for fees’ reimbursements or reductions. Schools which have maintained effective distance-learning provision have an upper-hand to maintain their fee structures; however, some schools are considering fee rebates and bursaries for families experiencing temporary financial difficulties. There were some cases of parents using “fake news” via social media to put pressure on schools, and school leaders are already learning to check all claims made by parents before responding.
On the operational front, schools are reviewing their crisis continuity plans on the potential of future campus closures. Many are exploring online platforms that work best for them and putting structures and practices in place to ensure all members of their school community are well-placed.
On the positive note, many international schools have undoubtedly responded more resiliently and creatively than national schools- they may be seen by parents as more dependable educational solutions for their children. According to recent reports by ISC Research, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and some others are looking to phase the school openings from end-May or early-June.
Longer-term impact to schools Post-COVID-19
As the possibility of a recession looms, fewer people will be able to afford premium schooling post-COVID-19. Economies with a high focus on tourism will be affected greatly- some of the international schools in these regions have already lost 30% of their enrolments.
As with regions where expats are prevalent, the challenge remains in replacing leaving expats due to more stringent VISA restrictions on people returning. This has cascading effects on staffing and new recruits, as well as student admissions. The supply of international teachers may also be affected by their willingness to live abroad for an extended time period whilst the campuses are closed.
As a result of COVID-19, some parents may be more cautious about sending their children to an overseas boarding schools as in the US and UK; wanting to keep their children close to home and choose a local national or private school instead.
While Sam has shown that the market has been immensely affected, on a hopeful note based on experience with previous crises, education is valued extremely highly by many parents particularly throughout Asia. Following a recession during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, many parents kept their children in international schools even though they are financially-impacted in other aspects of their lives.
ISC Research has been tracking global developments on the International Schools’ market since the hit of COVID-19, like school closures and re-openings, examination changes, best practices by schools, as well as free and easily-accessible resources for schools. Here are some additional resources that you may find helpful:-
Sam Fraser is a speaker at the forthcoming 2nd International Schools APAC conference which is happening from 15-18 September 2020, and will be delivered fully-digital.
Repurposed to address emerging and likely permanent shifts in the International Schools’ market, the content will be practical and strategic. Immediate COVID related solutions will be balanced with a longer-term industry outlook.