Ten lessons for British schools expanding internationally

The international market for British schools is still buoyant. Sally Robinson spoke to leading consultants in the international education sector to find out how UK schools can expand internationally. Ahead of our online International Education & Schools Fair throughout November, here are ten lessons on how to get it right.

Students from Epsom College in Malaysia

Students from Epsom College in Malaysia


This article is taken from the Winter 2023 issue of

Think Global People magazine

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1. Ask if it is right for your school and community

Before thinking about countries and curriculums, start with a 360-degree analysis of what you are trying to achieve and its possible impact on your school, says Andy Homden, founder of start-up specialist Consilium Education. This involves looking at the risks, as well as the opportunities, with the board and the senior leadership team. “Many schools see it as a panacea for developing a new income stream, but it has to fit in with their overall development strategy.” Once a school is clear on its objectives, it is easier to recognise the right opportunity and partner when it comes along.Where to start? Homden suggests talking to other schools who operate internationally and seeking information from the Department for Business and Trade’s education team, which works with UK independent schools to identify international opportunities and provides free support on market intelligence, demand and supply trends, and partnership models.

Exploring international schools - resources from Relocate Global

2. Choose your local partner carefully

Every school operating internationally needs an in-country partner. Finding the right one is crucial. “There is a huge range of potential partners including investment companies, real-estate developers and commercial school operators looking at bringing out UK brands,” says Ross Barfoot, a partner at Clyde & Co. “Which one is right for you depends on what you, and they, want to achieve.”Most independent schools enter into a licensing agreement with an in-country partner. “The partner will own and operate the international campus, and the school provides remote support and management services to protect their brand,” says Barfoot. Ten years ago that partner was probably in real estate, but is now more likely to be in education, probably with its own schools, says Ashwin Assomull of LEK Education. “They’re backed by educators, so they know about delivering in their own markets, but they may not know about premium British education.”“Don’t underestimate the value you bring,” adds Barfoot. "The investors have the cash, but they need your brand.”Bob Ukiah, chief executive of RGS Guildford International, has worked with both education companies (Cognita in Dubai and Sama in Oman) and property companies in Qatar and China.“There's a huge advantage in working with an education company because they immediately understand what you're trying to do,” says Ukiah. “In Dubai, I was initially concerned our brand would be strong enough to hold up as part of a company with 100 schools, but the partnership we have is really good.”What to look for in a partner? They need to understand education, be aligned with a school’s values and be serious about protecting its brand and reputation. Once a partner has been identified, schools need to do their due diligence, including spending time in the country. “Get to know them and don’t rush into anything,” cautions Barfoot.

3. Just because a country is popular, doesn’t mean it is right

When the market for UK independent schools exploded in China, British schools couldn’t get in fast enough, but not all of them thrived. Just because a market is popular, like Dubai or Singapore, doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone and too much competition means seats can be hard to fill.When exploring destinations schools should make a checklist looking at the accessibility of the location, the regulatory environment, supply and demand and the political situation. “Precedence is key,” says LEK’s Assomull: “If there is already a large private-equity backed investor, such as Nord Anglia or Inspired Education, it is a good sign of an attractive market.”It is also important to look at a destination through the lens of the UK school community, who could question opening in countries like China, Saudi or Qatar. “A school’s reputational risks are the strongest, and if you do move forward it is important to have a solid communication plan for your community,” says Consilium’s Andy Homden.

4. Appoint the right founding principal

Schools often recruit their overseas founding principal from the home school in UK, frequently the existing deputy head. It seems like a logical appointment, but it is not always the right one, says Russell Speirs of RSAcademics. “It can be a risk because often that person has never been a head before, or worked abroad, or set up a school.” Instead, Speirs encourages schools to undertake a rigorous process looking at a mix of candidates, some of whom have worked at the UK school, some who know the destination country and some who have overseas experience. ”It's only by having different candidates to compare that you become clear about what matters to you,” says Speirs.For schools moving into emerging markets it is even more critical, says Ian Hunt, chairman of the board of governors at Haileybury, Kazakhstan. “The best founding heads are the ‘Pied Pipers’, the ones who've got real personality and can sell what people can’t see. But there always has to be substance alongside style. That's the sweet spot.”

5. Make sure your legal contract is watertight

Most schools will not have equity in the operating company and ensuring they have contractual control over academic decisions to protect their reputation is critical.“It’s vital to have a robust legal agreement,” says Farha Leadbetter, a senior associate in the education practice at law firm Al Tamimi, which advises schools setting up in the UAE and Saudi. “It's helpful to have a lawyer who knows the country – there are so many differences in regulatory and licensing laws, even, for example, between the UAE and Saudi Arabia.”Leadbetter says the school’s intellectual property – its curriculum, policies, procedures, logo, uniform and values – is the most important thing to protect, but the contract also needs to cover everything from objectives and liabilities to tuition fees and tax. “Dispute resolution is also important, working out how any potential disagreements would be settled and in which jurisdiction,’ she says.“Don’t leave anything to chance or a handshake. It’s vital to protect your brand,” adds Clyde and Co’s Barfoot, who stresses the importance of a water-tight get-out clause. “Termination is the part of the contract that we spend the most time negotiating,” he says. “Schools need to be able to get out if their partner does something that they are uncomfortable with, or the school comes under criticism from its governors and parents.”

6. Choose the right curriculum for your market

Quality is non-negotiable when it comes to curriculum, says international education consultant, Pam Mundy. “The first thing is to look at the DNA of the host school curriculum and ask what really matters. Then, look at the culture of your destination and see how you can marry the two together.” In some countries, such as China, there is a national curriculum to consider and in UAE there is the national agenda, so schools need to carry out their due diligence.Although A levels are still the most popular pre-university qualification, IB is gaining popularity. “Some new schools might do A level for the first four years then start a gradual transition to the IB or another curriculum. Remember, IB and A level are not the only curriculums in the world and there are some really innovative ones coming along,” says Mundy.Even in a crowded market like Dubai, Mundy believes there is room for innovation. There is no need to change the curriculum you offer, she says, but look at what you can add that is unique and innovative and speaks to an international parent body, without losing your DNA. “The obvious way is technology,” says Mundy, “but it is not about every child having an iPad.” She suggests schools integrate technology into what they do and are “flexible and agile” about what is happening in the world, for example embracing AI and VR and thinking about how they can work in the curriculum. “Go out and look at potential partnerships that can add something different,” she says. "For example, if you want to be a sustainable school, don’t just look at what other schools are doing, but look at sustainability in industry and add that to curriculum.”

7. Think about taking over an existing school

Working with an existing school can be a faster way to gain a presence in another territory, but there are advantages and disadvantages. Reigate Grammar International successfully took over the Multinational School in Riyadh in 2022, working as a partnership, and rebranded it. “The numbers went up from about 350 to 400 to over 1,000 in 18 months”, says Sean Davey, managing director of Reigate School International, which also operates schools in China and Vietnam.It doesn’t work for everyone though, cautions RSAcademics’ Russell Speirs. “The acquirer has to perform a difficult balancing act: on the one hand, they will want to retain all that is good about the school and on the other hand, they will want to start the difficult task of introducing structures and systems that are in line with the 'mothership'. Get either side of the balance wrong and you lose the goodwill of stakeholders or damage the brand.”

8. Consider how attractive your location is for teachers

Competition for the best teachers is tough and not all destinations are equal in their eyes. Direct flights, opportunities for CPD, career progression and good accommodation are key. According to school recruitment specialist Monika Fryzicka, pre-empting the questions teachers are likely to ask is a useful way of analysing a destination. “The things they want to know are: how do I get there and get home? How many other teachers are in the city and where they are from? Who is the head and where did they come from?”According to Fryzicka, the current most popular destination is the Middle East, with its currency spreading beyond Dubai to Abu Dhabi and Qatar. “Just because a destination is popular doesn’t mean it is the best place for teachers though. If they are not working in the premier school in the city, it might be worth looking elsewhere.”Saudi, too, is attracting more interest. “Ten years ago if I had approached somebody about a job in Saudi, they wouldn’t have taken the call, but it has made some amazing hires recently because it is showcasing the progress it is making.”Although China is still struggling to attract teachers post-Covid, Diane Jacoutot of Edvectus expects that to change. “Teachers are financially motivated and China has the golden combination of high salaries and low cost of living.”

9. Look at demand, growth and supply

Traditionally, markets like Dubai and Singapore have been driven by expats, but increasingly it is locals in countries like Saudi who are looking for a high-quality British-style education.“Looking at supply is important too,” says Assomull. If there is a lot of vacant capacity, then it will be much more competitive to enter the market. “Explore the size of the market and potential for growth and enrolment growth. The ability to increase fees without government interference is critical because it reflects revenue and allows your partner to reinvest in the school.”

10. Be resilient

The last word goes to LEK’s Ashwin Assomull. “Resilience is critical. The successful markets have remained strong through Covid and economic downturns, so make sure your partner is in it for the long haul.”

Read more from Sally Robinson on international education in the Autumn 2023 issue of Think Global People magazine

Sign up for our Autumn 2023 International Education & Schools Fair, which takes place throughout November. It is the perfect opportunity for our Think Global People community of international parents, employers, and relocation professionals to find out about schools in various locations, what curriculum they offer, online school options, and planning for the next stage of education.

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