Welcome to the very English private school in Shanghai

With rugby teams practising on its playing fields against the backdrop of a red-brick bell tower, Dulwich College is the picture of a quintessentially English private school.

But this is Shanghai, and the near-clone of the college’s 400-year old parent in London is one of a growing number of prestigious British educational institutions lending their names to newly minted offshoots abroad.

Officials at the UK’s Department for International Trade say they are aware of more than 120 foreign projects being considered by British schools.
The new branches dovetail with the government’s global education strategy, which aims to support “transnational education” of fee-paying pupils abroad as a source of exports. Many such pupils go on to apply for UK university places.

David Cook, who ran Dulwich’s first international school in Thailand before becoming headmaster of Repton in Dubai, and then oversaw the creation of schools for both Harrow and Wellington in China, said: “It’s quite extraordinary. high school Shanghai
I could never have imagined 20 years ago that this growth would happen.”

But sector specialists caution that the surge in schools exploring foreign offshoots may not be sustainable, undermining the government’s aim to boost annual education exports from £20bn to £35bn by 2030.

They point out that the expansion comes against a backdrop of political and economic uncertainty in Asia and the Gulf, where demand for the schools is highest, and the schools themselves have limited capacity to expand abroad while maintaining their operations back in the UK.

In the premium private international school market, “the cake is becoming bigger but it is being sliced between many more who are taking a share,” cautioned Ashwin Assomull, a partner in the education practice at LEK, a consultancy. He added that there had been an explosion in both British schools abroad and a number of rival private international school chains.

British and other international schools in the past catered primarily to expatriates, but during the past decade demand in emerging markets — led by China — has grown sharply to cater for an expanding domestic middle class with disposable income and global aspirations for their children.

Colin Bell, the chief executive of the Council of British International Schools, said this growing demand reflected “the reputation of British education, and English as the business language of choice”. He added that UK and US universities were also highly ranked, and British schools were seen as an important route into them.

According to ISC Research, which tracks education trends, there are now 73 British independent schools with sister schools or partnerships abroad. They teach a total of 45,000 students and have annual fee income of $1bn. Another 19 are due to open during the next two years.

Joe Spence, the master of Dulwich College in London, which now has 10 international partnerships, argued that the appetite for elite public schools reflected “the development of the British model over 150 years, balancing academic quality with pastoral care. and supra- and co-curricular activities such as music, drama, charitable work and leadership”.
He said the revenues generated by Dulwich’s overseas branches were used to fund scholarships that encourage social mobility back in London, while international exchanges enriched the experience for students and staff alike. But he stressed that his overseas strategywas not a “not smash and grab”.
It brought revenues of only about £1m a year and required a significant investment in resources for the supervision, support and selection of senior staff.

Mark Abell, a lawyer at Bird & Bird, confirmed that the scope for elite schools such as Dulwich to expand profitably was limited. Mr Abell, who has acted for 80 schools and has 30 projects under discussion, said economies of scale were important.
“I explain to clients that if they want to open one or two schools, they are wasting their time: they will never go to scale and will not have a long-term sustainable project,” he said.

He pointed out that schools could struggle to maintain standards at faraway branches, where it can be difficult balance the school’s interests with those of local business partners who typically manage and own the properties. For example, Dulwich split from its first school in Thailand over differences in approach.

“You have kids with different levels of motivation and English language proficiency, and local partners who want to fill their facilities quickly so you can’t be so selective,” added Mr Assomull at LEK.