To Survive, Pivot
The schools that can pivot their demographics will survive.
The COVID pandemic was not something that the international education sector had predicted; last March, many schools and educators thought this spreading disease might slightly disrupt operations for a few weeks in a similar manner to the SARS, MERS outbreaks of the last two decades.
With hindsight, how laughably naive.
What has become clear to all of us now, is that this pandemic, in various forms, is here to stay.
Like their national counterparts, most international schools have had to physically close and provide some sort of distance, e-learning or online learning provision - with varying degrees of success.
Some of the elements that make international schools attractive propositions, such as excellent facilities, comprehensive school sports and arts programmes, and extensive co-curricular activity programmes, have been sacrificed or put on hold. Many parents, feeling the pinch due to economic conditions and job losses, have questioned why they are paying high fees for what they see as expensive online tutoring.
To compound this challenge, many expatriate parents have left their jobs and returned ‘home’ from cities dependant on expatriate populations such as Jakarta, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The traditional model of an international school as an embassy or community school, serving the children of western parents who were either professional expatriates or embassy staff (Fraser, 2020), is no longer valid in the vast majority of international schools. Instead, the last 20 years of exponential growth have seen a new type of international school emerge - the for-profit school. Hayden and Thompson (2013) suggest categorising schools into three types:
Type A represents the traditional schools that emerged first, catering to globally mobile expats;
Type B schools are ‘ideologically’ driven and pursue an international curriculum;
The newest are Type C schools, catering to the wealthy elite and aspirational middle-classes.
Common characteristics of the Type C schools are that they are exhibiting the most significant growth in response to the demands of the aspirational middle-class parents they serve (Hayden and Thompson, 2013), are usually proprietary, and are expected to generate a profit (Bunnell, Fertig and James, 2016).
So, as wealthy expatriates leaving countries and local parents question their school fees, all schools are seeing withdrawals.
The schools already populated with a mixture of expatriate and local students, with a mid-tier price point, might lose some students who cannot afford to stay but are replacing those numbers from the students leaving the more pricey schools in town. For example, the school that I work at in Malaysia has lost some overseas students due to closed borders or job losses but has also picked up a similar number of new students from the most expensive ‘expat only’ schools.
Equally, we have picked up several students from local private schools which have not offered any online learning during the pandemic. These parents are now happy to pay a fee for what they see as a substantial learning provision, despite physical school closures.
Thus our demographics have shifted slightly, but overall numbers are healthy,
The traditional and expensive elite international schools may struggle if they cannot pivot also!
Bunnell, T., Fertig, M., & James, C. (2016). What is international about international schools? An institutional legitimacy perspective. Oxford Review of Education, 42(4), 408-423. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2016.1195735
Fraser, S. (2020) In conversation with ISC Research. EDDi XXVI (In Conversation). Retrieved from https://eddi.substack.com/p/eddi-xxvi-in-conversation
Hayden, M., & Thompson, J. (2013). International schools: Antecedents, current issues and metaphors for the future. In Pearce, R. (Ed.) International Education and Schools: Moving Beyond the First 40 Years (pp. 3–23). A&C Black. https://doi.org/10.5040/978147255303
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The Teacher’s Guide is getting around!
Seen here in Thailand with a happy reader - and his new best friend. When we said ‘a companion to your international adventure’ we didn’t quite mean that kind of companion!