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International schools - global trends

What are the key trends in international education worldwide? Nick Morrison investigates for Winter's...


The international schools market is undergoing dramatic change, not just in size but also in its breadth.

While recent years have seen a steep upward trajectory in the number of students and schools in well-established locations, there has also been a rapid expansion in countries that are relative newcomers to international education. 

And, if anything, the pace of change is only likely to increase over the next few years, as globalisation and an increasingly mobile student-body and workforce put a premium on the sort of education international schools have to offer.

As of Spring 2017, there are around 4.6 million students attending more than 8,600 international schools, according to data from the UK-based International Schools Consultancy group (ISC), which monitors market trends.

"...there has been a 50 per cent rise in student numbers in just six years."

Compared with the three million students who attended 6,000 schools in 2011, that represents a 50 per cent increase in student numbers in just six years.

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

Regional developments

Regions where international schools are already well-established have seen continued strong growth. In the Middle East, for example, despite falls in the price of oil and gas hitting the expatriate market, enrolments increased by almost 8 per cent last year.


South East Asia also saw a big increase, 10 per cent, in the number of pupils attending international schools between 2015 and 2016.

The biggest rise, however, has been in the East Asian market, where student numbers were up by 13 per cent.

This is chiefly the result of growing demand in China for an English-language education and qualifications that will provide entry to western universities, according to Richard Gaskell, director for international schools at ISC Research.

China now has the fourth largest number of students in international schools, at 232,424, just behind India and Saudi Arabia, although still dwarfed by the 597,261 at long-time market leader the UAE.

Pakistan, Qatar, Spain and Egypt all have more than 100,000 pupils enrolled in international schools.

Britannica International School, Shanghai

Britannica International School, Shanghai

The Middle East, South East and East Asia continue to dominate the list of most popular cities for international schools. Dubai has the most, at 276, followed by Madrid, Abu Dhabi, Beijing and Doha. Karachi, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Tokyo and Bangkok complete the top 10.

Shrewsbury International School Bangkok

Shrewsbury International School Bangkok

Curriculums at international schools

UK-curriculum education and qualifications continue to be the most popular, and have seen significant growth in recent years. Almost 3,400 schools offer a UK curriculum, up from around 2,700 in 2013. 

The International Baccalaureate and US curriculum have seen steady growth, but the steepest increase has been in bilingual education, with the number of schools rising from around 1,900 in 2013 to about 2,700 now.

This illustrates a key element in the rising demand for international schools: they are no longer seen as predominantly for expatriate families.

As recently as 2000, most international schools were aimed at expatriates, but that has now changed and many are now attracting substantial numbers of local students, according to Mr Gaskell.

“An increasing number of local families are expected to seek out international school places as their reputation continues to expand...”

Repton School Dubai

Repton School Dubai

English-medium education

Many parents are seeking out an English-medium education that is seen as equipping their children to live and work around the world, as well as an inquiry-based approach to learning instead of the more didactic style favoured in some national systems.

“An increasing number of local families are expected to seek out international school places as their reputation continues to expand,” Mr Gaskell said.

International College Spain

International College Spain

“Far from being seen as an option for elite and expatriate families only, many local families are investing in international schools to ensure their child has an English-speaking education with learning and qualifications that prepares them well for university.”

Future developments

These factors are likely to see continued high levels of growth, with the ISC forecasting that international school enrolments will reach 6.3 million by 2021.

Vietnam and Saudi Arabia are predicted to see significant increases over this period, but international schools are also expected to make major inroads in countries with a relatively small international education scene.

Peru and Colombia are among the emerging markets where the number of schools is likely to rise, while Myanmar, which is seeing rapid economic growth, has a newly-booming international schools sector, partly catering to the influx of expatriate workers. 

Dulwich College, the first international school in Myanmar with a direct link to a UK independent school, will be opening two campuses in Yangon in September this year, for example.

International School, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

International School, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

With these developments and international education as a whole looking strong for the foreseeable future, there's little doubt that it's a sector in good health.


Top image: World Book Day at Harrow International School Hong Kong.

Other images courtesy of:

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

Britannica International School, Shanghai

Shrewsbury International School, Bangkok

Repton School Dubai

International College Spain

International School, Ho Chi Minh City

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