International Private Schools Are Growing, and Diversifying Their Curriculum Offerings

Staff Writer
Global market for lanuage learning takes off

The international private school market is growing, as schools across regions seek to broaden the scope of their instructional offerings and appeal to families of all income levels, not just the financially elite.

More than 6.9 million students attend international schools worldwide, an increase of 10 percent from five years ago, according to a new white paper from ISC Research. The number of schools has grown as well to 14,010, an 8 percent boost in the same period. Combined, the schools represent more than $60.9 billion in tuition fees annually, the paper said, a $9 billion jump from five years ago. 

The growth continues an ongoing trend dating back a decade, during which time many international private schools have sought to broaden their appeal beyond the wealthiest families to become a more accessible option for both expatriates and middle-income families based in the schools’ home nations.

High-tuition schools are “still growing,” said Adam Gray-Sims, a communications specialist at ISC Research. “The market isn’t moving away from that, but there is definitely a rise in medium-fee schools across the board as well.”

ISC defines international private schools as those that deliver a curriculum wholly or partly in English to some or all of their students, in a country where English is not an official language. They also include schools that deliver a curriculum other than the host country’s national curriculum, wholly or partly in English, in a country where English is an official language.

As the international school market expands, many are also increasing the types of curriculum they use and moving away from a strict adherence to either U.K., U.S., Cambridge, International Baccalaureate, or Advanced Placement, the five key curricula that “dominate the international schools market,” the report said, and are taught by 77 percent of all international schools. While the AP, developed by the College Board, is based in the U.S., and Cambridge originates in the U.K., ISC puts them in their own categories.

Asian Schools Booming

The largest concentration of international schools is in Asia, the ISC analysis found: 57 percent of international schools are located in that region, followed by 15 percent in the Americas, 14 percent in Europe, 12 percent in Africa and 2 percent in Oceania.

Countries in Asia are experiencing some of the highest rates of expansion as well, with western Asia, southern Asia, southeastern Asia, and eastern Asia topping the list of the global regions with the highest number of international schools and the most growth.

South America has the fifth-highest number of international schools, the paper reported.

The global growth can be attributed, in part, to the increasing demand for medium-fee schools, said Gray-Sims, who has held positions at international schools, as well as with ed-tech providers serving those institutions. As families seek out affordable options, more schools are opening to serve them, he said.

That’s not to say the most expensive schools are in decline. ISC data show premium-fee enrollment is still growing, and rose 14 percent over the past five years, compared to the market’s overall enrollment growth of 10 percent.

It is very rare that one school offers just one curriculumAdam Gray-Sims, Communications Specialist, ISC Research

Still, medium-fee schools grew at an even higher rate, with an enrollment rise of 17 percent from 2018 to 2023.

When looking at specific countries with the highest number of international schools, China tops the list with 1,106, followed by India with 923, the United Arab Emirates at 784, and Pakistan at 598. Brazil, the only South American country in the top five, has 415 international schools.

The report also identified future key markets, including India, where there’s a strong growth in international schools in the most populous cities, including Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore, and increasingly Hyderabad and Kolkata.

ISC also identified Japan as a growing market, particularly for expatriates. Some families from China move to countries like Japan while children are young to give them a foundation in international education. British education is also growing in Japan with the recent opening of the Rugby School and Malvern College in 2023 in the country.

Gray-Sims pointed to Vietnam as an interesting area of growth as well, since Chinese families are also increasingly turning to the country as a place to send students for international education, he said. Some nations also cap the number of student who can attend international private schools within their boundaries, and Vietnam has become an attractive option for those families.

Hybrid Approaches to Curriculum

As new international private schools open, many are doing so with a mix of different instructional approaches.

The IB and Cambridge curricula are growing in popularity, and schools are seeking to offer an array of curricula that provide students with a broad and internationally recognized education.

Overall, the white paper reports Cambridge as the most popular curriculum with 35.4 percent market share, followed by U.K. and IB both at 28.1 percent, and the U.S. at 19.1 percent. AP curriculum has just 8.7 percent market share.

The market share percentages add up to more than 100 percent because schools often — and increasingly — are drawing from multiple curricula to build their instructional offerings.

“It is very rare that one school offers just one curriculum,” Gray-Sims said.

For example, the number of students solely pursuing a U.K. curriculum — which traditionally has broad appeal in many countries — dropped by 6.2 percent from 2018 to 2023. During that same time period, about two thirds of the international schools that opened did so with a hybrid curriculum.

One driving force behind this diversification of academic resources, Gray-Sims said, is that education regulations in different countries often mandate that different regional, state, or national curricula be woven into the school day.

It’s common for international private schools to market themselves as tied to a curriculum to attract parents who want their children to continue their postsecondary studies in the country most associated with that educational approach, Gray-Sims said.

The curriculum a school offers is “a massive factor in parents’ choice of schools,” Gray-Sims said, because they see it as the “pathway to further education.”

Image by Getty.

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