International Private Schools in Key Region Taking a Hit, and Reorganizing Due to COVID-19

Contributing Writer
international private schools

The number of international private schools in regions around the world have soared in recent years, and education companies have scrambled to land business in that sector.

A new report breaks down the impact of COVID-19 in the the Middle East, a region that is loaded with international private schools, and finds that many of the institutions have seen their enrollments dip, even as they overhaul their operations and refocus on online learning to accommodate families.

The United Kingdom-based organization ISC Research recently released results of a survey of international schools in the Middle East, describing how they have implemented changes to school administration, and revised approaches to teaching and learning, along with student and staff well-being in response to the coronavirus.

The changes include beefing up tech equipment and digital curriculum investments, implementing widespread safety protocols, developing contingency plans if teachers don’t fulfill contracts, requiring some staff to deliver distance learning from their home country, and offering tuition discounts or engaging in new marketing strategies to attract students. 

ISC, which provides data and intelligence on international schools around the world, surveyed 55 international schools over the summer in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. 

Globally, the market for international private schools — defined by ISC as those offering instruction primarily in English and with an international orientation — has been thriving, now totaling more than 11,500 schools around the world with enrollment of about 5.8 million students.

And the report provides a snapshot of the scenario on the ground in one of the world’s largest and most important international school regions.

The Middle East is home to four of the top 10 international private school markets in the world. Enrollment in those countries alone — UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt.  — totals about 1.3 million students, according to ISC. 

In May, the U.K.-based research firm published a report saying that the international private school sector could be spared a coronavirus-related clobbering, noting the industry remained strong in the aftermath of other global economic downturns.

Overall, the report paints a picture of Middle East-based international schools so far avoiding the potential worst case scenarios: an inability to adjust to new norms caused by the virus resulting in a mass exodus of teachers and students.

The ISC cautions that the survey results for the Middle East can’t be extrapolated to international private schools in other parts of the world. A lot of schools in other parts of the world haven’t opened yet, and it’s still too early to get a sense for the entire global market’s reaction to the pandemic. ISC says it is collecting data region by region to figure that out.

10 key takeaways from international private schools in the Middle East on how they’ve been affected by COVID-19:

  • 92 percent are requiring protective masks to be worn
  • 92 percent put in place health-check screening systems on campus and new rules for handling supplies like pens and books
  • 54 percent experienced challenges stemming from government and ministry regulations due to COVID-19
  • 70 percent anticipate a changed focus towards blended and online learning
  • 42 percent anticipate significant changes to teaching and learning staff
  • 73 percent said current student enrollment has been impacted by COVID-19
  • 27 percent said admissions have decreased compared to previous years
  • 9 percent said admissions have risen compared to previous years
  • 58 percent said they are freezing school fees
  • 29 percent said they are reducing school fees

Masks, Screenings, and a Lack of Guidance 

Private schools in the Middle East have reopened school buildings for in-class instruction, and every school surveyed by ISC is putting in place safety measures.

Those include new cleaning and sanitization protocols, social distancing to limit physical contact, providing masks to staff, and staggering the number of students physically returning to schools.

Meanwhile, schools reported a sense of frustration with a lack of clear reopening guidance from government and education ministries.  

No Going Back to ‘Traditional Format’ 

The online learning model used by many school systems during COVID-19 seems to have resonated with international private schools in the region.  A vast majority say they are changing their learning plans and anticipate distance learning will stick around beyond the pandemic.

As a result, the report says schools in the region are increasing their spending on apps and online subscriptions, while some are prioritizing Internet connectivity or investments in tech coaches and training for staff and students. At the same time, most are having to continue making investments in devices for staff and students.

One survey respondent, the head of English Modern School Doha, commented in the report: “I don’t think we will ever return to the traditional format exclusively.”

Teacher Workforce Is Stable 

The big upside on the staffing side: surveyed schools are not experiencing substantial teacher turnover resulting in shortages.

All the schools said they have had no change from “normal levels” of existing teachers. Still, schools are developing back up plans. Half of the schools surveyed said they have contingencies in place in case teachers decide not to fulfill contracts, including “cover teachers” to bide time during the hiring process, while others are relying on recruitment agencies for an immediate pool of candidates to fill possible gaps.

And yet, some schools said they believe they will need fewer staff due to an anticipated drop in enrollment.

Declines in Enrollment 

With the new school year starting, enrollment figures in the COVID-19 era are starting to come into focus — and some international private schools are taking a hit.

More than a quarter of Middle Eastern private schools surveyed said admissions are down and nearly three-fourths responded that enrollment had been impacted by the pandemic. Some schools explained the decline was partly due to expatriate families being forced to return home. About 1 out of 10 schools reported the complete opposite: an admissions increase.

Anne Keeling, ISC’s communications director, said the research firm is hearing anecdotally that enrollment in the international private school sector across the globe is down between 4 percent and 25 percent, depending on the region. That’s “not as much as some people thought it might be,” she said.

But schools are still feeling the pinch, and some in the Middle East started freezing fees altogether or offering discounts, ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent in an attempt to attract parents and students. Keeling said not all schools offered discounts, however.

“A lot of schools did well and kept teaching going and assessments going and could argue they were providing the best they could in the particular circumstance,” Keeling said. “Some didn’t have sufficient platforms in place, and parents were having to do much more. In those cases, they had to recognize and give something back or offer incentives to keep those families.” 

At the same time, schools reported that recruiting new students is more complex now, primarily due to financial instability on the part of applications.

The pandemic has also led private schools in the regions to reassess marketing approaches, with most now using virtual tours, webinars, interviews via video conference and online Q&As for new families with the school senior leadership team.

Image by Getty

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