The dramatic increase in the number of British schools opening branch campuses in locations across the globe has largely been fuelled by demand from both local and expat parents. These parents want to give their children a world class education and help them gain access to top universities and global employment opportunities.
However, embarking on developing and managing a school overseas requires serious consideration and a clear understanding of what lies ahead on the journey from conception to delivery and beyond.
Developing the Concept
Fundamental to the process is for the parent school to identify the educational vision upon which it is going to base its overseas growth. What are the inherent characteristics which will enable its overseas branch schools to flourish? Is it their expertise as an ‘all through’ school? A speciality such as STEAM or STEM? What is the ethos of the school and how will this flourish internationally?
The first step is to gain an in depth understanding of the current education landscape and the prevailing market forces. What are parents looking for? What is the competition like? What role do the local regulators play?
Having established the likely opportunities, they need to be measured against the proposed vision of the school to ’health check’ if it is appropriate for the market. Will adaptations need to be made and will these still be in keeping with the ethos and spirit of the parent school? The size and nature of the school will need consideration; the market is changing and the demand for mid fee point schools is growing and this could influence the proposed nature of the school in terms of fees, class size and scale.
Delivering the vision and transforming it into reality involves a huge range of factors but there are three key ones; the business model, the delivering of a physical building and the human resources.
The starting point for many on this journey will be establishing the most effective ownership model and the relationship between the school and the investors. Clear and appropriate legal and commercial advice are essential. It is a complex area and the long term relationship where all sides are satisfied with the returns and arrangements must be the key objective. Local government authorities will generally have clear guidelines on the relationship between investors and the parent school and the type of business model considered to be sustainable in the local conditions.
The practicalities will also involve seeking the relevant permissions from licencing authorities; they will need to understand the school’s vision and motivation for wishing to set up, to see the education plans and to be happy with the business model being proposed.
At the same time work will be going on to deliver on the physical plant of the school, confirming a site, commissioning contractors, architects, project managers etc to ensure that the building will be delivered on budget and on time. Other aspects such as the nitty gritty of uniforms, school caterers, furniture providers, playground equipment, computer systems and text books will also need to be considered.
In terms of HR, it is crucial to have a timeline setting out when the key people need to be brought on board. For example, a Founding Principal should ideally be in post at least a year before the planned opening date. They will be responsible for establishing the curriculum, recruiting the key team members as well as bringing the school to market. For this, they will need to be supported by an admissions and marketing team who are familiar with the local environment. Teacher recruitment is another key aspect, recruiting good staff can prove challenging in some parts of the world. Salary is an element but the overall package and opportunities for professional development are also important in this competitive field.
The delivery stage will unite all aspects of the project on a time line dictated by the opening schedule. The challenge for schools is that an opening date has to fit with the academic education cycle and they cannot afford to miss the start of the academic year.
As the building rises from the ground, the key staff members start to come on board and the pupil recruitment starts to intensify, it is a question of keeping everything on track. This means managing the inevitable hiccoughs on the way and making sure that whilst a certain degree of flexibility is necessary, that the central vision of the school does not get lost in translation.
The day dawns when the first pupils enter the school! The vision has been delivered but now the challenge comes in maintaining and managing the school.
Pupil recruitment in the early life cycle of the school is mission critical. The growth of pupil numbers whether they are below or above target can present challenges in terms of staffing as well as the cost implication and both need to be managed carefully. Equally, it is sensible to focus on pupil and indeed staff retention and schools who deliver on what they have promised generally find that adds to the reputation of the school. Cultural sensitivity can play a role in this and it is important that both the admissions teams and teaching staff are all fully briefed and implement adaptions.
The delivery of the education should be the bedrock of any school, but in a start-up it is important to have regular quality assurance by the parent school to ensure that the same high standards and ethos are being maintained. Parents can then be reassured that their children are getting the education they were promised. In some parts of the world, a rigorous inspection regime starts very early in the life cycle of the school, ensuring that standards are being maintained and that the school is compliant in all of the key regulatory areas.
Managing expectations is ongoing whether it be those of the governors, the parent school, the owners and investors or those of the school community in terms of teachers, parents and children. The key is to deliver what was promised, to flag up and be open about any challenges and most of all to try to stay true to the integrity and purpose of the initial vision.