Creative thinking in the UK boarding schools market: the key to survival

“Schools that stick rigidly to their systems suffer untold reputational damage, which could take a generation to dilute”

Pat Moores, director of UK Education Guide, looks at some of the challenges facing the boarding schools sector in the UK, and how schools are adapting by opening up new markets.

Under increasing international competition, many schools are looking at new, emerging markets to benefit all pupils and school finances.

“Smart schools celebrate high levels of diversity in their international population and know their British students have much to gain from living and learning side by side with a broad range of nationalities,” says Maura Power, international student recruitment manager at Culford School.

There is no doubt the UK boarding schools market is highly respected internationally. However, the flux in UK government generally and specifically in relation to Brexit, their current position on immigration and visas, coupled with increasing international competition, is holding back creative efforts in the sector to open up new markets.

But schools are nevertheless forging ahead into these markets. As schools seek to diversify their intake, Julia Evans, director of Cambridge Guardian Angels points out that it’s important to remember: “Every established market was once a new market, so we need flexibility, cultural understanding and sensitivity to develop new relationships.”

Some schools are looking at new opportunities in Central and South America. Traditionally, parents would have looked to the US for overseas study options, but Trump’s election has also coincided with the falling value of the pound versus the dollar post Brexit – which, as Brooke House College principal Mike Oliver points out, is “making UK fees relative to other nations more affordable versus the US dollar”.

“The flux in UK government, specifically in relation to Brexit, immigration and visas, coupled with increasing international competition, is holding back creative efforts to open up new markets”

Caroline Nixon of Caroline Nixon Education Ltd, an international education consultancy, also sees the opportunity for UK schools to open campuses in South American countries as well as in Mexico: “South America has a growing middle class and in many countries there is a fragmented educational infrastructure – more British schools will open in South America as the culture tends to view that it is better to keep your children at home, not send them overseas.”

The Trump effect is also making parents from the six countries included in Trump’s travel ban take a closer look at the UK. Both Bishopstrow and d’Overbroecks College have seen increased interest from Iran in recent months.

Meanwhile, oil rich Kazakhstan continues to be a strong newer source country for UK Boarding schools. According to the Begin Group, the overseas education market in Kazakhstan is growing by about 50% each year and is the fastest growing market in the former Soviet Union. It is estimated that 60% of the children attending overseas boarding schools currently come to the UK.

So what are the challenges in attracting pupils from these new markets?

Flexibility from schools is essential, argues Gareth Collier, principal of Cardiff Sixth Form College, who told me: “Schools that stick rigidly to their systems and expect the parents to fit them and their deadlines suffer untold reputational damage, which could take a generation to dilute.”

This flexibility is needed most when trying to accommodate students from new markets, but also needs to be matched by greater government flexibility. The issue of visas is always a challenge, but most notably for students from emerging countries like Iran. There is also a broader visa issue, as raised by Caroline Nixon, who says: “The UK government’s position on international students generally is a problem. Boarding schools are often the starting point for parents getting their children into the UK education system, but the Australian and Canadian governments’ commitment to retaining students post-university is attracting many parents to look at these locations before the UK, as they offer long term opportunities for their children.”

“Every established market was once a new market”

Educating new agents from new territories about the UK education system will also be a priority moving forward, as highlighted by Mark Jeynes, director of Bishopstrow College, in relation to recruiting students from Iran. “We will need to spend more time building these new agent relationships and educating them about appropriate entry level and entry requirements,” he explains.

So, schools are busily adapting to the challenges of opening up new markets, but they also have to react quickly and flexibly to political and economic challenges as and when they arise in both the UK and their existing markets; “An understanding of the sensitivities that students and their families face in their home countries will pay dividends. For example the recent restrictions on forex flow out of Nigeria meant that many families were unable to pay school fees on time,” says Gareth Collier at Cardiff Sixth Form College.

And some changes are completely unpredictable and independent of wider economic issues. “The two terror attacks in Manchester and London have just hit us for six in terms of summer school places and there is nothing we can do about that,” says Brooke House College’s Mike Oliver. “So giving assurances that your school is safe is now becoming more important.”