An English school overseas

5th March 2023

How to spread your school’s ethos to China, the Americas, and beyond without incurring financial risk

For decades now there has been a global market for Anglophone education.  The English came late to the game, but have been extraordinarily successful.  There is still a vast space in the market for more: for example, in China alone there are over 200 million school age children and so far only a few thousand Anglophone schools.  Many other untapped markets are more liberal than China’s, allowing for curricula that are almost identical to those used in the UK.

In the past schools were set up as standalone entities by investors based abroad, but now many UK independent schools are opening as franchised institutions around the world.

If you are interested in expansion overseas, then your first concerns should be market research and commercial feasibility.  A crucial part of this analysis is the identity and suitability of your partner in the target country.  A thorough investigation of that partner is vital.  Even if the overseas organization that wishes to partner with your school is headed by a trusted individual (eg an ex-pupil or a parent), there may be other individuals or factors that exert pressure on the partner and that override the abilities of that trusted individual.  The trusted individual might be just one member of a team, or might be beholden to other interests, or might retire or be replaced by an unknown person. There may also be reputational issues with the partner.

It is also important to investigate the project itself, as there may be legal issues with the proposal (such as problems with land ownership, construction, business scope, compliance) and these issues might not be fully understood by the partner.  We cannot assume, for example, that just because a partner company is from Kazakhstan they automatically understand all of Kazakhstan’s laws and regulations, in the same way that a citizen of the UK does not usually have an innate knowledge of all British law.  A school should have its own experts conduct this part of the work.

Of course it is equally important not to let risk experts or members of supervisory bodies talk you out of a significant opportunity.  It is almost unheard of in other industry sectors to make a successful investment without taking any financial risk, yet UK schools often manage it by demanding that the overseas partner not only come up with all the capital for the project, but even cover most or all of their own advisor costs and related expenses.  Even so, schools often go far beyond the call of duty in their intense scrutiny of exit rights, strategic and tactical decision making of the overseas school, and reputational risk.  While school bides are genuinely right not to rush into transactions, there is sometimes a danger that these issues are over-examined to the point of deal-breaking, and a good project manager needs the ability to satisfy the conflicting demands of all sides.

Returning to the subject of curricula, while many countries are relatively liberal, some of the world’s major economies are societally restrictive.  China and many middle eastern countries have restrictions on education content for their own citizens, whether from a political or religious context.  Despite this, a UK school should still find it acceptable (and surely beneficial) to export the ethos of the school to the fullest extent.  Put another way, if there is value in the tradition, mentorship and heritage of a great school (and this author believes that there is), then surely there is value in allowing even a small part of that ethos to spread to a corner of the world that has nothing comparable.

What is the ideal location?  This is more a question for business consultants than lawyers, but suffice it to be said that the time for focussing on British expatriates alone has long past.  The great thing is to recruit pupils from the local population, for the obvious reason that it is far more numerous than the British diaspora.  When we mentioned earlier the enormous untapped market, we meant the local (non-British) market in foreign countries.  This is why the abilities and nature of your local partner/investor are so important.  If you are just trying to attract expatriates, a UK style prospectus is sufficient, but to recruit from among a different nationality, culture and language you need local expertise.

This article is not intended to imply that the establishment of an overseas campus is risk-free.  Badly handled, the project can lead to severe reputational risk and even personal risk for individuals from your school.  Handled well, however, a school can generate sizeable revenue while spreading its virtues far afield.

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