Why India is the new boom market for international schools
For the better half of the past two decades, China has been the leading destination for new international schools.
Its fast-growing economy, large population and demand for education appealed to investors – and schools proliferated, with over 1,000 international schools now in operation, according to data from ISC Research.
However, India is quickly challenging China’s long-standing status quo as the leading destination for international schools. It now sits second for the overall number behind China at 879 schools, with at least 28 more set to open in the future, as of data from July 2023.
“We’re getting more calls about India than almost everywhere else put together,” said ISC Research CEO Leigh Webb at the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) conference in London in May.
The causes of this shift from China to India are both push and pull.
On the push side, a number of factors have contributed to a cooling on China, not least the drastic regulatory changes that have happened over the past few years.
Chiefly, the Private Education Promotion Law that came into effect in 2021 made operating in the country a lot harder, such as by banning any overseas name in school titles – such as “British”, “international” or using any brand name – for any setting educating Chinese national pupils.
This has already seen some settings rename themselves, such as Harrow Beijing, which is now Lide School.
While of course the quality of education in such establishments will not be affected by a name change, the wider appeal of schools could be.
“The changes may affect the marketing of schools operating on a partnership model with UK schools, and potentially may also have an impact on Chinese schools’ attitudes towards partnering with UK institutions,” a British Council analysis noted last year.
Other changes include a ban on the use of international curricula and foreign textbooks that one head, who had taught in China in two different schools, said on Tes in 2022 had “made it just about impossible to teach the sort of mixed East-West curriculum that had become increasingly commonplace” – and was a big draw for parents.
John Jones, CEO of the Federation of British International Schools in Asia, which has two member schools in India, says it is clear from these changes that “China is becoming less friendly towards expatriates and the influence they bring”.
He adds: “International schools are possibly seen as a threat to the country because the pedagogy and curriculum taught are very democratic.”
What’s more, this change occurred right in the middle of the pandemic, when educators were experiencing some of the toughest restrictions anywhere in the world.
“If you were working or leading a school in China during Covid, it was a horrid time for you because you weren’t able to leave the country – you were basically confined for two and a half years,” notes Jones.
These factors – combined with the fact that investors are always looking for the next big thing – meant new markets were needed. And India quickly became the obvious choice.
One key reason was that, while Chinese legislation was putting off investors, the Indian government’s 2020 New Education Policy (NEP) plan changed how education is delivered in schools from rote-based learning to competency-based skills, which was ideal for international schools.
‘India is incredibly positive and is welcoming British education into the country in a way that China isn’t’
“The NEP 2020 and (other) international agreements reflect India’s liberal stance to embrace international education,” ISC Research notes.
“The NEP 2020 policy aligns with the objectives of the international curriculum of imparting holistic education to Indian students.”
Colin Bell, CEO of COBIS, agrees this has played nicely into the hands of international schools offering a British curriculum.
“The British education system places a strong emphasis on developing critical thinking and creativity in students, which helps to prepare them for success in a rapidly changing world,” he says.
“This has contributed to the popularity of British international schools, as parents are looking for schools that will help their children develop these valuable skills.”
One school that demonstrates this shift away from China and towards India is Millfield School, which has made Mumbai the destination for one of its first overseas schools as part of an international expansion.
Headmaster Gavin Horgan explains: “India is incredibly positive and is welcoming British education into the country at the moment in a way that China isn’t.
“The legislation has changed in China and we will not be looking to open there in the near future.”
Then, of course, there is the sheer size of India; a booming population, a growing economy and huge megacities mean there is huge potential.
“There are 444 million young people that need to be educated in India. Without a lot of established international schools, the untapped market looks attractive,” Jones notes.
“In some major cities like Kolkata, I’m not aware of the existence of many branded, established international schools, which is a surprise. Someone will come in and test the market for sure.”
This is very much how the Chinese market looked two decades ago, so the appeal was clear.
Finally, growing prosperity in India means a new middle class has emerged that wants to invest in its children’s education, as British School of New Delhi director Vanita Uppal explains.
“[There is] a robust and growing aspirational middle class that prioritises education for their children and is willing to spend a substantial part of their disposable income on providing the ‘best’ (read: international) educational provision for their children,” she notes.
“Equally, many families aspire to send their children overseas for higher education, and international schooling is considered the best pathway to facilitate this aspiration.”
‘India is a progressive country with a dynamic economy, rich culture and passion for education’
Bell at COBIS agrees this is a key point, noting for example that forecasts suggest as many as 1.8 million students from India will move to study overseas by 2024 – with the US, UK and Canada being key destinations.
“This means that the demand for primary and secondary education that prepares young people with the qualifications and learning approach for this pathway is also growing,” he adds.
This rapid growth means demand for British curriculum international schools is not just aimed at the high end of the market, but at more mid-market prices, too, as Webb at ISC Research noted in his COBIS talk earlier this year.
“India had a perception that it was low and mid-market and couldn’t facilitate anything beyond that but we’ve seen that the market has changed and there is a demand for a higher fee point,” he said.
One school that recently opened in India and brings all this growth to life is Wellington College. It opened its first school in Pune, western India, in September as a co-educational day and boarding school for 800 pupils aged 2-18.
While fees are not made public, Scott Bryan, managing director at Wellington College International (WCI), tells Tes it has “positioned fees at the top end of the Indian market, in line with other top international schools”, which fits the group’s wider international strategy.
He says: “WCI opening in India follows our strategy of establishing a network of outstanding schools in key global locations. India is a progressive country with a dynamic economy, rich culture and passion for education.”
Iain Henderson, deputy head of educational developments and partnerships at Wellington College, adds that a strong cultural connection between Britain and India means the market is “very receptive to new schools because of many people’s preference for British education”.
Horgan at Millfield agrees, saying that he expects the majority of pupils to be local when they open in September 2025.
“My experience of India is it is a very outward-looking, internationally minded country that we can learn masses from, so we’re very comfortable with an 80:20 or even an 85:15 split,” he says.
However, while locals may make up the bulk of the pupil cohorts and parent communities, the reality is that most teachers will be British, something Jones says can appear problematic.
“In many schools, you can have 30 to 40 nationalities among students. But when you look at the teaching staff, they are predominantly British teachers. You want to promote an international school but where’s the diversity?” he asks.
Conversely, though, Jones notes that many parents will expect a British teacher because that is what they are essentially paying for: “When they are paying $20,000 to $30,000 a year, they want native English-speaking teachers from the UK.”
Uppal at the British School of New Delhi says that in her 30 years in the sector, things have shifted. While the above may be true for some parents, others are more focused on “teachers who have the requisite experience and skills to do the best for their children”.
She continues: “For some, this may equate to having British teachers but for most, it will be the quality of training and experience, their exposure and understanding of best international practice and their academic prowess.”
Henderson agrees a balance between both is the ideal to aim for: “The school should be the best of the West and the best of the East – we shouldn’t be trying to impose everything British nor should we have a school that’s completely local.”
Horgan agrees: “I would hope any school would have a proportion of both local and international teachers. I don’t see the merit of having only international teachers because I think it’s really important to be rooted in the culture of the country you’re in, and that happens through professional dialogue between local teachers and international teachers.”
‘The school should be the best of the West and the best of the East – we shouldn’t be trying to impose everything British’
What he does think will be a challenge, though, is ensuring strong teacher retention with local teachers, given the proliferation of schools in India.
“In Mumbai, one of the biggest issues is that there’s going to be a massive proliferation of international schools in the next five years and the critical part of that is going to be the recruitment and retention of local staff, who are not tremendously brand loyal.”
As part of planning for this, he says the school is already in conversation with one of its partner organisations in India about opening a teacher training institution so more local staff could be trained up “to work in schools like Millfield internationally”.
Furthermore, he says he also hopes to use the lure of the opportunity to live and work in India to help retain its UK staff, too.
“I’ve spoken to staff here, particularly those who have been with us for some time who I want to keep for much longer, and it’s great being able to develop them and retain them by saying: ‘I want you to go out on secondment or be part of curriculum design and quality control.’”
For teachers not in a school with direct links to the country but for whom the idea of living and working in India sounds appealing, it seems clear from the above trends there will be plenty of opportunities emerging in the years ahead for those with the desire to go.
As Bell notes: “The growth of British-orientated international schools across India is an exciting prospect.”
Kimberley Cheung is a freelance journalist. Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes
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