Global demand for an International School education continues to grow rapidly.

In this article we review:

  • How many international schools there are
  • What is driving the expansion of international schools
  • What the implications are for school leaders and school developers

How many International Schools are there?

At the start of 2019 there were:

  • More than 10,000 international schools
  • Educating close to 6 million students
  • Employing more than 1/2 million staff
  • With US$50 billion in fee income

As the data below shows, this has grown dramatically in the last two decades. The number of students now being educated in international schools has grown almost 6 times in the last 20 years.

19 years of strong growth in the International Schools market

Source: ISCResearch

What is driving the growth of International Schools?

To understand the future of international schooling, we also need to understand the past.

From the earliest part of the 1900s as workforces became gradually more internationally mobile, pockets of expats would appear in important commercial and trading hubs around the world. Rather than leave the children back at home in a Boarding school, International Schools emerged to take care of the children of the families working overseas.

This is not a new phenomenon. In fact the first International School in the world was established in 1924. Founded in Switzerland by the League of Nations, the International School of Geneva has been instrumental in the growth of International Schools:  in 1968, teachers at the school built what has become the International Baccalaureate.

The growth in demand from expat families

One factor that, even today, still drives demand for international schools, is the growth of the world’s expatriate population. If you (like me) are already part of this community, we’re in the minority: only about 1% of the world’s population are living outside their home country.

However, this trend is growing (and it doesn’t take a mathematics teacher to realise that a small growth in the % of people living abroad, plus a growth in world population = a substantial increase in a global expat population!)

The global expat population is increasing

Market research company Finaccord forecast a continued growth in working expatriates of more than 7% a year. There are now more than 70 million expats worldwide. Now that’s not to say that all are families, with children, and needing International Schools. But it still drives demand

One factor driving demand for International Schools is the continued growth in the world's expat population

The growth in demand from host country local families

However, by far the biggest driver of the recent growth in International Schools is the growth in demand from local families.

From coverage on the BBC (Asia drives demand for international schools) to Forbes (International Schools Are Broadening Their Appeal And Breaking Down Barriers)  this growth is news. The key factors driving demand for an international school education include:

  • English language skills:
    • Many International Schools are primarily English language (though are increasingly bilingual too)
    • English remains a dominant force in world business and internet pages (and is still a main language of more than 50 countries)
  • University prospects:
  • Network:
    • In China, one of the fastest growing locations for international schools, “some parents also want their children to rub shoulders with an international elite and build contacts for a future career.”
  • Regulation:
    • (Or rather the lifting of regulations).
    • Many locations have previously had restrictions on the number of ‘local’ students that an ‘international’ school could accept. This has often led to long waiting lists from wealthy local families trying to access an international education.
    • Malaysia lifted their 40% cap in 2012 which spurred the creation of almost 60% more international schools there over the next 5 years.
    • Vietnam lifted their 20% cap in 2018 triggering a surge of investment into the sector of USD $4 billion
  • Demographics
    • There are more school-age children in the world
    • The UN’s population forecasts estimate that the number of school age children will continue to grow through the first half of this century, tailing off as we approach 2100.
    • Whilst this growth trend is not global (and doesn’t apply to most of the world’s wealthiest developed economies), in emerging economies, children, and education will remain increasingly important investment priorities for decades.

Local families increasingly have access to International Schools, fuelling further demand and growth

What are the implications for school leaders?

We have already written about what it takes to be a great international school leader. In that article we highlight school governance as a critical part of the leader’s role in an international school.

The international school sector does have large (and increasingly large) investors focussed on building schools. As we can see from the fee income above, the average school is taking US$5 million in fees a year. However, most of that will go on running costs:

  • 70% staff costs
  • 10% marketing and admissions

(As a comparison to a typical state-funded UK school, you can review UK government data here)

Therefore payback on loans for construction, land, and the creation of the school takes a long time. Investors wanting a fast return are out of luck, but may put intense pressure on school leadership to deliver results (larger class sizes, relaxed admissions policy, cheaper staff) all of which can destroy a startup school’s reputation.

Education is a long-term investment: for students, and for investors

There are no quick wins

Demand for international schools and teachers will continue to grow

With the combined factors of demographics, a desire for a global outlook, and (potential) long-term gains for investors, multiple factors will continue to push the expansion of international schools. ISCResearch forecast that there will be more than 16,000 international schools by 2027.

International school teachers are now in demand in almost every countryStaffing those schools remains a challenge. Developed economies worldwide face teacher recruitment challenges. These countries (typically native english speaking) provide the bulk of the international teacher community.

With another 1/2 million staff needed for international schools in the coming decade, developing, attracting, and retaining teaching staff remains a critical priority.

At we are proud to be helping schools to recruit staff in a way that is tailored to this global, mobile workforce. Fast, simple, and effective. Find out how we do it.