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Pandemic-induced disruption last year failed to slow the expansion of British private schools in China, where 14 institutions began operations, up from four in 2019, a new report has found.

Despite closures and financial distress in the global independent schooling sector, another 40 offshoots of British institutions are set to open in China over the next few years, according to Venture Education.

The Beijing-based consultancy says that “the disruptions of 2020 gave ample times for planning and decision making”, noting that, “even in April, when the pandemic was at its peak”, Chinese investors meanwhile were completing purchases of UK private schools.

The British Independent Schools in China report highlights a deepening trend in which British institutions are branching out in the lucrative Chinese market while, at the same time, China-based investment houses and operators are buying up UK schools.

According to Venture Education, within five years China will be home to four out of the top-five British independent school brands. Meanwhile, 19 British schools are owned by China-based entities.

Brighton College plans to open four Chinese campuses over the next decade, while St Paul’s Girls’ School, the UK’s number-one private school, is set to open two offshoots this year. King’s College School Wimbledon, which already has two schools in China, will this year open another two campuses. Wycombe Abbey School has plans to roll out at least another six Chinese schools, in addition to the campuses it launched in 2016.

When launching schools in China, British brands have historically partnered with domestic property developers, which bankroll campus developments in exchange for a share of revenues or profits under so-called ‘asset-light’ models.

But Venture Education finds that this ecosystem is changing.

The consultancy points to an “increasing trend towards multi-party collaborations between British schools, property developers, Chinese education companies and, in some cases, local governments”. These entities often provide support in areas such as curriculum development, school management, and government-affairs support, the consultancy noted.

Venture Education’s report illustrates a divide in popularity between China’s north and south.

In the latter, coastal provinces such as Guangdong are “burgeoning regions” for British independent school brands. Of those that plan to open campuses in the next two years, 47% are in Guangdong. More than half (51%) of Chinese companies that have partnered with British schools are headquartered in the Greater Bay Area, a megapolis comprising nine cities, including Shenzhen, as well as the Hong Kong and Macau territories.

“This flourishing region is now expanding into other southern provinces such as Sichuan, Fujian, and the island of Hainan,” the report states.

Hainan is a “national pilot area for international education innovation”, the report continued, noting “ongoing discussions about foreign universities and international schools, which may be able to open and operate more independently”.

British school brands including Harrow, Dulwich and Wellington all have more campuses in the south of China than in the north.

“China’s rising middle class is the main customer group for British independent schools in China, and as they grow, so does the number of schools,” the report states. “This makes China’s British school market an extremely lucrative area to invest, given the sheer size of the Chinese population.”

Date published: 25 January 2021

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