Sustaining independent school admissions and growing the international school sector is undoubtedly on the minds of school leaders as we begin to see light at the end of the global pandemic tunnel. So, the topic of the January 2021 Westminster Education Forum policy conference debate in which MTM’s MD James Leggett was invited to take part was extremely timely. James reports on the discussion.

Alongside me on the panel to discuss ‘The outlook for admissions and international expansion – the student cohort profile, international student recruitment, and development of sister campuses abroad’ at the Westminster Education Forum on 28 January 2021 were Robin Fletcher (BSA), Shaun Fenton (Reigate Grammar School), Naomi Goldshtein (Fragomen) and Roger Sinnett (St Bees School), all of whom had very useful insights to share. The discussion was chaired by Brendan Clarke-Smith MP, Vice-Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Independent Education.

Robin Fletcher commenced the discussion with a review of his experiences of the boarding sector to date – yes, numbers physically attending schools are down by an estimated 3%, but the demand for places remains strong and numbers are fully expected to return within two years.

Shaun Fenton supported this view, highlighting the successes of Reigate internationally, which he said were thanks to maintaining the strong ethos of the UK site in its overseas ventures, as opposed to selling the ‘brand’ to the highest bidder. He concluded by stating that we owe it to future generations to be very careful how we present ourselves overseas as there is a large risk of damaging the entire UK brand.

We owe it to future generations to be very careful how we present ourselves overseas as there is a large risk of damaging the entire UK brand

This is a phenomenon we have seen for ourselves at MTM. Two years ago, MTM mystery shopped more than 200 schools around the world and discovered that there is a palpable difference between ‘foundation run’ schools and ‘brand franchises’. This was evident in our research, not only in the culture of staff and the presentation of the buildings, but also the welcome and reception our shoppers received.

During the panel discussion, I shared information on the challenges MTM has ascertained it is most likely independent education in the UK will face in the coming years. Principally, MTM’S research and the insights we have gleaned from the sector tell us that there will be a requirement to identify new markets, be that UK-based or international.

MTM’S research and the insights we have gleaned from the sector tell us that there will be a requirement to identify new markets, be that UK-based or international.

Roger Sinnett shared his experiences of running schools in the UK and in China, which were very illuminating.

Questions from the floor were equally as insightful. In response to a question about state versus independent school boarding, Naomi Goldshtein felt the post-Brexit visa requirements would impact the 34 state boarding schools at a significantly higher level than independent schools, although she pointed out that those students who are already in the UK are entitled to stay.

The panel were then asked if we feel there are moral or ethical concerns over UK schools’ continued investment in China. I was also fascinated to learn the panellists’ views on this topic – it is an issue increasingly mentioned in the course of MTM surveys by parents, whose awareness of their schools’ activities in China prompts them to worry about where revenue from their school fees is being invested. However, the panel felt that, as long as appropriate precautions were taken and protocols followed, this was not a concern to them.

The final question asked if the panellists believe international parents only send their children to UK boarding schools to access UK universities or learn the English language. On balance, the panel agreed that in our collective experience it is 50:50 – while access to university is an aim, parents are also of the opinion that immersion in a UK boarding school teaches pupils not only the language but the British culture, helping them to become more rounded individuals.

Parents are also of the opinion that immersion in a UK boarding school teaches pupils not only the language but the British culture, helping them to become more rounded individuals

I was delighted to contribute my insight, gained through MTM’s extensive market research, strategic marketing and business involvement with schools and parents in the UK and overseas. I certainly learnt a lot from taking part.

 

Read more about MTM’s International Strategy services.

To find out how MTM can help your school to plan its international development or attract international students, please call MTM’s Head of Business Development Daniel Cohen on 01502 722787, or email danielc@mtmconsulting.co.uk