In more than 35 years of conducting market research for education organisations around the world, rarely have we at MTM Consulting seen such a demonstrable demand for a specific education offer as we did in the middle of last year, when investigating the receptiveness of wealthy families resident in Asia to a British online study programme for 14- to 18-year-olds, writes James Leggett for Independent School Management Plus…


Global demand 

Last year, MTM conducted a study of a thousand families in 10 Asian countries where comfortably-off parents were considered most likely to be receptive to an online learning platform offered by a UK independent school to their teenage children. The results showed that two-thirds would consider using a remote online learning platform for their children aged 14 to 18 in place of attending a local school; tellingly, the entire remaining third did not say they would not use it, but that they would educate their children online in addition to attending a local school. Therefore, 100 per cent of the families in our study would be willing to use such an online platform – a very rare occurrence in our long experience of feasibility studies of this kind.


The fact that not one family in our survey said they would not use an online programme of education provided by a UK independent school if it were offered to them would point to a huge requirement for programmes leading to A-levels – or equivalent Level 3 British qualifications – in the Asian countries in which our survey was conducted, but also, it is reasonable to assume, around the globe.


It is important to remember that paying for education is the norm for affluent families in many parts of the world. The respondents in our survey were from the equivalent to an ABC1 category, so families with a high level of disposable income. The results showed that wealthy families, particularly in Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and India, were the most likely to pay for schooling, with more than 90% of families telling us that at least one of their children was currently attending a fee-charging school.


Many families too are keen on the idea of an international education for their children – over a third of the families in India and Vietnam who took part in this survey, for example, told us that their children were already attending schools with international curricula, and evidence from our research work with British boarding schools and satellite schools around the world  tells us that there is also a high level of interest in a British or other international education in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.


The appeal of the British qualification is easy to understand. A-levels and the English-language International Baccalaureate open the door to some of the world’s top-ranking universities, which happen to be located in the UK. Currently, 458,000 students in UK higher education institutions (nearly 20 per cent of the country’s student population) are not UK-based and, for many, a key driver for the decision to study in the UK is that degree from a well-regarded British university represents the key to many of the world’s top careers. So, if by studying for British qualifications at home – either in their bedrooms or in a classroom in a local school – unlocks a potentially glittering future career for the offspring of wealthier families in the countries of Asia – including Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, India and Vietnam – then it is fairly likely that there are just as many well- heeled parents resident on other continents who are extremely keen to invest in high-flying careers for their sons and daughters too.


Current supply 

Given the demonstrable demand for an international curriculum and remote learning, it is surprising that, so far at least, only a small number of UK education organisations have diversified in this direction. Notably, one of the first is Kings College Online, which launches its programmes for 14- to 18-year-olds anywhere in the world in September 2021. Offering one-year full-time study towards Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs and two-year A-level programmes, Kings College Online gives students the choice of either studying exclusively online, or at one of 60 schools in 20 countries that are part of the Inspired group. 11 subjects are currently offered for both IGCSE and A-level, including English literature, maths, accounting, economics, sciences and languages, and each student is assigned a tutor to monitor attainment as well as wellbeing.


Also in September 2021, the first Harrow School Online cohort will embark on two-year individualised programmes of exclusively online study, which have been developed by Pearson and lead to Edexcel International A-levels in a choice of currently seven subjects. A famous name the world over, Harrow School Online is billed as a ‘fully online global sixth form’ for students around the world aged 16 to 18 and promises a mix of self-study and small-group live learning. Students also have access to a ‘success coach’ and online extra-curricular activities, which encourage them to mix and make friends with classmates wherever in the world they may be.


However, the idea of offering learning exclusively online is not a new one. South Wales-based InterHigh has been offering virtual classes since 2005, and although it is well known as an effective and convenient way for young actors, sports prodigies and young people required to be constantly on the move to keep up with their education, around a third of this online school’s students are not learning in the UK, but elsewhere in the world. Edexcel and Cambridge University Board IGCSEs and GCSEs, AS and A-levels (21 subjects offered, including computer science, media studies and sociology) are studied live online in small groups and can be used to complement study in school, perhaps adding subjects or qualification that are not offered locally.


Currently, it seems that the UK schools broaching the international market for online study are offering a fairly concise list of possible subjects. It may well be the case that this broadens over time as confidence in platforms of this kind grows, along with the numbers of students on roll, and therefore the revenue to plough back into the development of a greater number of programmes. Unsurprisingly, in Asian countries that were the subject of our survey, English was the top choice of subject to be studied online by children aged 14 to 18. Maths is not far behind, but interestingly, in some countries, including the Philippines, the study of a wide range of subjects was considered advantageous.


Future offer 

Thanks to advances in the technology of online learning platforms, a variety of web-based education providers have popped up in recent years, many majoring on their offer of ‘fast-track’ courses (two-year courses condensed into one year) to achieve IGCSEs, GCSEs and Level 2 Diplomas, as well as AS and A-levels, Level 3 Diplomas and BTECs. These are as popular with international students as they are with UK-based students who prefer to study in their own time, the only pre-requisite being that exams must be taken at an examination centre local to the student, often as an external candidate.


However, the UK independent schools that have launched online learning programmes for international students have not so far rushed to add the fast-track courses to their prospectuses. Perhaps this is a likely next step? Our survey showed that a principal reason for online study of British qualifications is to access British universities, and certainly a one-year A-level programme would allow students to amass the qualifications needed to apply for higher education in the UK in half the usual time. Schools offering such intensive programmes would of course need to make sure the necessary teaching staff and resources were in place, but the rewards would be reaped through a more frequent turnover of students, and the associated fee revenue.


Although it seems that the wealthy parents surveyed by MTM in Asia had their sights primarily set on their children obtaining qualifications that would pave the way for a university place, many also recognised the wider benefits of learning online with a UK-based school. Remote immersion in school life through tutor groups, assemblies and non-academic activities are key characteristics of the online study programmes currently on offer and the benefits were recognised by nearly all of the families in our survey. Certainly, there is scope for even greater interaction between students outside of the core academic elements of the study programme, which would develop a range of additional skills, such as international understanding, communication and team-working.


Clear advantages 

Our research certainly shows that there is a strong demand for online education provided by UK schools to students around the globe.


The advantages for students studying for British GCSEs, A-levels and their equivalent qualifications at home or in schools outside of the UK are clear – access to some of the world’s highest-achieving universities, as well as the acquisition of an international outlook and transferrable skills that are of unquantifiable importance as young people enter an increasingly globalised job market.


For UK independent schools, offering online programmes of study for overseas-based 14- to 18-year-olds holds the potential to bring in a new stream of revenue that could well be put to good use, perhaps for investment in school campuses at home or abroad, or for widening access to independent education through subsidising bursaries. At the same time, offering online programmes will serve to strengthen the international brand of schools who put their names to them – even those that are already famous.


Perhaps more importantly though, here is a golden opportunity for British schools to apply the expertise of teaching and learning that has been developed over many centuries of high-quality education in the UK to programmes designed to embrace students all around the world.


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