Blog 🏛️ University 25th July 2022

Curriculum, Culture & Context: The 3 'C's of A Successful International Schools Strategy

3 c's
Profile image of Zahra Onsori
Zahra Onsori University Content Writer
Understanding the international schools market is essential to the success of your wider recruitment & marketing. Here’s how your admissions team can upskill.

In our previous article in this series, you might remember we explained why it’s so important to have a strong, strategic grasp of the global international schools market, with all of its nuances and complexities. 

Such domain knowledge is crucial to building a successful international school strategy that, in turn, helps to realise your institution’s wider international enrolment goals. 

But to coin a phrase in the world of international higher education, it’s important to think globally and act locally. 

In short, a strategic understanding of the overall international schools market needs to go hand in hand with a more tactical grasp of how an individual school’s curriculum and culture work.

Think about it – you can only really understand the bigger, global trends in the international schools market if you understand the various types of international schools, their unique challenges and the diverse ambitions of their international students. 

We call these the 3 ‘Cs of your international school’s strategy – curriculum, culture and context. 

We’ll explain later how and why these three factors are so essential to designing a dedicated international school strategy. 

But before we get to that section, it’s important to answer a number of questions. What makes a school ‘international’ in 2021? And if the international school market is changing so quickly, then what shape does that change take?

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What makes a school ‘international?’ 

Short answer? There’s no ‘one’ definition. International schools come in different shapes and sizes, teach different curricula, and cater to different nationalities and cultures. However, broadly speaking, an international school will usually include one (or all) or of the following. 

  • The students and staff will be multinational and, very likely, multilingual. 
  • International schools may teach another curriculum alongside, or instead of, the national curriculum of the host country. Many will teach an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate. 
  • International schools are more likely to actively prepare students for applying to universities all over the world. 
  • International schools are more likely to place a global mindset at the heart of its curriculum, and encourage students to be international citizens in every aspect of their learning and development.

So how is the international school market changing?

Local demand is rising

Here’s the thing about the definitions we shared above – they’re constantly in flux. You’ll note that, in each bullet point, we used the phrase ‘more likely’. But it’s vital to remember that international schools come in all shapes and sizes. 

And this leads us on nicely to the first notable change in the market over the last 25 years – international schools are receiving a lot of local demand

According to ISC – 80% of students enrolled in international schools were now local nationals. This number can only grow in the coming years. 

This means, in turn, that the diversity of international schools can only continue to grow. To cite one example, it’s now increasingly common for state schools that teach a national curriculum to open international departments or international streams.  

This coincides with the increasingly multilingual nature of teaching in many international schools. For while these local parents are keen for their children to receive an international education, it’s often the case that they want them to maintain ties to their local language and culture. 

Strategy tip

Consider the impact on your university’s international school strategy. Because the definition of a ‘typical’ international school is changing, this, in turn, means that the international school student population, as well as their needs and ambitions, will only diversify further. 

Our advice? Establishing an international school’s strategy is one thing. But it’s going to be important for your team to stay informed of changes in the market in the years to come if your strategy is to remain forward-looking and ultimately successful.

Affordability has become more important

As well as an international education that is local, parents of international school students are increasingly looking for an education that is affordable. 

This is true for both local residents wishing to provide an international education for their children, but also for expatriate parents, who increasingly have to fund their child’s education from their own pocket (rather than having the costs covered by their employer, as was often previously the case). 

This has led to a growth in demand for so-called ‘mid-market schools from parents in countries such as the UAE, China and Malaysia. 

Strategy tip

If affordability is a consideration for parents when they’re considering schools for their child, it stands to reason that affordability will be a decisive factor when the time comes for their son or daughter to consider higher education too! 

So as you’re designing your international school strategy, ask yourself: to what extent will prospective undergrad candidates (and their parents) be worried about the price tag of higher education in another country? 

If so, perhaps it’s worth thinking about how you can educate international students and parents about the student finance/financial aid options available to them. This could be a core component of your marketing to these mid-fee schools. 

International schools are operating in a more competitive market

Much like universities, schools must find new ways to differentiate themselves at a time when demand for places is rising and parents are becoming increasingly concerned with value for money. 

And much like universities, brand prestige can make all the difference for international schools looking to recruit the best students and the best teacher talent. 

To cite one example, membership in a school group is just one way that schools can demonstrate their prestige to potential parents.  In 2019, Relocate Global (which helps families manage overseas career moves) noted that the proportion of international schools that were part of a school group had increased from a quarter of schools in 2015 to a third of schools by 2019. 

International schools must increasingly prove their worth as a route into a prestigious higher education. This will undoubtedly put pressure on their recruiting and marketing operations, too! 

Strategy tip

As you begin to build your international schools strategy, it’s worth remembering that international schools will have their own commercial goals and KPIs. 

In many cases, part of an international school’s marketing to parents will be tied to its higher education outcomes, such as how many students gained entry to QS Top 50 or Top 100 institutions. 

When you reach out to an international school, it’s important to think about the unique context of that school, and how this context informs its leadership’s wider strategic goals. 

So how should curriculum, culture and context inform your international school’s strategy? We’ll examine this in the next section.

How curriculum, culture and context should inform your international school strategy

In essence, understanding these 3 ‘C’s – curriculum, culture and context – is the first step of your international school strategy. 

If your team doesn’t get to grips with the specific contexts of the international schools you plan to engage with, it’s more likely that your strategy will fail to deliver results in the long term. 

To explain further what we mean, let’s take a look at each of these factors in more detail. 

It’s worth tackling these together since the curriculum and culture of an international school are so intrinsically linked. 

How international a school’s curriculum is will ultimately have a knock-on effect on how international its culture is. A school’s curriculum and culture can significantly affect factors like:

  • How many students the school typically sends to universities overseas.
  • The level of awareness that both counsellors and students will have about international study destinations and their related application processes.
  • How confident students feel about an international higher education and the benefits it offers.

A school exclusively running an international curriculum (like the IB) is more likely to play host to a truly international student body (frequently called ‘third culture kids’). So it’s logical to assume that, to a certain degree, they will be more confident about the prospect of studying in another country.

By contrast a school where the international curriculum sits alongside national curriculum provision may send less of its students overseas. 

These students (and their counsellors) may be less experienced in navigating the various complexities of international higher education, and may lack awareness of what it’ll be like to study in another country.

To cite an example of what we mean, let’s use two example case studies. We’ll call them School A and School B. 

School A

Let’s imagine that School A is an IB school. For most of the students, English is either their native or joint-first language. This school has a dedicated international school counselling team. 

The demographics of School A mean that many of the students have already moved around a few times as children and/or are more used to studying away from home. So the concept of studying overseas is less familiar to them. 

But these students may still feel overwhelmed by the wealth of options at their fingertips. 

From your perspective, it’s important to remember that, as third culture kids, these students are used to adapting to new, unfamiliar environments… and they might even be looking for a new country to call home. 

So consider catering to their social and emotional desires alongside their academic ambitions.

School B

Let’s say that School B mixes the IB with a national curriculum. As for the students, English is more likely to be their second language. School B doesn’t have a dedicated counsellor, with a member of the teaching staff taking on this responsibility in a part-time responsibility. 

These students may be less familiar with the concept of studying abroad and may lack confidence. They might also have more concerns about visas and financial aid.

So you may wish to consider a recruitment strategy that focuses more on academics and the logistics of things like financial aid and help with visas.

Of course, not all international schools fit neatly into these two categories. 

But these illustrative examples should hopefully give you a sneak peek into how the curriculum and culture of an international school can, in turn, shape the needs of its faculty and students. 

So as you design your international school strategy, ensure you do a bit of research into the curriculum and culture of the schools you’re approaching. As you plan your outreach, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • How will I position my unique offering to this school, and ensure that offering is aligned to the interests of the student? 
  • How can I set my offering apart from those of other universities that might be visiting this school? 
  • What are the needs and ambitions of the international students and staff at this school, and what materials and resources can I offer to help them?

From your perspective, it’s important to remember that, as third culture kids, these students are used to adapting to new, unfamiliar environments… and they might even be looking for a new country to call home. 

So consider catering to their social and emotional desires alongside their academic ambitions.

Other contextual factors

Finally, let’s turn to the third ‘C’ – context. Of course, curriculum and culture are themselves important contextual factors. So when we say ‘context’ we mean the numerous other considerations that should shape your strategy.

School fees

As we’ve already explored, school fees can, to an extent, inform your understanding of how important finance will be to your prospective international students. 

If you’re dealing with a mid-market school, then it’s possible that the cost of studying abroad will be more of a decisive factor for students and parents. By contrast, if you’re dealing with a premium fee school, it’s possible this will be less of a factor.

Digital infrastructure

In an increasingly digital-first world, the question of digital infrastructure in a given country is likely to become more important for your strategy. 

For example, it’s easy to forget that the quality of Internet access can be a deciding factor in how students consume information and what social media channels they use.

Political factors

Geopolitical considerations can have some bearing on your international school strategy. The international school market can be shaped by a country’s laws and business regulations. Let’s look at some contrasting examples in Asia. 

Currently, countries such as Thailand and Japan have quite liberal policies towards the establishment of international schools and the number of local students who can be enrolled in them. Laws governing international school governance may be tied to the country’s wider immigration policies. 

Economic factors

International schools are likely to appear in countries and local markets where business is strong and/or foreign investment is growing. It’s worth ensuring that your market intelligence takes this into account when designing your international school strategy. 

For example, the 2019 ISC Global Opportunities report noted that, while the wider international school market in Germany has recently contracted, economic growth in cities like Hamburg and Munich would lead to a resurgence in growth. 

Counselling provision

The level of guidance counselling provision offered by a school is an important contextual factor. 

The level of resource that a school chooses to invest in its guidance counselling will, in turn, affect how you set about building a relationship with that school. 

As we explored earlier, an international school with a fully staffed counselling team will have very different needs to a school with very minimal counselling provision. 

If you’d like to get more tips on how to master the nuances of the international schools market, download our latest International Schools Strategy guide, where we’ll take you through the essential steps for building a dedicated international schools strategy. 

Download it below.

Get in touch

Learn how BridgeU can help you align your enrolment strategy with your international student audience.