Scotland's private schools eye international expansion as market booms

Scotland's private schools are following the lead of English institutions by opening new campuses overseas in an attempt to cash in on the growing international demand for British-style education.

Gordonstoun, the elite academy in Moray attended by Prince Charles, this week confirmed it was considering whether to establish offshoots in Asia and North America.

Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh already plans to open a campus in Shenzhen, China, later this year. Mary Erskine and Stewart’s Melville, also based in the capital, each signed an agreement in 2017 to establish Chinese bases by next year.

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Expanding overseas could provide the independent sector with additional revenues at a time when the domestic market remains resilient despite pressures from Brexit and reputational damage caused by UK-wide claims of abuse.

Pupils at Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh. The school will open a Chinese campus later this year. Picture: Phil WilkinsonPupils at Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh. The school will open a Chinese campus later this year. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Pupils at Merchiston Castle in Edinburgh. The school will open a Chinese campus later this year. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

It was revealed last year that UK private schools were now educating more pupils in the rest of the world than in Britain.

“I don’t see it as a negative that Scottish schools are looking to open abroad as it is what they have been doing down south for over a decade now,” said John Edward of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS).

“It’s not a case of playing catch-up, it’s a case of identifying the right opportunities at the right time. The circumstances of our schools have always been very different to the ones in England, they tend to be more rooted in the community.

“There is a huge growth in international interest in the sector. It is a very competitive and global market as there are other schools elsewhere in the English-speaking world, such as Canada or South Africa, which are also looking to bring pupils from overseas to board.

“But there is a British international school being opened every day in places like mainland China and the Middle East. There is almost an unquenchable thirst for English-speaking education.

“There is not just a demand for pupils – but also teachers from the UK being headhunted to work in the schools. In UK terms, I would say it is the biggest soft export we have at the moment.”

The private school sector in Scotland has remained steady despite a slight fall in pupil numbers in the past decade.

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There are 29,664 pupils in 74 independent schools north of the Border, accounting for 4.1 per cent of pupils in the country. Of those schools, 19 offer boarding to 3,023 pupils – 32 per cent of whom are from overseas.

The capital remains the biggest market, with the number of secondary-age pupils in Edinburgh being privately educated rising from 25 per cent to 30 per cent in recent years.

Gordonstoun, which charges up to £38,000 per year, saw its income from fees fall by around £1.5m according to its latest accounts, with the number of pupils dropping by 8 per cent in 2016 to 520.

A spokeswoman for Gordonstoun told The Times it has received “considerable interest” from the rest of the world in its curriculum.

They continued: “It is therefore not surprising that Gordonstoun is receiving a large number of requests from those around the world wishing to adopt our approach.

“Gordonstoun has always embraced an international outlook and we are exploring a number of ways in which we can grow the international reach and impact of our world-leading approach to character education. This is at an early stage of development and we are excited about the opportunities under discussion. International opportunities will enable us to spread our educational ethos.”