The brand challenge facing international schools in China

The brand challenge facing international schools in China

New rules around the names international schools can use in China show brand power is big business in education – and could be another buffer on growth in the region after two years of Covid disruption.

17th May 2022, 10:00am
Mark Steed

2 dogs, one dalmatian, one fake dalmatian

For many people in China, Western brands are must-have status symbols: cars, fashion and technology are all badges of success.

It is in this context that the explosion of UK franchise schools needs to be understood. For a nation where, until recently, the legally established norm was only to have one child, the choice of schooling is paramount.

Thus, the rapidly growing aspirational middle class who couldn't afford or access UK boarding schools embraced with the enthusiasm the big-name UK schools setting up branches across China.

The China 'levelling up' programme

So, the pronouncement by the Chinese Education Bureau that all private licence schools in China can no longer be named using the name of a foreign educational institution is likely to hit hard.

The initiative is part of the government's campaign to control and "to level up" education in China by clamping down on private tutoring and by reducing access to international schools for Chinese citizens.

The policy was drawn up in May 2021 and was enshrined in The Regulations for the Implementation of the Private Education Promotion Law, which came into force last September. As the government mouthpiece, the China Daily, put it: "The regulations stipulate that private educational institutions must operate under the overall leadership of the Communist Party of China, and that they ought to strictly adhere to education's nature as a public welfare service." (14 May 2021)

Hence, 2022 has seen schools making the announcements to parents about their name changes: Harrow Beijing has become LIDE Beijing, while Nanwai King's College School Wuxi (set up by Kings College, Wimbledon) is now known as Wuxi Dipont Schools of Arts and Science.

The position is still emerging in other parts of the country. Some headteachers based in China have suggested that there are likely to be variations across the provinces and in Tier 1 cities compared to Tier 2 and 3 and speculated that schools in the Greater Bay Area (the southern part of China running from Shenzhen round to Zhuhai) may be treated differently. Certainly, there are many schools holding their ground.

It should be noted that not all franchise schools in China will be affected by this new approach. At present, according to ISC Research, there are 74 schools in China that are connected to British independent school brands.

Of these, there are 13 international schools that are licensed as "Schools for Foreign Nationals" (and predominantly only teach children of ex-pats) and do not fall under the new guidance.

Whereas the other 61 schools that hold "private school" and "Sino-Foreign campus" licences, teaching the Chinese bilingual curriculum to local families, are likely to have to change their name.

Brand attraction

Brands attract customers. There is little doubt that Gucci make high-quality handbags. However, it is unlikely that they would command the price tag and generate the level of sales based solely on their product quality and design.

The iconic GG monogram, the wider brand recognition and the multi-million-dollar global marketing campaigns all have their part to play.

The same applies in education. China has seen an explosion in UK (and, indeed, other international) franchises setting up in all of its major cities.

Parents are buying into the UK brands - Harrow, Dulwich and Wellington sit alongside Chanel and Tesla in the Chinese mindset. It is this very success that is one of the key drivers for the Chinese authorities to act to level up by removing their names from above the door.

But brands aren't just important for recruiting students, they also provide familiarity and serve as a proxy for quality assurance for teachers who are looking to move abroad.

It is likely that working for Harrow undoubtedly has more of a pull for UK teachers looking to move abroad than working for LIDE. The rebranding is likely to exacerbate the recruitment challenges that all international schools in China have been facing for the past year or so.

Brand or substance? Mother-school DNA

The question is, does the name above the door really matter?

For schools in China, the UK brand is indicative of a different approach to schooling from other local alternatives.

Even when the school is following a local curriculum, parents are attracted to schools that have western-educated native English teachers and additional benefits, such as access to wider international alumni networks.

One of the issues here is that there is a considerable range in the degree of "mother school" involvement in franchises around the world. In some cases, schools have simply licensed their name to be used for a fee and there is little connection in the day-to-day operations of the school.

In others, the connection to the DNA of the UK School is hard-wired. Malvern College Hong Kong is a case in point. In appointing their long-serving deputy head to be the founding head, the school ensured both that core Malvern practices and values were enshrined in the Hong Kong campus; and that there would be strong and trusted lines of communication.

Still part of the family

One way that schools will minimise the impact of the name changes is for them to demonstrate that the newly renamed school is still very much part of the UK franchise family. The UK schools that have established international groups are likely to have a considerable advantage here.

Established groups like Wellington and Dulwich will be better placed than schools that have joined the franchise party more recently. For they will retain their brand presence in China by virtue of the flagship international schools within their portfolio that hold "school for foreign nationals" licences.

Indeed, these groups already have successfully renamed their bilingual schools. In recent years, Wellington renamed their bilingual schools in Shanghai and Hangzhou creating the "Huili School" brand model; likewise, Dulwich has its sister Dehong Schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Xian.

The distinctive feature in these cases is that, as their group websites attest, the Huili and Dehong schools are positioned as very much being part of the Wellington and Dulwich families of international schools, going a long way to retain their attraction for students and staff.

The end of UK school franchise growth?

One thing is for sure, the changing landscape for private schools in China, with greater central control of what is taught to Chinese nationals, is likely to slow down the growth of the sector in China.

According to Beijing-based Venture Education, 14 British schools opened in China in 2020 with another 40 planned. Many of these will now be reconsidering their position.

Westminster School has already announced that it will not proceed with its plans to open six partner schools in China and are not likely to be alone.

Others will direct their franchise efforts to new markets in South East Asia where they have greater freedom to deliver schooling as they see fit. Dulwich has recently opened in Yangon, Myanmar; and Harrow and Rugby are opening schools in Japan.

What's in a name?

We are about to find out if the great name UK independent schools are just giving their name to the institution, or whether they are providing an offering that is of a significantly higher quality than what is otherwise available locally.

It will be interesting to see over the coming years how the rebranded schools in China fair in terms of recruiting students and staff.

Mark S. Steed is the Principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead