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Heads of school who can think strategically are in demand as international schools numbers keep rising

Published on Saturday, 28 May 2016
The number of international schools in China has increased tenfold since 2000. The UK’s Dulwich College, for example, has operations in five Chinese cities, including this college in Suzhou. (Photo: SCMP Pictures)
Michelle Doo is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office and a member of its global financial officers practice, focusing on the higher education, K-12 and NGO sectors. Photo: Heidrick & Struggles

Despite a surge in the number of international schools in Hong Kong and mainland China, rampant demand for English-medium education means that supply is unlikely to keep up in the foreseeable future.

In Hong Kong, the number of international schools has shot up from 92 to 171 in the last 14 years. Meanwhile, since 2000, the number of students these schools accommodate has also almost doubled – from 34,200 to 66,138. The market continues to grow as local families increase in wealth and the expatriate market expands. Research from the UK’s International School Consultancy (ISC) details that, since just 2015, the government has received around 40 bids to operate sites for new schools.

According to Deloitte, the size of the Chinese education market is expected to grow from 1.6 trillion yuan (HK$1.89 trillion) in 2015 to 2.9 trillion yuan by 2020. In April 2015, the mainland Chinese government closed the international divisions of public high schools and started to allow more international schools to enrol Chinese students. Since then, there has been an intense surge in demand for places in international schools.

According to the ISC, there are currently some 530 international schools across mainland China – a tenfold increase since 2000. They cater to the expat population as well as the children of Chinese returnees who want to ensure their children continue to learn in English and follow a Western curriculum. Unsurprisingly, many of China’s wealthy middle class are keen to enrol their children in international schools; it is as much a status symbol as a pathway for their children to study overseas.

This also reflects the fact that learning English has long been regarded as an important key to success throughout the region.

In Hong Kong, the latest data shows the rampant demand for English-medium education, with the expansion of international schools unlikely to keep up with booming demand in the former British territory. Research from the ISC details that, since 2015, the government tender process to open new schools has received up to 40 bids to operate sites for new schools.


Hunting for school heads

This burgeoning market for international schools in the region has led to increasing demand for education professionals of all levels in China. In particular, the rising demand for heads of school or headmasters is a challenge for the industry.

Reporting to the board of governors, heads of school act as the chief executives of institutions. Not only do they need to oversee the school’s day-to-day operations from both an academic and administrative perspective and deliver learning outcomes, but they are also responsible for leading the mission and vision – or strategic direction – set by the board. They also represent the school and need to build effective partnerships locally, regionally and globally.

In many cases, these heads of schools need to have similar strategic and visionary thinking to that of CEOs, with the capacity to effectively oversee the school’s finances, human capital, statutory compliance, campus facilities, admission systems, and marketing and communications.

They also need to have reputable academic backgrounds that demonstrate their understanding of how to achieve desired academic and operational outcomes. Students should be able to reach the highest possible levels of achievement and gain the best outcomes from their experience at the school.

In order to recruit and motivate all levels of staff, school heads need to be inspiring leaders and have the ability to drive a cohesive school culture in a multicultural environment.

School heads are therefore required to have proven track records in academic leadership and distinguished academic qualifications, as well as experience in international education and in managing complex changes in an academic environment. There is a rather small talent pool of those who possess dual academic and business leadership skills.

Since the popularity of these independent schools and this type of education system has only been growing in Asia for more than 10 years, there is a lack of leadership talent locally – simply because the market is not mature enough. It is expected that it may take seven to 10 years to fill this local talent gap and transform the arena.

For the time being, scouting for heads of school globally seems to be the solution. Experienced, high-calibre school leaders are usually well established in their home markets or current institutions. Greater China, however, represents unique opportunities for those who are passionate about international education in the region and have a vision to make a powerful impact on the education sector in Asia.

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Looking for global learning leaders.

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