With 228 new international schools opening in China in the past five years (bringing the total to 857) and another 48 set to open, people are asking the question: How can these institutions maintain their reputation and quality while attracting new students? To find the answer, independent schools would do well to examine how luxury British brands carefully manage their brand and image.

From Wellington College in China to Dulwich College in Singapore and Haileybury in Kazakhstan, British international schools are, by design, an extension of an existing brand. They may not be selling watches or handbags, but each has a set of values, qualities and stories which uphold their brand and allow them to open new schools overseas without diluting it.

Heritage of Innovation
The recent ‘explosion’ of British-based independent schools in China (and a focus on expanding to countries such as Vietnam, Morocco and Saudi Arabia) demonstrates that, much like coveted luxury products, British education is held in high regard worldwide. Richard Gaskell, Director of International Education Analysts at ISC Research commented that “There is a deep desire amongst… Chinese parents for a Western style of education.”

And it’s not difficult to see why. As Collin Bell, CEO of the Council of British International Schools told Independent School Parent Magazine, “We know that 55 of the current world leaders have been through some form of British education, 38% of Nobel Peace Prize winners again have had a British education, 160 countries worldwide follow our GSCEs and A-Levels.”

“So our heritage, our innovation, our reputation” Bell concluded, “is certainly unquestioned.” While previously “international schools were only attended by expats and children of foreigners in the country”, according to Study International, this is no longer the case as there has been a steep rise in Chinese children joining immigrant communities in the new, independent schools. In fact, as Josef Gregory Mahoney, Professor of Politics at East China Normal University, wrote for Sixth Tone, “the gap between China’s incoming and outgoing international students is quickly closing. In 2019, the country sent just 100,000 more students abroad than it took in.”

British Appeal
The growth of international schools isn’t just concentrated in China. Since 2000, the number worldwide has risen from 2,500 to more than 9,000, and 4,000 of them are British international schools. It’s clear, from this proliferation of British international schools to the new generation of students flocking to them, that Britishness itself is a major draw.

But just what is Britishness? For some, it’s about provenance. A ‘Made in England’ statement, for instance, differentiates luxury watch brand Bremont from its often Swiss-made competitors. For others it’s about the culture. Accessories brand Aspinal of London often subtly shape their designs around equestrian traditions, the golden age of travel, royalty and other such pillars of traditional British heritage, while Wedgwood partners with the Royal Horticultural Society, deftly tapping into visions of the quintessential English country garden. In some cases, the very existence of a British heritage is the key. Mulberry’s distinctive edge, for example, comes directly from its Britishness, a diversion from the 75% of luxury accessories brands which are either French or Italian.

The Supporting Act
However, while the British element is a driving differentiator for each of the brands mentioned, it is not their leading message. It’s a foundation for quality, craftsmanship, precision, narrative and other such desirable qualities. It’s the supporting act. As Walpole says, “a brand’s Britishness should not be overly stated. In fact, the very act of doing so would be decidedly un-British.” Much like Mulberry, Bremont and other such brands, it’s imperative that Britishness is one part of a bigger story for independent schools.

What’s also important is that the brands we’ve discussed, and others like them, convey their message of Britishness with subtlety. Walpole explains, “[Britishness] should rarely be a lead message or lead visual cue, instead it should be considered as a supporting message to bolster existing brand truths and it should always have consumer benefit. For example, when telling a brand’s production story (and therefore quality story), consider how being made in the UK enhances the consumer’s final experience of that brand.”

Simon Rawlings of David Collins Studio agrees. “We need a more intelligent way of communicating the backstory. A more personal way. The luxury customer doesn’t need it spelt out to them,” he says.

British independent schools cannot simply rely on the virtue of being British, but should concentrate on how students, and parents, might experience it.

Understated Yet Discoverable
A recent article by Relocate Magazine, a publication which specialises in corporate relocation and global mobility, underscores the importance of branding and a “well-developed sense of identity” in “mature markets where competition between schools is most intense.”

The British education system is known to provide a broad, balanced curriculum, alongside outstanding pastoral care and a wide range of extra-curricular activities designed to bolster personal development and complement structured lessons. However, the concept of Britishness is multi-faceted and, as such, for each school to represent its essence authentically, they need to lean into what it means to them specifically and weave it into a larger vision.

The uniquely British element, whether that’s a history of noted alumni or a strong sporting heritage, for example, should be managed subtly; a supporting factor that enhances the wider experience and perception rather than dictating it. It should be discoverable rather than shouted out directly. Equally, it shouldn’t be adhered to so strictly as to inhibit progress. In their report on Britishness and branding, Walpole explains that “it’s clear that the most successful [brands] are those who manage to take their heritage and make it relevant to the modern world. It’s about being respectful of where the brand has come from but always seeking to evolve and adapt.”

The culture, the heritage and the pedagogy all work together to build a school’s brand. While eulogising Britishness is tempting during a time when its relevance is rising within education, the best approach is a great deal more understated. Afterall, as Michael Ward of Harrods says, “If you have to state it, you’ve probably already lost.”

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