4 myths about opening franchise schools overseas

Large UK independent schools are rushing to open franchise schools. It's nothing like as easy as it seems, says one veteran of the international sector

Tes Wellington College

It was Monday 12 March 2018. By the Friday of that week, all admissions quotas for the 2018-19 academic year were due to be allocated by the government to schools in Shanghai.

The regulation says that schools cannot exceed their quotas, otherwise the children can't obtain a proper student registration called xueji in the government system. However, exceeding the quota was the least of my concerns – I didn't even have a school licence yet. Schools without a licence are not even in the system for quota assignment. Admissions activities are strictly prohibited before the granting of a licence, so we didn’t have a single student signed up yet. 

On the other hand, we had already employed 13 of the most senior leaders for over a year, working on the school opening, with a further 53 staff contracts signed and due to start work soon. If we failed to open the school that year, it might well go bankrupt before any pupils even arrive. I didn’t take the school licence for granted at all, especially in the city of Shanghai where regulation is the tightest and the government is actively discouraging our type of school: expensive and with foreign influence. 

Four years earlier, in 2014, I indeed failed to get a license for a school here, hence had to redeploy everyone in the start-up team. I really didn't enjoy the meeting when I had to tell our founding headmaster of that school, who had uprooted his entire family including two young children to Shanghai, that his school would not open that year and was unlikely to ever open. 

The ending to this story was a happier one, though: we finally got the licence on the Wednesday, two days before the deadline. Our admissions team worked non-stop for the following two months and we filled every single class we opened. We were fortunate; some 30 per cent of British school campuses scheduled to open in China in 2018 didn't.

British school brands are expanding rapidly in China. By summer 2018, there were already 10 open with 15 more expected in the following two years that followed. China is now the single largest market for English medium schools in the world. I meet a lot of schools who are looking to come to this market.  

Here are some of their commonly held myths:

Myth 1: So many people are doing it, it can’t be that hard

False. As my story at the opening of this piece explains, it's a lot harder than most people realise. People often assume we had a smooth ride; little do they know that for every successful project, there was a failed one despite having put in significant resources and time. Reasons for failure varied: not being able to get a license, change of personnel in our partners, land acquisition complications, etc.

Even for those projects that did succeed, the challenges were enormous. Imagine designing and constructing a campus that shows the Wellington heritage, is optimised for 21st-century learning of a newly created bilingual curriculum, meets the government building regulations and is adapted to local weather. No single team can make all the decisions; collaboration becomes a must: collaboration across British and Chinese educators, architects, interior designers, construction managers and contractors, in multiple languages and different time zones. It is exhausting. Try explaining the design of a cricket field to someone who’s never heard of the sport, or finding a vendor in China to build the wicket and the nets. 

Getting the campus designed and built is just one of a very long list of start-up tasks: market study; financing; partner identification; legal negotiation; staff recruitment; labour contracts; work visas; marketing and admissions; pre-opening office; facilities management; construction quality and snag lists; IT infrastructure; furniture, equipment and resources (many of which need importing); curriculum documents; staff training; policies and procedures.  Last but not least, getting the school licence. All this before a single lesson is delivered.  

Opening an overseas campus is not for the faint hearted and a strong local partner is a must to navigate the complex and constantly changing local regulations and to carry the weight of most of the pre-opening tasks. 

Myth 2: At least we know the education part

Not really. Wellington College Shanghai teaches the English national curriculum leading to IB diploma. This might sound standard, but it is to a diverse student body with over 50 nationalities. Most pupils speak more than one language and English is often not their first language. A few weeks ago, my son Daniel went to Beijing for a maths competition; on his team was a friend called Victor. Victor joined from a local Chinese school recently, hence has much weaker English. However, Daniel said Victor was by far the most brilliant mathematician within the team. If he could understand all the questions, he would get the most answers. Do you really know how best to teach pupils like Victor? Or do you risk slowing down perfectly bright pupils’ maths learning simply because they can’t access the content in English?

To complicate things even further, let me explain the two different types of school licenses in China. Wellington Shanghai is a School for Children of Foreign Nationals. It enjoys more freedom in curriculum but is limited to enrolling foreign passport holders. The growth for this type of school stagnated long ago. The explosive demand is overwhelmingly in the other type of English medium school, what we call a bilingual school that is permitted to accept Chinese pupils. The government mandates that such schools must meet the Chinese curriculum standards and, at age 15, all students need to pass a standardised test called huikao. But for our pupils, in addition to huikao, they also do GCSEs leading on to IB or A level, because all of them are aiming to go to overseas universities.  

Do you have any idea about how to deliver a curriculum that ultimately meets the requirements of both huikao and GCSEs, bearing in mind that huikao are in Chinese and GCSEs in English? Are you able to assemble a team of British and Chinese educators to deliver such a curriculum and have them operating cohesively?

At Wellington China, we have an R&D team. For two years before the opening of our first bilingual school, the team of education experts analysed the Chinese curriculum, overlaying it on top of the English one in order to develop our unique Wellington China bilingual curriculum. We structure the language of tuition so that pupils have roughly 50-50 immersion in the two languages. All our Chinese teachers are bilingual, enabling them to work with their British colleagues and deliver lessons in both languages.  

Myth 3: Our brand is an asset 

Maybe. But chances are nobody has ever heard of you outside the UK, unless you are Eton, which might get a handful out of 100 average Chinese who can recognise the name. 

However, even though Wellington College was unknown here when I set up Wellington China, the name was still valuable because there was a story to tell.  The Duke of Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo, the school as a national memorial founded by Queen Victoria, the beautiful campus photos. It also helped that the Queen personally attended the 150th anniversary of Wellington College in 2009, just when we were trying to promote the name in China. However, fame is a double-edged sword. More people will know your brand if you set up overseas but, depending on the quality of these overseas schools, it can either enhance or damage your reputation. 

Myth 4: We can make a lot of money  

Possibly. This appears to be the main driver for most British schools, although one needs to have realistic expectations as to how much can be drawn from these overseas schools without negatively impacting their quality. 

Also, there is no such thing as a free lunch: to make money you first need to invest. Do you have dedicated staff responsible for this? Are you going to take the legal negotiation seriously? If the answer is yes to both, a quarter of a million pounds could be easily spent in salaries and legal fees before a project is even confirmed. The legal negotiations between me and Wellington College took more than two years, by which time the first school was already built. 

The staffing and legal cost for the British school is a drop in the ocean compared with the total investment needed for opening a new campus.  Who owns the land? Who is building the campus? What about operational start-up cost? There seems to be no shortage of capital investment flowing into education: venture capitalists, insurance/pension funds, real-estate developers or even local governments, to name a few. Your expectations may be reasonable, but do you fully understand the aims of these other stakeholders? Depending on the investor objectives, shareholder structure, business model and management team, a school could be destined to fail in the long term before it even opened. 

***

So, it's very hard, you don't really know what you are doing, your name is not known and it's questionable if you can make much money. Why do it? My suggestion is: don't if you are not sure. 

Wellington’s vision was to create a global network of schools, deeply connected with shared values and mutual respect, which can open up the world to all Wellington staff and pupils. Wellington sees global awareness as an essential skill for the 21st century, not a nice-to-have add-on. They supported the overseas schools with true dedication and open-mindedness. We have genuine in-depth links and regular exchanges between the UK and China for our staff and pupils. We have developed mutual respect for each other. Wellington spends all its overseas income on education and life-changing bursaries, which is a noble cause. 

I believe Wellingtonians are far more likely to be curious rather than shocked by differences. They are used to treating each other as equals. They are rooted in the societies they grow up in and are likely to become experts and leaders of their fields in the future. Being bilingual is the norm, making them effective bridges connecting different nations on the world stage. Doesn’t this hold the key to a better world? 

If you approach your overseas development with this level of heightened motivation, then you are much more likely to persevere and pull through all the challenges that will come your way. Those British schools who succeed will be nurturing 21st-century global leaders, and their financial reward will be simply a small by-product in comparison.

Joy Qiao is the founder and chair of governors of Wellington College China. The group was founded in 2009 and now operates five schools in three cities, with more than 4,000 pupils and 1,000 employees. Joy grew up in Shanghai and read computer science at Oxford

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