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British independent K-12 schools report a 7.5% decrease in foreign students for 2020

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The decline for 2021 stems from the number of international students in the UK with parents overseas, most of whom are boarders – an unsurprising finding given the effects of COVID on travel and heightened safety concerns for families
  • The number of international students living with parents in the UK while they attend ISC schools actually grew slightly by 1%
  • 12 new overseas campuses have been opened since 2020, most of them in China, and the number of international students attending them has grown by 13.8% over the past year

More than 54,000 international students are attending independent K-12 schools belonging to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) in the UK this year, while another 52,975 are being educated in ISC campuses overseas. The information comes from the ISC’s Annual Census for 2021, which includes data from 1,337 member schools.

Fewer international students due to COVID

The total in the UK – 54,236 – was down 7.5% from 58,650 in January of 2020. This decline reflects the many students whose families’ study plans will have been significantly impacted by COVID, since some families will have either chosen not to send their children to the UK during the pandemic or been unable to send them due to travel restrictions.

The total number of international students comprises 24,674 students with parents overseas (most of whom are boarders) as well as 29,562 whose parents are with them in the UK (up 1%). The number of students with parents overseas fell by 4,772 and this is the source of the overall decline.

Before COVID, there had been significant growth in the number of international students in British schools; 2020 marked a 6.1% increase, more than double the growth of 2019.

Of the 2021 census findings, the ISC notes,

“The period between the last ISC Census and this was possibly the most difficult for schools in the UK since the Second World War, and that needs to be remembered when reading this year’s report. School premises had to be closed to most pupils in March 2020 and only fully opened briefly at the end of the summer term. All were mainly closed again in January 2021, not opening fully until March. Even then, some pupils and teachers could not return to school because they were especially vulnerable to COVID-19.”

There are nevertheless bright spots in the overall picture for ISC schools. For example:

  • 13,204 students whose parents live in the UK come from countries in the EEA, an increase from 12,971 in 2020. The ISC calls this “a notable finding given that the UK left the post-Brexit transition period at the end of last year.”
  • The number of Hong Kong students with parents overseas increased 6.6% to 5,466 – despite the travel challenges posed by COVID.

As in 2020, by far the biggest proportion of students with parents overseas come from China.

Nationality of non-British pupils at ISC schools as of January 2021. Source: ISC

As we see in the following chart, however, that key cohort of Chinese students fell off sharply in 2021.

Number of non-British pupils at ISC schools whose parents live overseas, selected countries of origin. Source: ISC

More overseas campuses for more international students

As has been the trend for some years, more international students attend British independent schools located outside of the UK than those coming to the UK for their schooling. Even during COVID, more overseas campuses have been opened – 81 in the 2021 census versus 69 in 2020. These campuses are educating ever-growing numbers of students: 52,975 in 2021 versus 46,410 in 2020.

There has been a significant expansion of ISC campuses in China: 37 this year versus 29 in 2020. This means that nearly half of ISC overseas schools are in Mainland China, educating more than 21,000 students.

Location of overseas campuses of ISC schools. Source: ISC

The ISC notes that their overseas campuses represent only a small proportion of the total number of British campuses operating in other countries. They estimate that there are more than 6,000 such schools worldwide.

For additional background, please see:


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