International Schooling in a Post COVID-19 World


As Pfizer and Moderna announce COVID-19 vaccines with 90% efficacy, we might at last be able to think about a real ‘Post Covid-19’ world. World economies have been battered, and we will be dealing with the effects for many years to come.

The international school market has been hit in several ways. Schools in Singapore in particular are highly dependent on the expat market, and tens of thousands of expats lost their jobs in 2020 as corporations cut back. Schools will be partly dependent on making up the shortfall from inbound expats taking up new jobs in Singapore, but international travel remains severely restricted and we would not expect to see a recovery in the inbound market until 2022.

In 2020, BDRC undertook two surveys of parents at international schooling in Singapore to assess how the international school market has been impacted. The results show that international schools will be under greater pressure than ever, as expat numbers fall and parents in Singapore seek better value from schooling.

We estimate that about 15% of families have withdrawn children from international schools as a result of job loss or income reduction, and another 15% remain at school with reduced income.

Among parents still in Singapore, Western parents have been impacted more, with 18% losing income due to the crisis, compared to only 8% of Asian expats. Among the niche group of Singaporeans who can send children to international schools in Singapore, 30% report a loss of income.

How will COVID-19 and the economic impact affect future choices in international schooling?

Even prior to COVID-19, parents were becoming more discerning about their school choices, shopping around for the optimal school – 34% of parents have switched international schools at some point while in Singapore. The optimal school includes not only the best education for the child, but also making trade-offs on practical issues: location and value for money. Parents do their research and are generally aware of the range of choices in international schooling. There has historically been a lack of awareness of budget school options in Singapore (typically schools with fewer facilities, smaller campuses and fewer Western teachers), but in the last year recognition of these schools has risen to 72%.

Generally, parents are more inclined to consider budget schools for primary years; younger children tend to use fewer facilities at the full-service schools. Specifically, 20% of parents with children at Primary schools will consider budget schools versus 4% at Secondary schools. Also, parents might not seek such high academic standards from primary schools, with more emphasis on just having ‘happy kids’.

Parents now feel that the market is turning in their favour. In BDRC’s 2019 survey, 42% of parents stated had not enquired at some schools where they felt they could not get their child in because of waiting lists or other entrance requirements. That figure has fallen to just 20% in 2020. Looking to the future, a significant 45% expect to switch to another international school in Singapore.

Even as life picks up again, there will be an extended COVID economic hangover. Price will remain an issue for many parents. This pandemic has also changed perceptions of schooling – almost all children experienced online schooling as a result of the lockdown. Lack of access to facilities during the lockdown made parents think differently about schooling and 20% are now open to the idea of using dedicated online schooling for the future, with 18% considering budget schools.

However, Premium schools dominate interest in ‘the next school’: UWC, Tanglin Trust, Dulwich College and Singapore American School. Most future switching will be for secondary years, and despite financial pressures parents always want the best for their children, hence the most interest in schools known for academic excellence where strong brand recognition can assist their child in the ultimate goal of a top university.

By Piers Lee LinkedIn, Managing Director, BVA BDRC Asia