Expatriate growth in Singapore may have tapered off due to tighter control of the inflow of foreign labour, but demand at international schools here continues to climb, going by a study by International School Consultancy (ISC) Research.
In many other South-east Asian countries, demand is even stronger, driven by the local population, said Sami Yosef, head of South East Asia Research at ISC Research.
In Singapore, international school enrolment jumped 12 per cent from 47,000 in 2012 to 2013, but the increase has eased off thereafter.
The official number as of May 2016 stands at 59,900 students, up 27 per cent over the entire period.
Across South-east Asia in general, about 94,000 more students were enrolled in international schools in 2016 compared to 2012, a 34 per cent increase.
The research consultancy released the data in a report on March 9, ahead of the International Private Schools Education Forum conference in Kuala Lumpur on March 22 to 24.
As of the first quarter of 2017, Singapore ranks third in South-east Asia for the number of students enrolled in international schools, with 63,789 students.
Malaysia and Thailand top the table with 71,589 and 65,928 pupils enrolled, respectively.
The data also showed that the number of international schools in Singapore increased by about 32 per cent from 65 in 2012 to 86 in 2016.
The Business Times reported earlier this month that at least five international schools have added to their capacity by expanding their current campuses or moving to new locations between 2015 and 2020.
ISC Research recorded a 39 per cent growth in the number of international schools in South-east Asia from 725 to 1008 over the same period.
The consultancy defines international schools as those delivering a curriculum wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country.
In countries like Singapore, where English is one of the official languages, an international school is one that is international in its orientation and offers an English-medium curriculum other than the country's national curriculum.
Mr Yosef said that the international school market in South-east Asia has continued to grow despite cutbacks in expatriate workforces after the oil and gas market slump in late 2014.
In many South-east Asian countries, the demand for international education appears to stem from the local populations, he added.
The slower growth among international schools in Singapore may be attributed to the Ministry of Education (MOE)'s policy of not allowing Singaporean students to enrol at international schools here, except when approved under special circumstances.
"In Thailand's premium international schools (the leading international schools, typically with the highest school fees), the number of Thai students is growing at a faster rate than that of expatriate students," said Mr Yosef.
ISC Research sampled 306 international schools throughout South-east Asia and found Thai and Malaysian to be the most prevalent nationalities in current enrolments, each making up 12 per cent.
Students of American and South Korean heritage each make up 6 per cent of students at international schools in the region, with British students coming in at 5 per cent.
International schools in Malaysia that BT spoke with said that local student enrolment has increased slowly, but is now a significant part of the school populations.
At the Marlborough College in Iskandar, school fees are comparable to those at international schools in Singapore, ranging from RM77,000 (S$24,000) to RM177,500 annually.
Despite the hefty price tag, about a quarter of the student population consists of local students, said master of Marlborough College Robert Pick.
The numbers are even higher at Excelsior International School, also in Iskandar, with 60 to 70 per cent of the students holding Malaysian passports.
Lai E-Lan, senior vice-president of strategic planning and administration at Excelsior, said: "Many parents recognise that children need to be global citizens and have the life skills that enable them to do so in the future - international schools provide the environment, platform, resources and support in this area."
Melaka International School (MIS), has also seen a significant shift in the pattern of parents opting to send their children to international instead of national schools, with a student population that is 71 per cent Malaysian.
MIS vice-principal Anu Thiruselvam said parents are drawn to aspects such as the English-medium education and UK curriculum, as well as their focus on each child's learning ability and a low student-teacher ratio to help students perform better academically.
However, while enrolling local students is not an option for international schools here, they can be rest assured that mainstream schools have not been eating into their share of the education market.
International students make up only about 5 per cent of the student population in Singapore's mainstream schools, a number which MOE says has remained fairly constant over the past years.
Students seeking admission to mainstream schools at the Primary 2 to 5 or Secondary 1 to 3 levels are required to take a test on English and mathematics in the Admissions Exercise for International Students (AEIS).
The number of applications for the AEIS ranges from 3,000 to 3,500 yearly, with passing rates varying from year to year.
For successful applicants, subsequent placements depend on available vacancies and the applicants' declared residential area in Singapore.
"(The AEIS test) helps to ensure that international students admitted to our mainstream schools are able to cope with the requirements of the Singapore curriculum," said MOE.
This article was first published on March 28, 2017.
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