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‘Satellite colleges’: Overseas branches of British independent schools as a growing field of research

Simon Probert, Deputy Head at Harrow Shanghai

The international school sector has seen significant growth in recent years, with the UK-based International Schools Consultancy reporting that there are 13,614 English-medium schools around the world as of July 2023, with a growth of 18 per cent in the past five years. A British-style curriculum is the most common in international schools, Cambridge IGCSE exams being the most taken school qualification globally for 14–16-year-olds. Although there is a large body of research on the international school sector more broadly (see for example Hayden, 2021; Bunnell, 2019), there remains a lack of research specifically on British Schools, which represents a significant gap given the size and significance of this market.

In particular, as part of this recent growth, international schools affiliated with British independent schools have taken on a significant presence in the market. The vast majority of these schools are based in England, but their overseas branches self-identify as British in terms of their curriculum and broader ethos (Hollis, 2023). There were 75 such schools in China alone in 2023 according to Venture. Dubbed ‘Satellite Colleges’ (Bunnell, 2008), they represent an attempt to export British education globally, which is reversing the trend of overseas students joining independent schools in the UK as the schools themselves seek to export their brands. While Bunnell (2019) has used the notion of ‘premium’ and ‘non-premium’ to define different types of international schools, the latter being ‘established and legitimate’, while the former are ‘largely undiscovered and vague’, satellite colleges appear to bridge both contexts with an emphasis both on the tradition and legitimacy of their UK-based partner schools, while simultaneously branching out into new and unknown contexts.

‘The manner in which satellite colleges are exporting a British educational model abroad also links back to ways in which colonial education systems perpetuated British norms and ways of thinking.’

The manner in which satellite colleges are exporting a British educational model abroad also links back to ways in which colonial education systems perpetuated British norms and ways of thinking (Probert, 2023). Although they also form part of the wider international schools movement which dates back to the opening schools such as the International School of Geneva, the emphasis on tradition and a British model of education demonstrates that they form their own separate category (Gross, 2023). More broadly, the popularity of British education globally represents both a belief in the educational quality of British schooling, and specifically the elite British universities which many of the students at these schools aim to attend, as well as a suggestion that the social capital provided by an association with British educational brands and heritage is something to be aspired to (Bunnell, 2019).

The significance of the British international school sector as a field of research is also seen in ways in which British international schools and local education systems interact. What I have referred to elsewhere as ‘glocalisation’ is seen in ways in which many British international schools have adopted local alongside more normative international curricula, with students taking local exams alongside British A-levels or the International Baccalaurate (Probert, 2022). Simultaneously, independent schools in the UK have become more international through adapting international curricula such as the International Baccalaureate, or having a student body comprising a significant percentage of overseas students. This is in line with Mary Hayden’s statement that ‘to draw a distinction between the concepts of international education and national education will become increasingly less meaningful’ (Hayden, 2021, p. 8).

As I have discussed in this blog post, the emergence of overseas branches of elite British schools globally (‘Satellite Colleges’), represents a significant departure in international education, as well as the evolution of the British independent school sector. Future research could focus on links between British-based schools and their overseas branches, as well as ways in which these schools have an impact on the British education system (not least given the number of British teachers who have emigrated overseas). Equally, ways in which they foster British values, and more broadly British soft power globally, remains a significant area which at present remains both under-theorised and under-researched.


Bunnell, T. (2008). The exporting and franchising of elite English private schools. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 28(4), 383–393. 

Bunnell, T. (2019). International schooling and education in the ‘new era’: Emerging issues. Emerald

Gross, I. (2023). Riding the global wave of elite English private schools. Journal of Research in International Education, 22(1), 70–86. 

Hayden, M. (2021). International education: Setting the scene. In M. Hayden (Ed.), Interpreting International Education (pp. 1–9). Routledge.

Hollis, S. (2023). Education as an international export: English schools as franchises overseas. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 25(1), 51–72. 

Probert, S. (2022). China: The under-researched nexus of activity. Journal of Research in International Education, 21(3), 228–241.

Probert, S. (2023). International education in Asia: The changing market. Journal of Research in International Education, 22(3), 185–200.