The lure of living near international schools

The small Ibizan town of Santa Gertrudis sits among orchards and pine forests, peacefully detached from the island’s summer melée of nightspots and super-yachts. Yet European DJs, financiers and celebrities still flock to “Santa G” out of season, with their families in tow – and the reason lies just down the road from its town square. They come for Morna International College, a private co-ed school where they will pay up to €11,450 a year for their offspring to study an English curriculum in the Balearic sunshine.

Like most international schools worldwide – defined as schools that adopt an international curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) – Morna is booming. It has seen a 28 per cent increase in students in the past year – mainly from the UK, Netherlands and Germany – and now has 410 pupils from 17 countries.

“Until three years ago, our mix was two-thirds Spanish, one-third European. Now that has reversed,” says its director Colin Sinclair. He says he spent much of this summer showing 30 British families around. “They are moving to Ibiza because of the school. Many of them will commute back and forth for work, taking direct flights from London City airport, so the children benefit from an English education and the whole family can enjoy a beautiful lifestyle abroad.”

With a demand for private school places comes the need for good family homes. Lucas Fox is marketing a new three-bedroom white villa in the centre of Santa Gertrudis for €890,000. Lavish new mansions tucked away in the forests go for several million.

It is a similar situation on France’s Côte d’Azur. Most overseas families around Cannes share a desire to get their children into Mougins School, where annual fees are up to €16,200. Knight Frank says the school has enjoyed a 20 per cent increase in overseas pupils in the past five years, with British children now making up almost a third of the school population. Pupils come from 42 countries and the biggest increase has been in the enrolment of Russians.

“When we moved to France in 1998, it was, and still is, very important to us that our children get an international education,” says Claudia Kempen, who runs an interior design and renovation outfit in Cannes. (Kempen renovated Estée Lauder’s former house, Villa Roche Cline, on sale for €9.85m via Knight Frank.) She lives in Mougins with husband Harry, a pilot, and their children Styn, 17, and Emma, 15. “It was the school that helped us decide where to live,” she says.

For the Mougins crowd, “good-sized family villas in l’Etang, where Picasso used to live, Camp Lauvas, which surrounds the school, and Mougins village are in greatest demand, primarily from financially strong families looking to spend €2m-€4m,” says Fredrik Lilloe of Knight Frank France. Within a 15-minute walk of the school, he is marketing a modern four-bedroom villa with a pool for €1.6m. In central Mougins, among its Michelin-starred restaurants and art galleries, two village houses have been knocked into one large four-bedroom townhouse with a pool, which is on sale for €2.35m.

The appeal of international schools for relocating families is clear. They offer a good education for about half the cost of UK private school fees and a gentle immersion into life overseas. “Most kids here are trilingual by the age of four. And for the ‘expat’ parents, there’s none of the competitiveness you find at private schools in London,” says Carrie Frais, founder of the MumAbroad website, whose children attend Hamelin international school in Alella, near Barcelona.

In Spain, many non-Europeans considering buying a Spanish property to benefit from the new “golden visa” scheme (which offers residency to those who invest more than €500,000) will stay just long enough each year to fulfil their visa obligations. But for others, it’s a chance to relocate and experience family life in Europe.

Parents with offspring at Sotogrande International School on the Costa del Sol (which costs up to €18,840 a year) report that school numbers have increased in recent months with the arrival of Russian families. The area also offers relative value for money, with properties going for as little as half of what they did before the 2008 financial crisis. Savills are selling a four-bedroom villa with a pool and views of Valderrama golf course for €750,000, reduced from €1.15m.

In Barcelona, Alex Vaughan, director at Lucas Fox, says one in 10 of his clients is from overseas – notably Russia, China and increasingly India – and seeking a home near one of the international schools in the upmarket Zona Alta. Property there typically costs about €6,000 per sq metre, such as the five-bedroom apartment Lucas Fox is selling in Pedralbes for €1.75m. “The demand to be near international schools died when the crisis hit in 2008 but it has picked up significantly in the past 12 months,” he says.

The boom in international schools is far from being an exclusively European phenomenon. Globally, the International School Consultancy Group (ISC) says the number of international schools grew by 6.7 per cent in 2012, with 3.4m pupils now taught in 6,717 schools. That number is set to rise rapidly, says the ISC – particularly in Malaysia, which recently lifted restrictions on local children attending international schools, and in China, where Chinese-owned schools offering English-led curriculums are starting to emerge. (There are still restrictions on Chinese nationals attending foreign-owned international schools.)

Al Barari in Dubai, where house prices start at £2.5m

In the past four years, Abu Dhabi has seen a 42 per cent increase in the number of teachers at international schools, with four new British and American schools opening this year and 60,000 new places needed in the next two years. Kamelia Zaal, director of The Reserve at Al Barari in Dubai (where house prices start at £2.5m), reports that many buyers are attracted to the development’s proximity to Repton School Dubai, the first boarding school in the Middle East, and the American School in Barsha.

In Manhattan, Kirk Henckels from Stribling, Savills’ New York associate, describes the fight for private school places as “out-and-out war”. “Foreign schools, such as the Lycée Francais, are booked to the hilt and Chinese buyers start looking for a residence near an international school before the child is even born,” he says.

For property developers and estate agents, it points to a growing demographic demanding high-quality family housing within walking distance. That demand may not always come from international families relocating, but also from wealthy local families, as the UK’s most prestigious schools increasingly open colleges overseas. There’s now a Wellington College in Beijing, Marlborough College has opened an outpost in Malaysia and Dulwich College is soon to open in Singapore. “Rather than looking at boarding in the UK,” says David Forbes, head of Savills’ Private Office in London, “families are now sending their children to the local branch.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.