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Choosing a School in Malaysia

by | Nov 24, 2022

Malaysia’s private education market is due to reach RM19 billion by 2026, with much of the growth coming from local families choosing an international education. Sally Robinson reports.

Back in 2012 the government changed the rule that only 40 per cent of international school students could be Malaysian, as part of its economic programme to make Malaysia a regional education hub. This altered the demographic of most international schools who now have at least 50 per cent local students.

Despite the estimated growth, enrolments in K-12 education has slowed in recent years, but there is still demand for quality, affordable education.

Post pandemic, Malaysia’s economy is improving and international families are returning. According to the Malaysia Expatriate Talent Service Centre, which processes employment passes for expats, there was a 28 percent increase in applications in 2021 over the previous year, a trend that is likely to continue.

Malaysia is one of the most favoured destinations for international families in South East Asia, according to global mobility specialist ECA International. “This is partly due to its social and geographic diversity as well as its proximity to Singapore,” says ECA’s regional director, Lee Quane.

The company’s MyExpatriate Market Pay Survey shows Malaysia is the cheapest place in Asia to hire expats. “Salaries are lower than in other locations such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore, partly due to Malaysia’s low cost of living, but they are still attractive to employees,” says Quane.

The housing rental market is still in recovery and there is plenty of stock in popular ex-pat areas such as Damansara Heights and Mount Kiara. Rents have decreased between 10 and 20 per cent over the last decade due to the reduction in expat benefits, fewer arrivals and oversupply.

CHOOSING A CURRICULUM IN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS 

According to Malaysian education consultancy schooladvisor.my, there are 170 international schools in 16 cities in Malaysia with a wide range of fee points. Most are in Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Selangor and some of the newer premium schools offer boarding.

Kuala Lumpur is home to most international schools with the best known located in the popular ex-pat areas of Mount Kiara and Bangsar. In recent years, international schools have opened campuses in Johor Bahru, a special economic zone close to the Singapore border.

“It is an attractive residential location for commuters and remote workers who benefit from higher salaries in Singapore and Malaysia’s lower cost of living,” says ECA’s Quane.

Reputation tends to be the deciding factor of parents enrolling their children in international schools in Malaysia. Families who can afford it choose schools with long-standing reputations.”

Janelle Torres, ISC Research

The British curriculum is the most widely followed in Malaysia’s international schools, but there are many others on offer from Indian and French to German and American. Post Covid, there are plenty of school places, even in traditionally over-subscribed schools. According to Ken Research, private schools are struggling to increase enrolments due to increasing competition and decreasing birth rates.”

The premium schools, charging the highest fees, include the through-train Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur, the British International School of Kuala Lumpur, part of the Nord Anglia group, and a clutch of British public school offshoots including Repton, Marlborough and Charterhouse.

Below: Students from IKSL

Alice Smith School was the first British international school in Malaysia, founded in 1946, and known for its sense of community. It has a spacious primary campus and a new purpose-built secondary campus and follows the British curriculum to IGCSE and A level. “There is a good mix of ex-pat and local children at the school so it feels diverse but also familiar as many teachers are from the UK,” says one recently arrived parent. “Since Covid the numbers are lower and we had no issues getting a place.”

The popular Garden International School is the largest private co-educational school in Malaysia (educating 2000 students) is a respected alternative for families living in the affluent Mount Kiara area looking for the British curriculum. Established in 1951, it one of the first schools in Malaysia to cater for ex-pats and still has high levels of British teaching staff. With over 65 nationalities, it is known for its inclusive community.

The British International school in Selangor, about 40 kilometres from the city centre, opened in 2009 and also follows the British curriculum. It educates around 1200 students from 2-18 years and is part of the Nord Anglia group which has 78 premium schools in 31 countries.

For families from the US, the International School of Kuala Lumpur, established in 1965 as a non-profit American school, is often the first choice. It delivers a blend of US and international curriculums and was Malaysia’s first accredited World IB school. In 2018 it moved to a new 25-hectare campus in Ampang with capacity for 1700 students from early years up.

Many Australian families choose the Australian International School, established in 2000 in the MINES Resort City as the southern end of Kuala Lumpur, around 40 minutes form the centre. It follows the Australian curriculum leading to the New South Wales Higher School Certificate.

AFFORDABLE SCHOOL OPTIONS

More affordable school options include Cempaka International School in Damansara Heights, popular with locals; GEMS International School; Sunway International School, which combines the Canadian curriculum with the IB and Taylor’s International.

The least expensive schools include Wesley Methodist College which has schools in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and St John’s International.

The more affordable schools tend to employ locally-trained teachers and have more local students, while the premium schools usually employ international staff and a more international student population.

Most growth is coming from locals looking for mid-market schools. “An increasing number of parents want an international education at an affordable price,” says ISC Research’s Janelle Torres. “During the pandemic parents who were financially impacted transferred their children to schools with lower fees. Others transferred from national schools to the more affordable international schools, which offered better online learning,” says Torres.

Demand is also coming from other Asian counties. Prior to the pandemic Malaysian international schools were getting more enquiries from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, India and Bangladesh. “With borders now open demand from these countries is likely to continue,” says ISC Research’s Torres.

As in other Asian cities there has been an influx of UK branded schools including Marlborough, Repton, Charterhouse, Epsom and, the latest, Stonyhurst. In exchange for premium fees, these schools offer superior facilities, sophisticated extra curricula programmes and the opportunity to board.

Below: Students from Marlborough College

Marlborough college Malaysia was one of the first to open in Johur Bahru, Southern Malaysia’s fast-growing economic zone 20km from the border with Singapore. The purpose built 90-acre site opened in 2012, complete with golf driving range, lake for water sports and organic farm. The K-12 school offers boarding for senior years where students take IGCSE exams followed by the IB.

THE GROWTH IN BRANDED EDUCATION IN MALAYSIA 

Repton International opened, a rebranding of the Excelsior International school, on a 20-hectre forest site in Johur Bahru. Repton carried out a major refurbishment and delivers a curriculum leading to IGCSE followed by A levels and IB in the sixth form.

“International schools have established campuses in Johor Bahru in recent years due to its proximity to Singapore and the large expat community who work there,” says Quane.

Epsom College opened in 2014, the first international branch of Epsom College in Surrey. It is a boarding and day school located on 50-acre campus one hours’ drive south of Kuala Lumper in Bandar Enstek, 15 minutes from the airport. Students take IGCSE and A level exams.

Last year Charterhouse International School opened a sixth form college close to the centre of the city and premium residential area Sri Hartamas. Pupils study the A level Cambridge curriculum in the purpose built “university inspired” campus in classes of no more than 12 pupils.

The latest of the UK branded schools to expand into Malaysia is the more affordable Stonyhurst International School in Penang which opened in September 2022. The K-12 school says it will build enrolments in phases and will eventually have 1200 pupils including over 300 boarders.

“Reputation tends to be the deciding factor of parents enrolling their children in international schools in Malaysia. Families who can afford it choose schools with long-standing reputations,” says ISC Research’s Torres.

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