Steps to Setting Up a New School in Japan
Japan has a lot of current demand in the international school sector and investors are looking closely.
If you are considering setting up a new school in Japan you certainly have a lot of things to consider. We have done this many times and in many unique locations.
We are here to help you along the way and have put together this quick summary to help you get started.
The international school sector within Japan is very well established and has a long history. Most schools are centred around Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka but there are developments in other regional cities also. Like most locations the demand first came from expatriates living in the country but the market keeps growing with more and more middle to upper class local families seeking out an international education and higher education pathway abroad. The academic pressures within traditional Japanese schools are very tough and families seek high standards but a more global perspective as well as a holistic focus.
Recently there has been a lot of news shared about new international schools launching in Japan and this is no surprise. All international markets have been on the rise for the past 5-10 years and although the pandemic stifled growth for 1-2 years, Japan has quickly emerged as a high growth location now that things are settling a little. Its proximity to China is just one factor with many Chinese families seeking alternative options abroad in response to tightening pressures in their own country. We believe that Japan and Vietnam are two hotspots right now.
Feasibility Study & Market Research to Open a New School in Japan
It is essential that the process of setting up a school begins with this important step. Most countries are unique and setting up a school in Japan is no different. Making assumptions can be expensive and a comprehensive study will minimise risk and also maximise your chances of success. Even if it is already clear that the school will go ahead, this research will influence many decisions in the set up process including the type of school, Vision/Mission, Financial Planning, Curriculum, Admissions and more. Japan is already a strong country economically but the middle and upper class class is increasingly looking towards more international schooling options and pathways abroad.
Is there a demand for a new school in Japan? Are there incentives?
Japan is known to have managed Covid well with low death rates and they are now slowly opening up at a rate that satisfies citizens, investors and observers. Japan is considered to be Asia’s second largest economy and the larger industries served by local as well as expatriates will grow fast now that less obstacles exist.
At GSE, we too are noticing a strengthening demand by Chinese mainland and Hong Kong residents who want international education options and pathways abroad. Enquiries by Chinese families for schools in the broader Asian region are increasing.
The Japanese government is providing many incentives to investors including tax breaks, simpler procedures for company registration and visas as well as options for loan grants. It seems overseas schools and investors are responding quickly and Japan is definitely in the spotlight.
As shared by Bloomberg recently, “An international school building boom is underway in Japan, fuelled by top-shelf names in education seeking to attract the children of wealthy Asian families, especially from China.” (Source)
Large investors are looking closely at Japan and a number of them have already staked a claim in the market. They will bring global investment but also seek local partners in Japan. We expect to see new financial incentives and initiatives announced soon via Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO). We are discussing GSE partnerships with good partners who match our criteria for quality.
Vision and Mission – “The Voice” of a New School in Japan
Although to some a school vision and mission may seem like an obligatory message on a feature wall, when you are setting up a new school these statements are invaluable. We prefer to describe this step as identifying the school’s unique “voice.” It is important that the school voice is clear and that all decisions about school design, curriculum, choice of staff and policies reflect a unique plan. Project forward to a time in 20 years when Japanese and expatriate graduates return to the school and share stories of great times. How will they describe the school? What is unique about it? How will people distinguish your school from others? What are the “Signature Experiences”?
Financial Planning – The Business Plan for a New School in Japan
Both non-profit and for-profit schools need to have a comprehensive business plan that outlines a sound financial strategy both short and long term. We recommend a comprehensive 10-year plan with knowledge that it usually takes 3 – 5 years for a school to reach a sound financial position. Japan has unique characteristics in terms of legal authorities, governance and policy and there are risks associated with this. All these differences need to be taken into account.
Long-term planning is essential as it is easy for school leadership to become reactive and move attention away from the end goal. Schools are busy, complex and stressful places, but good management focuses on strategic planning at least 5-10 years in advance. It is also key to look in depth to the future as many new schools do not begin to make significant profit until after operational year 4.
Accreditation and Licensing
Local License: Setting up a new school in Japan, the school requires local licensing through the Ministry of Education and Science and the endorsement and support from several government departments. This can be tricky and requires thorough planning and attention to detail. Education, facilities and regulatory licenses are required.
International Curriculum: Use of an international curriculum such as UK, US, or a framework such as International Baccalaureate (IB) will also require programmes meeting standards that will be checked and monitored by a governing body. Mosts of these accreditations are best achieved by good education management principles and these begin right from the early planning stages.
School Accreditation: A school might choose to pursue external accreditation as a way to validate quality. The key forms of accreditation can include:
- Local Education Ministry License (required)
- Curriculum accreditation eg. Cambridge, Oxford, EdExcel or others
- Partner standards and accreditation eg. an overseas school brand or other form
- International accreditation eg. WASC, CIS or others (3-4 years)
Architectural Design for a School in Japan
All schools are different and the school design will reflect both local needs as well as the nature of the curriculum and the school’s vision and mission. Before you begin working with an architect, you must first engage a school operator who understands the school curriculum and the key teaching and learning priorities. Gone are the days when architects line up boxes with a corridor down the middle. You also need to consider capacity, class sizes and future needs. These are both educational as well as business decisions. An educator must be part of this process.
When setting up a school in Japan, how to stand out from the crowd? To match what the other schools in the market are doing is one thing, however it’s worth considering strategies to excel or be unique in a particular area that no other school has adopted. One of these recommendations could be a unique STEM/STEAM LAB that could be placed on a platform and showcased as best practice to the consumer.
Like anywhere Japan, has its different construction standards, costs and processes and this needs to be adhered to when setting up a school in Japan. This specialist field requires experts to closely monitor. If construction costs blow out or there are time delays, it will cost you dearly. Employ a very good project manager with an attention to detail. Micro manage and follow project timeframes carefully.
There are important design considerations when decisions are being made about internal facilities, materials and resources. Upfront costs are a factor as well as maintenance and function. This is a chance for the educator and the architects to be creative and exploit different characteristics of a building. For example at a GSE school in Malaysia, Primary classrooms were 120m2+, incorporating a mezzanine floor and a slide.
Branding and Marketing
Schools, and what they offer are a very different “product/service” than you might expect. A parent and child is joining a community. You are not selling a car. How you brand and communicate your key messages must reflect a deep understanding of education and what families value, all within the local context. Study carefully and seek out expertise. It will make a big difference. We advocate strongly in the use of social media; the modern day “word of mouth.”
Building a strong brand image in Japan includes aspects such as:
- A well regarded education management brand
- Overseas brands, pathways and study programmes
- A quality Principal with an excellent profile
- High quality native speaking English teachers
- Partnerships within the local community
Student Recruitment Strategies for a School in Japan
Setting up a new school in Japan may require different strategies than another country or city. How about taking a glance at our other blog here. But we need to note that Japan is different and a more in depth dive is required and can be found during a GSE Feasibility Study.
Expensive upfront and expensive to maintain. Get an expert involved. It will save you money by making good decisions right from the start. New schools in all regions, nut especially Japan, must have an innovative but education focussed plan for technology.
Determining what you need and when you need can be very difficult. Be careful also about the difference of opinion that may exist between your key staff. These decisions about what is needed and what is best use of money can be quite subjective. We suggest starting with a core list of resources and then expanding it based on need.
Any research will tell you that school management is the number one factor that will determine success in a school. It is essential that your leadership is underpinned by education expertise. Put in place a quality management team.
Admissions processes must be clear and have an educational rationale for placement. Your goals should be to accept children “whose needs you can satisfy.” Create admissions tests that are credible and use these as benchmarks for determining grade placement.
Your staffing plan will be determined when you create your financial plan as part of setting up a school in Japan. The ratios of staff to students as well as your support and administration staff must be calculated carefully. As the school grows these ratios will become more efficient so seek good advice in your planning process. There are many ways to recruit with varying costs but, as always, you will often get what you pay for. The best teachers work through the best channels. Also, be aware that as a new school you are marketing yourself to new staff also, not just students. Build a great website and promote yourself well to this audience also.
Check our blog on how to retain and keep staff along with how to attract the best teachers for a school in Japan. Setting up a school in Japan can be a very attractive to young and ambitious teachers.
In this initial planning phase you will not create a detailed curriculum but you must begin outlining the general curriculum plan. This will be different depending on your key priorities for pedagogy (how you teach) as well as your curriculum choice; be it British, American, Australian, IB or any other.
School Policies for a School in Japan
Standard school handbooks containing school policies can range from 20 pages to 100+. This comprehensive handbook takes time to produce but also must reflect local laws and government policies as well as the standards set by accreditations you have or are seeking.
School Review Processes and Action Plans
To be the very best, a school must have review processes and internal standards by which it is measuring itself. A 10-year strategic plan must be broken down into an annual plan, term plans and, sometimes, weekly action plans to achieve key priorities. When a school owner does not have a strong education background, engaging an education management team will be important.
Training and Development
Employ great teachers but then train them. Respond to internal school review processes, academic data and feedback by adjusting practice. The most valuable resource within a school is its Human Resources and investment in this is important.
Timelines for Setting Up a New School in Japan
A tough question! Setting up a school in Japan can be difficult. Many and most of the above will happen concurrently. The accreditations may depend on each other as well as your recruitment of a strong team. The building process may take anywhere from 6 months to a year depending on the size and location of the construction and the length of time it takes to complete additional approval processes. If you are using an existing facility or refurbishing one, then that might be easier for you, but just like any renovation, you can run into problems. Plan for the process to take longer than you expect as you are depending on factors out of your control, such as government approvals or the weather.