The learning curve
Since 2017, Portugal has seen a jump in demand from relocators from around the world. For many expats with young families, good private schools are essential.
Text Chris Graeme
The proliferation of international schools in Portugal over the past seven years has been nothing short of astonishing. During this period alone, around 20 international schools have either been founded from scratch or are existing ones that have been expanded to meet a growing demand from overseas citizens who are either not based in the country but want their children to have a European, British, International or US curriculum education, or from the mushrooming numbers of relocators who find in Portugal an attractive and secure destination to bring up their children.
The reasons behind this increase in international schools are well-known. Since 2017, Portugal has boomed as an expat destination, with affluent Brazilians, Chinese, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, Irish, British, and now Americans seeing Portugal as a haven, both in terms of business interests and investments.
An international trend
The growth of international schools in Portugal mirrors an international trend. According to the research and consultancy entity ISC Research – which has charted the expansion of international schools globally over the past 25 years – since 2000, when there were 2,584 international schools on its database, ISC says numbers mushroomed fourfold to 10,883 verified schools by June 2019 – a figure that has risen ever since with more international schools in the pipeline and predictions of an almost doubling in the number of schools, students and staff by 2029.
According to Diane Glass, Commercial Director at ISC Research, the routes to enrolment have changed significantly over the past 20 years, with a large element of international schools’ growth now being driven by local populations, and less expat-led, and more price sensitive.
In Portugal, however, many fresh admissions since 2021 have come mainly from wealthy overseas refugees, with a noted increase in demand stemming from countries in geopolitically sensitive areas, especially Eastern European countries like Ukraine, the Baltic States, Finland, and Poland.
The reasons in this case are obvious. What is not so immediately obvious is the sudden uptick in both queries and admissions from the US, particularly California, Florida, and Texas.
When they opened their doors during the Covid-19 pandemic in September 2020, serial entrepreneurs and education concept masterminds behind the United Lisbon International School (ULIS), Chitra and Roman Stern, set themselves the goal of making it part of an ambitious educational hub (Edu Hub) offering “the best private education experience and facilities from reception to pre-university in Portugal and Europe”.
Three years later, the ULIS has formed a partnership with the London-based Dukes Education Group, which includes an elite network of international schools and has on its books educational establishments like St. Andrews College in Cambridge, the Knightsbridge School in London and Cardiff Sixth Form College in Cardiff, Wales.
Roman and Chitra Stern moved to Portugal in 2000 and fast became notable business figures on the Portuguese entrepreneurial map for setting up luxury family hotels.
The idea of founding an international school arose years later when they identified a market need for an international school in the growing Eastern districts of Lisbon which would provide an excellent international education based on the IB programme.
The explosion of new international schools begs a question: Is the recent boom in demand for international schools sustainable in the long term? For now, the current demand suggests it is, but will it only remain strong in the short to medium terms? The founders of one new Lisbon school, Artemis Education, think it will.
“We took the decision in 2020 to build a school in Lisbon because demand continues to grow for international education with international curricula, and as more and more international families have been drawn to the capital. The market remains capacity constrained, and we feel it has further room to grow, particularly in Central Lisbon,” says Niall Brennan, CEO of Artemis Education whose first international school, The Lisboan, will open in September 2023.
The statistics on immigration from Portugal’s border and immigration agency SEF seem to back up that confidence. Last year, the number of overseas citizens registered as living in Portugal rose to 771,000, up by 109,000 on 2021.
The SEF statistics reveal the highest numbers of relocators ever, a far cry from the relatively modest numbers of 388,371 registered in 2015. Some 27.8% were Brazilian, Indian and Italian citizens, whilst the number of immigrants from the US has increased by an astonishing 45% to 6,921.
At the Western end of Portugal’s capital, in the environs of the charming town of Sintra, is the Carlucci American International School of Lisbon (CAISL).
CAISL’s director Nate Chapman thinks that the current rate of foreign nationals entering Portugal will taper off over the next five years, but well-established schools with a track record of quality education will continue to flourish.
“In recent years, international schools with English as the teaching language saw an increase in demand as more expatriate families moved into the Lisbon area. This paved the way for new schools to open. However, we have chosen not to increase our student enrolment at the cost of changing the fundamental nature of our school community,” she says.
It is an opinion shared by Andreas Schelfhout, who together with his wife Sandra founded the Eupheus International School in Loulé, a smart and historic town in the Algarve which has had a stable international community for decades.
“I think the market will definitely grow. We saw during Covid-19 that there was a desire by families to move away from the high-urban density containment of cities to the kind of healthier unpolluted living offered by the Algarve,” he says.
However, he points out that, post-Covid, some of the growth now being seen is because of the invasion of Ukraine, where affluent families in Eastern and North-Western Europe no longer feel secure about having their children in private schools within striking range of the Russian military.
“I would say that, at Eupheus, a third of our pupils are here because of this, and it is not clear if all of these circumstantial cases will remain after security issues die down or not,” he says, stressing that “some families will stay as they buy homes and settle”.
Eupheus International School is a recent addition to the international schools offer in Portugal. This school with Cambridge Assessment International Education accreditation was founded in 2018 and delivers all lessons – except Portuguese – in English and markets itself as a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly school.
There are several other international schools in the Algarve region not only catering for the large expat community led by the British, but also the Germans, French (in increasing numbers since 2017), Dutch and other nationalities.
To meet this demand, the Nobel Algarve British International School has stepped up its presence with a new secondary school.
Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, the school’s main campus is in Porches, where it first opened in 1972. Nobel Algarve has reinforced its position with the expansion of a second campus in Almancil, which currently caters for students from pre-school to Year 7. However, due to growing demand, the purpose-designed building expanded with a second-phase build which opened for Years 8-9 in September 2022.
Among the state-of-the-art features at the Almancil campus are a multimedia centre, a next-generation Science Lab, ICT suites and sensory gardens.
Nobel Algarve belongs to the Globeducate British International School cluster, with sister schools in Spain, France, Italy, and the UK.
Technology and innovation
The terrible Covid-19 pandemic which swept the globe in 2020 and 2021 had two positive and practical effects for international education in Portugal.
On the one hand, it accelerated the introduction, testing and widespread use of digital multimedia teaching platforms, allowing pupils to virtually attend classes wherever they happened to be in the world. It also meant a percentage of parents realised they could work away from a traditional office setup.
On the other, many of those who could relocated in search of a greener and healthier lifestyle where open space and low population density living were at a premium. “Following the pandemic, many have realised that they can work from anywhere. I think this is another reason for the explosion of people moving to Portugal, but it has also brought some changes to schools,” says the Head of Nobel Algarve British International School, Abigail Lewis.
“Whilst we found that nothing beats face-to-face teaching, many schools have developed their learning technologies. Likewise, we will continue to utilise technological innovations to better support student learning.”
Covid-19 helped to accelerate changes in the way technology was already being developed for and used in teaching.
Miguel Santos, the CEO of the International Sharing School (ISS), understands the importance and value of using the latest technology in education. The school he runs is in Oeiras, near Lisbon, one of the most technologically advanced municipalities in Portugal, with a clutch of prestigious and internationally renowned science-focused academic and research institutions and high-tech business parks with top multinational technology companies.
Santos points out that schools in general tend to be very traditional in Portugal. “Of course, we believe that heritage and tradition should be respected, but we also believe there is a lot of room for innovation,” he says.
“Over the past years, we have seen a transition into using more digital resources. There are many platforms that support learning and teaching, and, of course, one of the most developed areas of learning since 2020 has been distance learning. This has been a great tool to provide education for those who for whatever reason cannot attend school physically and provided the opportunity for all digital learning platforms to develop and increase the available offer,” he explains.
Curricula – which to choose?
For schools that are open to all nationalities, typically three curriculum options are available: US, English National (British), or International Baccalaureate (IB). Sometimes international schools also offer hybrid options, blending different types of curricula.
Portugal – the place to be
Andreas Schelfhout concludes with a sentiment shared by all the directors and founders of the schools with whom we spoke. “I am extremely positive about the future of quality international schools in Portugal where the emphasis is on qualitative and not quantitative education.”
The Eupheus founder notes that many Americans who have start-ups or work in technology companies are now relocating to Portugal precisely because they can recapture and replicate the kind of good life their parents once enjoyed on the US West Coast.
“Choosing Portugal to relocate, bring up a family and educate one’s children is, in my lifelong experience, probably the best option anyone can take in their life. The opportunities afforded in Portugal are incredible. The country is stable, and Portuguese society is welcoming and tolerant. I have lived in the UK and travelled extensively, and I have never had the feeling that I would be better off living elsewhere. Portugal really is the place to be!”