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Expansion of International Schools

by Andrew McEwen,

In this article I intend to look at the reasons for the accelerated expansion of the international schools’ market in recent times.

Many, if not most of the first International Schools saw as their function the educating of a small, fairly elite group of pupils, in the main the children of diplomats and high ranking executives of international corporations. The opportunity to have one’s children in a ‘local’ but international school provided an alternative to the tradition of, for at least British parents, sending one’s offspring to a UK Boarding school.

In their early days, International schools were faithful replicas of Western schools, catering for the generally- white, rich children of parents posted to ‘exotic’ locales. This situation has radically changed as developing nations become wealthier and the world more multicultural. As a consequence, the growth in International schools in the last thirty years has been phenomenal. According to Nicholas Brummitt of ISC- “The real driver is the increase in the number of locals who want an English- language education for their children. When you make more money, you want your children taught in English. It is just the way it is”.

We should look at this explanation carefully as it clearly demonstrates one explanation for this phenomenal growth- perhaps it is not that people want an International education, rather what they want is an education where English as a medium of instruction dominates the teaching day. Really, for most schools purporting to be ‘International’, using the word is a convenient way to avoid being accused of neo-colonialism. Many schools attempt to provide a broad curriculum, and to contextualise this within an International framework, but, in my experience, for most, the emphasis is on teaching through the medium of English and, hopefully have their pupils achieve proficiency in the English language. Parents measure the value of their children’s education in great part on how well they speak English. I have been involved in ‘International’ education since 1979 and almost everything I have witnessed over this time leads me to this conclusion.

How did English come to dominate the Education market? There are so many reasons, but we can identify some key factors. Put simply, English competency is a key driver in employability in many countries. It helps distinguish between candidates. It invites a salary premium and this contributes to what many would consider improved lifestyles. On a more banal level it is, among other influences, the consequence of the ubiquity of films in English and much of popular music in English. In more recent years the internet, where some 70%+ of the content in English, has served to consolidate the dominance of English further. Of course to all these influences we need to add that much of international commerce is conducted in English.

As a language, English has been allowed to evolve ‘naturally’, there are no designated bodies-such as the Real Academia in Spain-, which attempt to impose a structure on the language. The growth of English has followed a process of natural selection, similar to that observed by Darwin in the living world. With this assimilation of English as the default language, the need to achieve proficiency in it has convinced many parents to see paying for an English medium school as a priority.

The number of non- native speakers learning English has risen steadily from below 300 million worldwide in the 1970’s to over one billion in the early 21st century. The phenomenal growth in the numbers of learners parallels the change in attitude to the learning of English. An increasing number of countries are making it a priority to seek to make their countries bilingual. This decision has been taken for political and economic reasons as well as pedagogical justifications. Colombia’s ‘Social Programme for Foreign Languages without Borders’ is a good example of this. It is a government initiative to make the country ‘bilingual’ within 10 years, with English as the chosen ‘complementary’ or second language. Of course, the quality of the teaching is often less than adequate, given the limits on funding such programmes. Hence, those with money can send their children to private schools which are able to recruit more competent staff, many such being better paid native speakers, and in this way further increase the overall numbers of international schools.

Curiously, there are also some circumstances where opting for an International school is seen as the only way of providing a child with significant exposure to the country’s main language. A good example of this is the situation in Catalonia, Spain. State schools there require Catalan to be the main medium for teaching, with Spanish (or Castellano) and English relegated to the equivalent of second language status. International schools have more freedom to offer more hours in Spanish than the State schools. This has led many parents to choose a predominantly English medium school, where Spanish has a greater presence than in a state school, as a means to have their children reach proficiency in their own country’s language!

So, how can we categorise International schools today? Are they simply English- language private schools with Western curriculums such as the I.B., Cambridge IGCSE? If they are, then it appears to be because this is what parents, the principle clients want- demand drives what providers decide to offer.

International K- 12 education is very big business. Some estimates put the gross annual revenues of these so-called International schools at over $30 billion dollars, with profits to match. Increasingly, the corporate financial markets and venture capitalists are getting involved, with multi-billion dollar investment funds buying up school chains and/or trying to partner with smaller groups. Much of the recent growth in International schools has been funded this way. International School brokers, such as National School Transfer, are reporting that there has been a significant increase in interest in both the sale of existing schools and of potential sites for new builds. The number of buyers and sellers has steadily increased in recent years with the value of individual sales often greatly exceeding those of similar sales in the U.K.

Some of the largest school groups have made the development of International schools a key part of their growth strategy. Frequently these groups acquire flagship schools in Anglophone countries, such as the UK, and use their brand image to replicate similar schools in developing countries trading on both name and heritage. Traditional public schools with long traditions of excellence, such as Dulwich College and Harrow, have established their own satellite schools. Dulwich for example started in 2005 with its first overseas campus in Shanghai and followed with other schools in Beijing, Suzhou and Seoul, with a further campus due to open in Singapore in 2014.

In all these cases, what we typically have is an English style, traditional education, taught through the medium of English, being exported to other countries. Parents are buying into a brand, a tradition. There is cachet in having one’s child educated in such a school. But how ‘international’ are these schools, in terms of goals such as: developing global citizenship, increasing the understanding of other countries and their peoples and embedding international learning in the curriculum?

In my previous article on the growth of international schools I highlighted the aims of the early proponents of international schools. People such as Marie-Therese Maurette, of the International School of Geneva, sought to promote ‘international mindedness’. The International Schools Association (ISA) was founded with the remit of developing ways to foster international understanding and world peace. Yes, this was the period shortly after the ending of the Second World War, but we still have wars today, many of them. Are the so-called ‘International Schools’ really encouraging global understanding.

ISA continues to promote its self-study guide aimed at promoting such international thinking. It encourages its member schools to share best practice in the delivery of international learning in the curriculum, as well as providing opportunities for sharing experiences through it Youth Encounters. The British Council is also actively promoting its International School Award, which accredits the participating schools as Internationally- minded institutions. The Council works with school leaders and teachers by facilitating collaborative learning projects and allowing teachers to share experiences with those in other countries. As with ISA’s project, the idea is to develop a globally conscious ethos amongst teachers and pupils, one which enriches the school at all levels. Perhaps all International schools should take the time to re-assess their use of the word International and seek to develop their curriculum offering so as to included a truly international perspective to their schools.

Posted in: International Schools

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