What kind of animal is an international school?


A stint teaching overseas is a fantastic way to gain some work and life experience, and even create a whole new future. International schools offer Brits plenty of opportunities to find employment around the globe. But just what kind of animal are these ‘international schools’?

International schools, as opposed to national schools (those set up to serve the general population of a particular country) come in all sorts of flavours, and no two are the same.

Most commonly, English is the language used for teaching, and schools are often founded to serve the needs of expatriate communities – for example those of one or more nationalities working overseas for a particular employer. Schools have also been set up to introduce a particular faith to a community, or by locals believing that they offer their children a better education.

Mary Langford, Deputy Executive Director of the European Council of International Schools (ECIS), described her organisation’s school membership in the following way in a recent interview with Eteach:

‘Broad church’

“I tend to describe the ECIS membership as a ‘broad church’. We have small schools with under 100 students, and large schools with over 2000.  We have schools that offer the International Baccalaureate programmes, US curriculum including Advanced Placement, UK national curriculum, CIE IGCSEs and A-Levels, International Primary Curriculum, host country curricula, bilingual programmes, and a combination of any of these.

Some schools are populated almost entirely by students from the host country, some are entirely international with no majority of any single nationality or culture, and anything within that spectrum. Some are ‘company’ schools set up by corporations such as Royal Dutch Shell who want to ensure quality education for the children of their expatriate employees, and ‘state funded’ schools such as the JFK School in Berlin, which is largely supported by the German and US governments.

“Despite the ‘E’ in our name and our European location and legacy, ECIS has member schools throughout the world. The International School of Havana, Cairo American International School, Western Academy in Beijing, French-American International School in San Francisco and Escuela Campo Alegre in Caracas, illustrate that!”

You can read the rest of this extensive interview with Mary on the Eteach blog: part one is here, and part two is here.

Management structures and ownership of international schools vary widely, with some privately owned, others run by foundations, and others still perhaps sponsored by a particular country’s embassy.

Parental involvement in international schools

You may well also find that parents are far more involved with day-to-day school life than in UK or national schools: ‘The Essential Guide for Teachers in International Schools’* suggests that ‘it is not unusual for a parent to come into the staff room to look for a teacher or to use the staff photocopier’!

International schools range from being fully integrated into the local culture, to existing in a segregated compound, perhaps with cultural differences or even security making integration difficult.

British schools

British overseas schools, as you might expect, focus on some or all of the UK National Curriculum. As the Council of British International Schools’ (COBIS) website puts it:

‘Choosing a British international school not only gives students the benefit of a British education, it is also eminently transferable. The structure and consistency of the National Curriculum allows students to move easily, if necessary, between British schools in various countries including the UK, and facilitates an easy progression to university in the UK or elsewhere in the world.’

You can find out more about COBIS in our interview with executive director Colin Bell here.

As Dr Steffen Sommer, headmaster of the British School of Paris (BSP) , observed in an interview with Eteach: “We are very proud of the Britishness that we uphold here: we teach a completely British curriculum, and what you find at the BSP is exactly the same as you’ll find at any independent or state school in England, but the cohort we have is very international; we’re 38% British with 50 other nationalities represented.”

Different strokes

When it comes to deciding whether to work in a British, or some other flavour of international school, it seems it’s very much ‘different strokes for different folks’. For UK teachers wanting to work overseas but within a little more of a comfort zone, a British international school environment may well fit the bill. Meanwhile those up for a greater challenge – who are happy to get to grips with differences in teaching methods, routines and management structures, and muck in with colleagues from around the world – may well want to cast their nets more widely.


* This piece was partly inspired by ‘The Essential Guide for Teachers in International Schools’ by Mary Langford, Richard Pearce, Debra Rader and Coreen Sears. We will be giving away copies of this excellent book shortly: watch out for details in your Eteach International Newsletter.

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