What’s ‘international’ about an international school?

Why did international schools spring up, who do they serve, and what on earth does it mean to offer an ‘International Education’? In the first of two articles for Eteach, Steven Mark, educational director of the International Primary Curriculum, reflects on what makes an international school truly international, and how we can best help children and adults to develop the key skill of ‘international mindedness’ for the 21st century.

Back in the 1990s, much as I was enjoying teaching in my hometown in Scotland, if I’m honest I was getting a bit of itchy feet syndrome. Sound familiar?

Sadly there weren’t any recruitment companies like Eteach at that time specialising in international schools. So each week I would faithfully browse the back pages of the job sections with pen at hand, ready to circle the job ads that caught my eye. After a few applications and knock-backs, word came through that my recent interview in The Hague had been a success, and a new life in the Netherlands was beckoning.

Time to pack the bags and head to Hull for the ferry!

Something familiar on the first day at school

I have many memories of arriving in the school on my first day, but one rather mundane one stands out: I remember looking in the classroom cupboards and finding my Ginn 360 Reading Scheme. For those of you unfamiliar with Ginn 360, it was the Oxford Reading Tree of the 1990s.

I’ll come back to Ginn a little later as there’s more to that famous name than meets the eye, but on that first day there was something that was instantly recognisable and familiar: just what you need when you land on foreign shores! It highlighted to me then – and, as I would find out further in the next few years – that there were many similarities between international schools and the school in Scotland where I’d previously worked. Similar resources. Similar routines. Timetables that looked roughly the same. Same issues being discussed in the staffroom. Lots of similarities but, as I discovered as time went on, lots of differences too.

What is an international school?

So what’s the difference between an international school and schools such as the one I’d left behind? What is it that makes an international school an international school? There are probably two main answers to that.

The first is pretty straightforward, in that they were in large part developed to serve international families: often quite mobile families who are living away from their home country for a few years and then either returning home or moving on to the next country. In such cases, the parents want their children to receive an education that will not only equip them well for the future, but one which will allow the children to transfer easily to other international schools or to schools back in their own country.

One of the earliest examples of such a school was the International School of Geneva, set up in 1924 to accommodate the needs of the growing international population of the city. With families from around the world moving to Geneva to work at the global organisations being set up in the city, such as the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation, the need for a school which could cater for a range of cultures and languages was evident. Similar schools soon emerged in Japan, the Netherlands, Wales and many other countries. All were designed to cater to the needs of a range of students from across the world.

Explosion in demand

The success of these early schools has led to an explosion in recent years in the demand for international schools. Today there are almost 6,000 English-medium international schools around the globe. Beyond the sheer growth of these schools, what is particularly interesting is that the biggest group of students overall is no longer the expats, but those from the local, wealthy population.

What might be attracting those families? Well, lots of reasons of course – wanting their children to learn English being an obvious one. But for many families it is the chance for their children to have an ‘International Education’ that is so attractive. That for me is the second answer to the question of what is an international school: it provides this ‘International Education’. But what on earth does that mean?

What is an ‘International Education’?

Let me share an example: a few years back I had the good fortune to spend some time in South East Asia. I was invited to visit a small international school and have a look around. It was a lovely school in many ways: dedicated teachers; enthusiastic children; strong leadership team.

The children were a mix of international and local students. Walking around looking at the displays, I was struck by the content of them: Florence Nightingale, The Great Fire of London, The Tudors and The Stuarts and not forgetting the ubiquitous ‘Slipper’. Now there’s nothing wrong with children from Asia learning the story of Florence Nightingale or the Great Fire (by the same token, there’s nothing wrong with kids in the UK learning about famous people and events from Asia); they’re great stories. But for these children it was at the exclusion of learning about their own culture, and that strikes me as wrong.

So here was a school that to all intents and purposes fitted the historic profile of an international school: international and local families; international and local teachers; and flags from around the world bedecking the entrance area. But something was missing. Something that Edwin Ginn would have recognised.

Remember him from earlier? Edwin Ginn of publishing fame was one of the earliest proponents of international education and set up the International School of Peace in Boston in 1910. Long before terms such as ‘global citizen’ and ‘global dimension’ became popular, international-mindedness found many of its roots back in the early 20th century.

Following the many terrible conflicts that had recently taken place throughout the world, people like Edwin Ginn, who were committed to the cause of global peace, set about trying to develop an education that was more international in outlook.

For the school I visited then, the boxes that defined the school as international were certainly ticked, but the learning in the classroom didn’t because the ‘international’ in ‘international school’ isn’t only about the intake of families to the school: it’s about something more profound. It’s about a deep commitment to the development of international-mindedness in our students.

In the second part of this blog about developing international-mindedness, coming soon to Eteach, Steven offers information about where to begin, and points to some of his favourite classroom resources that will help children to start thinking internationally.

Steven Mark is the educational director of the International Primary Curriculum (IPC). His education experience includes many years as a teacher and school leader in Scotland, Netherlands and Germany. He has a Masters degree in Educational Management from the University of Leicester and is about to embark on his doctorate with the University of Bath, England.

Steven has a great range of experiences working with both national and international schools. He has spoken at conferences and delivered professional development for educators throughout many parts of the world.  He is currently writing a book about how we can best help children and adults to develop international mindedness, which he thinks may well become the key skill for 21st century citizens.

2 thoughts on “What’s ‘international’ about an international school?

  1. When I try to explain by saying no I teach at an international school Im often met with a blank stare..Understandable enough before moving overseas I never realized that there was a network of English-speaking American or Canadian Australian New Zealand or British curriculum schools all around the world. I have now worked at three international schools in three countries Germany Malaysia and Thailand and I often receive questions about where I work and how to start working overseas..So I thought Id share some very basic information about this type of school for those who arent familiar with them..What is an international school?.International schools are private schools serving mostly expatriate children diplomats multinational corporation executives NGO staff and usually some local families that can afford the steep tuition . Most schools offer grades PK 12 ages 5 18 but some are restricted to high school or primary school depending on the needs of the population..International schools usually choose to follow a curriculum model from the US UK Canada or Australia New Zealand.

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