What Makes a School International? (TIE Online)

Kids:flags“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The Bard reminded us that a name by itself means nothing – it’s what’s behind the name that really matters. Does having the word international in a school’s name make it international? That is the question! Shakespeare references aside, this raises a very valid question – what is an international school, and what, exactly, makes it international?


International schools come in many different shapes and sizes and the term itself, includes a variety of school systems encompassing a wide variety of formats and curricula, with some being more international than others.

In order to be considered an actual international school, it is widely agreed that a school generally follows a national or international curriculum different from that of the host country. Additionally, an emphasis is placed on international education (with such programs as the IB) and global citizenship.

Rapid Growth

The international school market has experienced explosive growth over the past 10 years with the number of international schools more than doubling across the globe. This past year alone, 345 new schools were added to the network of thousands of international schools worldwide. ISC Research, a UK-based organization dedicated to analyzing, researching and tracking developments in the international school market, calculates that there are currently over 2.8 million students enrolled in international schools around the world.

Big Business

International K-12 education is a big business – with annual income of approximately $27 billion dollars (US) a year, employing over 270,000 teachers and administrators. According to Nick Brummitt, Managing Director of ISC Research, “the internationals schools market doubled in size over the last ten years and will undoubtedly double again within the next ten.”

More than two-thirds of the annual increase for 2011 came from Asia where ISC reports 238 new schools were added this year alone. This is largely fueled by China where the growth in foreign businesses, the expatriate community, and the export market mirrors the expansion of the international schools market. With 46 new schools, China accounts for one in five of the new Asian schools started this past year.

Brummitt of ISC projects, “The greatest demand will continue to come from increasingly wealthy families in Asia, including the Middle East, wanting an English-medium education for their children.” The trend will continue in China because “Chinese nationals are not allowed to attend foreign-owned schools, therefore, dramatic growth is expected in new international sections of private Chinese schools,” predicts Brummitt.

What is an International School?

The rapid growth has corresponded with the proliferation of the title, “international” placed on many schools that may possibly have the veneer of being international in name only. For example, of the 345 new schools opened last year, 80 or 23% are offering one or more of the IB programs (i.e. MYP, PYP, DP). The question is what about the more than three-quarters of international schools that are not offering that program? Of course the IB is not the only game in town, but it raises the question of what sort of international program or curriculum are all these new schools offering? Are they truly international schools? These questions and others are what prompted the International Association of School Librarianship, at their 2009 conference in Italy, to outline a list of criteria for a school to be described as an international school. They noted that although all international schools may not meet all criteria, a majority of the eight specified criteria should be met.

IASL Criteria for International Schools

  1. Transferability of students’ education across international schools
  2. A moving population (higher than in national public schools)
  3. Multinational and multilingual student body
  4. An international curriculum (i.e. IB – DP, MYP, PYP)
  5. International accreditation (e.g. CIS, IBO, North Eastern ASC, Western Ass. of Schools and colleges, etc.)
  6. A transient and multinational teacher population
  7. Non-selective student enrollment
  8. Usually English or bi-lingual as the language of instruction

Disagreement on Criteria

Not everyone agrees with the above criteria. Frank Anderson, Superintendent Emeritus of Colegio Internacional de Carabobo in Venezuela believes “It’s not where the students come from, but how the educational program is delivered.” “If the school’s mission is to deliver an international education through a curriculum such as the IB and to produce global citizens,” than according to Anderson, “it’s an international school.” Anderson also believes in giving more leeway to the accrediting body, noting that in addition to the international accreditation organizations, many international schools are accredited by the host country’s Ministry of Education.

This view is echoed by Connie Buford, Regional Educational officer for the Office of Overseas Schools at the U.S. State Department. “As obvious as it may seem, the exact definition of an international school is really hard to pin down.” Buford is quick to point out that many schools are using an international curriculum even if they’re not using the IB: “They’re teaching international culture, history and perspectives, and those hallmark features make it international.”

Buford feels that if a school has at least two of the characteristics noted above it should be considered an international school. Furthermore, she emphasizes that the key point of distinction is that “No matter what the make-up of the student population, or the curriculum employed, the school should instill an ‘international-mindedness’ among its students. Buford notes that this is not her own term, and in fact, it’s what the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) claims sets them apart from other programs. According to the IBO, “It is a philosophy students will carry with them through the rest of their lives.”

Buford says that this idea can be distilled into a very simple goal: “Students should realize that there’s a big world out there and there’s more than just your own country and culture.”

There are others who believe that having all, or many, of the criteria outlined by the IASL puts a school in a top tier category of international schools. One international teacher said that he only considers a school truly international if it has: “an international curriculum, a multi-national student body, and a multinational, English-speaking faculty. These are the three main categories that qualify a school as being truly international,” according to this teacher who requested anonymity because of his recent experience at a school which he believes did not deserve the title of international in its name.

By her own admission, Ingrid Skirrow, one of the authors on the committee says that “Defining an international school is almost impossible…..we talked round and round to come up with the criteria above and although we were not 100% satisfied, we wanted to get something down in writing – mainly to try to distinguish . . . (International Schools) from national schools in the context of the IASL Regions.”

ISC, the largest research company of international schools in the world, provides a very simple definition of what is required to be included in their database of 5,857 international schools: “A school is included on our database if it teaches wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country. Language schools are therefore completely different and are excluded.”

Who are the Students?

Students are the children or dependents of employees of international businesses, international organizations, foreign embassies, NGO’s, missions, or missionary programs. In addition to the children of expatriates, many schools have local students from the host country attending. International schools are growing in popularity for host country students and their parents are willing to pay the high tuition so their children can learn the language of the international school (mostly English) and obtain qualifications for higher education in a foreign country.

Some international schools have restrictions on the number or percentage of host country students the school can admit, while others are unable to admit host country students at all. For example, the American Embassy School in New Delhi does not admit students of Indian nationality, except in specific circumstances as mandated by the Government of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.*

Admission is guaranteed to the dependents of US citizens residing in New Delhi provided they meet the school’s eligibility requirements. Additionally, other foreign national students are admitted at the school.

This specification of student make-up is not arbitrary — it’s the result of a 1973 bilateral agreement between the governments of India and the United States. According to the school’s admission page, “. . . The American Embassy School was established to enable American children to study under the American system of education, as well as third country nationals (non-Indian, non-US) that are in Delhi on a temporary basis for the purpose of employment. The American Embassy School is not in competition with Indian schools, and is neither designed nor empowered to serve the needs of Indian students.”

Not all countries and/or schools have such agreements or restrictions on the nationality composition of their student body, so there is a wide range of diversity (or lack thereof) in international schools.

Variety is the Spice of Life

International schools come in a wide variety of organizations, curricula, and approaches, but they all offer teachers the opportunity to live and work abroad in a challenging and stimulating environment.

Just as international schools serve to teach students that there’s a big world out there beyond just their own country and culture, teachers at international schools benefit immeasurably as they learn the same life lessons along with their students.


*Note: This does not mean that there are not students of Indian ethnicity, quite the contrary; students of Indian-origin are well-represented at AES. It should be noted, however, they are mostly the children or dependents of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who hold non-Indian passports.


What Makes a School International? | The International Educator (TIE Online).


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