The concept of an international school is difficult to define because of the individual and sometimes idiosyncratic nature with which many schools have emerged, and because there is no overall requirement for control or monitoring. International schools are mainly private entities and as such may or may not be subject to local government oversight. For those schools wishing to distinguish themselves as being of particular quality, professional membership and accreditation procedures are de rigueur.
Schools commonly benchmark themselves as successful by relying upon the academic achievements of their graduating students. With that same emphasis on success, international assessment framework organisations have become increasingly aligned with schools. So much so that these frameworks have become institutionalised – a powerful position from which to maintain brand identity and consistency in a global market. International schools need recognition too, the sort that using an accepted curriculum brings with it. Then there are consumer expectations. The expectation is for uniformity in the way that assessment of learning leads to formal qualifications. This uniformity is what makes a curriculum international and any ensuing qualification a valuable credential to own.
A common characteristic of all schools that might be considered International is that they offer a curriculum other than that of the country in which they are located. The International Schools Consultancy Group (ISC) a leading source of market intelligence on the world of international English-speaking schools defines international schools in the following context.
definition of an international school
A school is an international school if the school delivers a curriculum to any combination of pre-school, primary or secondary students, wholly in English outside an English-speaking country, or if a school in a country where English is one of the official languages, offers an English-medium curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum and is international in its orientation.
It is clear from the definition that the three major components used in defining an internationalschool are its curriculum, its situation and the language used for instruction, i.e. English.
English-medium instruction (EMI)
The rise in number of so-called English-medium schools in recent years has been attributed to the apparently unstoppable rise of English as the global language - English is seen as providing currency in an increasingly globalised workforce and entry to the world’s best universities. In fact, leading universities are turning their attention to the international schools market in search of well-qualified, well-resourced students with English fluency. The very high proportion of international school students who go on to study at university makes them atypical of students in national school systems worldwide.
While this all seems very positive, not everybody defends what could be described as language elitism in how we experience education on the international stage. For example, The Centre for Research and Development on English Medium Instruction, established by the UK Department of Education at the University of Oxford, are delving into questions concerning the long term efficacy of language polarisation in education.
Definition of English Medium Education
An English-medium education system is one that uses English as the primary medium of instruction - particularly where English is not the mother tongue of the students. Coupled with this, there is an accelerating worldwide movement from English being taught as a foreign language (EFL) to English being the medium of instruction (EMI) for academic subjects such as science, mathematics and geography. EMI is being used in universities, secondary schools and even primary schools and this has huge implications for education in all the countries concerned. Yet there is little empirical research into when EMI is being introduced and how it is delivered. We know relatively little of the consequences of introducing EMI on teaching, learning, assessing, and teacher professional development.
The University of Oxford
The language of academic programmes
The working language of international programmes and any associated examinations offered by international schools is dictated by the programmes they choose to implement. In the case of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) - both formal external examinations, the working language of the curriculum materials and examinations is fixed.
- The IGCSE targets 14 to 16 year-olds, and is today’s most popular international qualification offered by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) Cambridge IGCSE curriculums are taught in 145 countries and in more than 6,000 schools
- The International GCSE is also offered by Edexcel in 80 countries and 900 schools and / or authorised centres
- Both Cambridge IGCSE and Edexcel International GCSE have only English as their working language
The IB targets 16 to 19 year-olds in 147 countries and enjoys recognition for university entrance in all of the developed countries and in most of the developing world. As such, it represents the most widely known end-of-secondary school qualification not tied to a particular country.
- The IB in English is currently implemented in 2,300 EMI schoolsThe IB in non-English is currently implemented in 2,000 non-EMI schools
- The IB Middle Years Programme (IBMYP) currently has four working languages: English, French, Spanish and Chinese
- The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) currently has three working languages: English, French and Spanish
Accusations of language elitism are difficult to resolve since the IBDP in English is said to represent by far, the larger part of the more than one million student examination entries every year. Programmes that are teacher-assessed, e.g. the IB Primary Years Programme (IBPYP) and the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) are constrained by the languages in which the curriculum material is provided, but could, theoretically be taught by any of the languages spoken by the teachers in question.
Currently, 80% of the demand for places at international schools is said to come from wealthy local parents who want their children to receive a quality, English-speaking education. This raises the question "Why are nearly 30% of all international schools today bilingual?" Bilingual international schools generally opt for English as the primary language of learning (L1) combined with the local language (L2). This represents an increasingly popular overarching international school ethos that blends local culture and language with an English-medium global learning approach. Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) defines bilingual learners as follows:
definition of a bilingual learner
A ‘bilingual learner’ is, in its broad sense, a student who uses their first language (L1) at home/ in the community and is learning through a second language (L2), for example English, at school. Their learning may take place in a variety of educational contexts. They may be learning all subjects through the L2, or, if they are on a ‘bilingual education’ programme, they may be learning only some subjects through the L2. Many people therefore use ‘bilingual learner’ instead of ‘second / additional language learner’ to highlight the value of two languages. However, others use ‘bilingual learner’ to refer only to students on bilingual education programmes.
American or British schools, or other schools that have an English-mother-tongue slant such as Australian and Canadian schools, predominantly teach their home curriculum, or an overseas version of it. Schools that strictly maintain their native language and culture are, for example: French, Japanese and Korean schools. These schools generally incorporate native language qualifications for easing the transition back home for students at the end of their travels, or when returning for university. International schools that are affiliated to a particular national system will most likely follow that countries home curriculum, and so all families opting for national schools per se, effectively buys into that national curriculum. Yet another group of national schools exist for armed services personnel and their families on overseas deployment. These are mainly schools belonging to the UK Service Children’s Education (SCE) organisation, and to the US Department of Defence (USDOD).
Some schools simply call themselves "International" because they have incorporated multiple approaches from different formats, and provide an international curriculum with a global (or perhaps faith-based) perspective. After all, not all international schools deliver the IB program, just as not all IB schools are international. A common thread that runs through these schools is the desire to create global citizens who have an understanding of other countries, cultures and histories beyond their own national perspective.
For self-styled international schools that go it alone and develop their own curriculum, they will need to decide how to offer a curriculum of relevance to a multi-cultural student population. This is because such students are increasingly opting for programmes such as IB and IPC that have expressly been developed to be international in focus.
Languages learned at school
Related to the question of which languages should be the working language of the school programmes, is the question of which languages should be available for study and where appropriate, external examination. In a context where as many as 40 nationalities may be represented within the student body, a not uncommon fact, the question is whether or not a student is able to study his or her first language, if that is not English. Also which languages are made available and at what level?
Almost always the languages available for study are those offered by the international programmes of choice made by schools for their student body as a whole. Fortunately, as in the case of the IBDP or IGCSE there are a great number of languages courses available, however whether those are actually offered at school level is often a decision that is influenced by economic viability.
Restrictions on languages offered for study can give rise to problems of conflict where the espoused philosophy of a school is to promote equal value and entitlement to respect for all cultures and languages. It’s not difficult to conclude that whichever way you look at it, International does appear to suggest a predominantly English-speaking western-liberal education.
Is language and curriculum access an issue for you?
Join the discussion and let us know.
The SAGE Handbook of Research in International Education