A number of trends within our international schools are converging to create one major change: the differences between our schools and traditional independent schools are dissolving.
However, before we dive into the topic and discuss why this change matters, let’s first make the obligatory statement that we do not have a universally agreed definition for international schools (or international education, for that matter).
Nevertheless, for the sake of this argument, let’s agree that many lists include items such as an international curriculum, a degree of diversity in the student and teacher community, and a community oriented toward internationalism and cultural understanding.
External environment changes
Trend 1: Other school types offering an international education
Listing these possible criteria is important, as they get to the heart of the first trend: today many schools without the label of international school are delivering elements of an international education. Evidence of this trend is the adoption of an international curriculum outside of schools with the title “international school”. Data provided by the International Baccalaureate (IB) perhaps illustrates the trend most markedly, and shows dramatic growth over the past few decades.
“International schools can no longer claim uniqueness in providing an international education.”
This trend is reflected in both new and established international schools. It matters because our schools can no longer claim uniqueness in providing an international education. The good news is that international education is deemed so important that many other types of schools around the world have embraced it; the bad news is that international schools are not that special anymore. This is a great example of how an environment can evolve, and even if the subject being studied hasn’t changed, the new environment affects the subject nonetheless. As other schools move toward international education, international schools look more like mainstream schools.
Trend 2: Increasingly selective college admissions
The competitiveness of college admissions is another major, well-documented trend happening off international school campuses but affecting them nonetheless. Over the past two decades, admissions rates at elite universities have plummeted. The numbers are pretty stunning, and I often share with parents that if they applied today to their university alma mater with the grades and profile they had coming out of high school, they almost certainly wouldn’t be accepted today.
“The competitiveness of college admissions is another well-documented trend.”
This trend has an acute effect on international school parents, as many see international schools as a direct route to leading global universities, and more international schools are under pressure (like other private, independent schools) to deliver on this promise.
Anecdotally, many college counsellor colleagues report local private fee-paying parents to be some of the most demanding. From these parents, we hear variations of the theme “I have paid all this money. I expect you to get my child into a top university.” These are driven and motivated parents, and it is also not uncommon for these groups to seek influence on leadership and governance in order to increase the school’s competitiveness in this domain. It is a change in the external environment, but one that is affecting our schools.
Trend 3: Growth of private international schools catering to local populations
Almost all the recent growth of international schools is driven by schools catering to primarily a local market. I won’t rehash this trend in detail here, but suffice it to say that traditional international schools used to cater to highly mobile expatriates, whereas most of the new international schools cater to host country nationals with global aspirations for their children. I would even argue that, at least in some locations (such as Thailand), international schools have become something of the default independent school network. Data highlighting this trend is readily available through sources including ISC Research.
“In some locations international schools have become something of the default independent school network.”
Trend 4: Traditional international school populations localizing
Another trend I have observed is that communities within traditional, well-established international schools are catering more to local parents than expatriates. Unlike the first three trends, this one is difficult to show through data. Part of the problem is, what do I mean by “local?” Families rarely fit into neat categories of local or expat.
To help address issues in a practical manner, some schools employ a technique called “personas”, creating fictional profiles to describe and summarize the key characteristics of a specific sub-audience. For example, some common personas are:
- “expatriate family” (both parents foreign passport holders, short-term stayers, company sponsors fees)
- “host country nationals” (host country passport holders, long-term stayers, private payers)
- “local foreigner family” (at least one parent foreign passport, long-term stayers, private payers)
The use of personas can support enrolment decisions, inform educational provision, and provide clarity to marketing messages.
This type of data is often held closely within marketing departments, and is normally not aggregated and shared openly. So I can’t make the case for this trend by citing external data as I have for the first three trends.
However, in my experience over the past 25 years, and speaking with colleagues at other well-established schools (those initially founded for expatriates), there seems to be a clear downward trend in the proportion of highly mobile expatriates.
I am not saying that it is necessarily the case that the number of expatriates worldwide is dropping in real terms, as data is mixed in this regard. This observation within individual schools could be because expatriates are dispersed across a number of different schools in a certain location whereas there was previously only one option. Or, it could be that as different regions develop and change, there is not the same economic justification for expatriates in a location that historically supported them.
“There seems to be a clear downward trend in the proportion of highly mobile expatriates.”
As a result, families who plan to stay long-term play more important roles in these communities. It follows that leadership needs to, at least to some degree, respond to the needs and priorities of these local parents. Inevitably, governance will be shaped by these influences, either through the appointment of board members or by parents lobbying owners.
We should not be surprised if we also start to see a growing trend toward more teachers staying long-term, especially in stable settings with competitive packages. I wouldn’t be surprised if teacher turnover in these schools moved from 15-20 per cent per year to under 10 per cent (in line with leading private schools). Localization could mean tradition will trump change in our more established international schools.
All of this matters because, as we see through the use of personas, local families can have different priorities and expectations from those of expatriates. The international school’s unspoken promise of “Your child will not fall behind academically while overseas and will have an amazing experience in the meantime” is changing to “Your child will be attending one of the world’s best schools and will have a world of opportunity available after graduation.”
This is where all four trends converge: the promise of international schools is changing, for better or worse. As this promise continues to move closer to that of main private schools (and there are 35,000 independent private schools in the US alone), international schools will be absorbed into this broader category in the minds of many. There is no way around it: international schools are localizing and becoming more akin to traditional private, independent schools.
“The promise of international schools is changing, for better or worse.”
Change happens. Evolution is not a bad thing per se, but it strikes me that much of the change described in these trends is not happening by choice. I think we need to find fresh approaches to make our international schools stand out from the crowd.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2022 print edition of Independent School magazine.