When I first left the UK to work in Tokyo in 1999, teaching abroad certainly lacked the credibility it is afforded today. International schools back then were seen almost exclusively for ex-pats and were typically filled with international pupils who stayed for 2 to 3 years before returning to their home country. For teachers, a job abroad was considered by many as a working holiday rather than a genuine career move. Looking back, I can clearly remember former colleagues, family and friends making comments such as “He is off to do a bit of travel” and “He’ll be back in a few months, just you see.” Well, twenty years later and my perceived ‘bit of travel’ is now a respected profession with international education widely regarded as one of the best a child can get. No longer are international schools considered to be a stopgap for ex-pats but have become a preferred option for many domestic families looking for an alternative for their child. Research suggests that in 2019 over 6 million children worldwide have received an international style education compared to around 900,000 in the year 2000. (RSC Research).
Since the new millennium, the growth of international schools has been nothing short of exceptional. Exactly how many schools there are worldwide is hard to measure as the word ‘international’ is widely used and marketed by schools as it implies diversity and a broader perspective. Defining what exactly an international school fosters debate with popular offerings ranging from ‘schools that offer an international curriculum in an international environment’ to simply ‘a school with multilingual staff.’ Japan has seen a significant growth in both international language schools and international curriculum schools (schools that teach English as opposed to schools that teach in English) in the last decade alone. Whatever your choice one thing is clear, international schools are on the up and they are here to stay. Simply put, international education sells across the globe. Since the year 2000, we have seen a growth from 2,500 international schools (offering an international curriculum) to around 15,000 operating today with the greatest growth in China and the Middle East.
The reasons for choosing an international education are fairly straightforward. Quality international schools give pupils the opportunity to learn from a global perspective, offering a window into an education far beyond that of a local setting. They are exposed to different cultures, ethnic groups, religions and languages that help develop them into rounded, highly tolerant and broad-minded young adults. In addition, they usually offer smaller class sizes, a creative curriculum and a more varied style of teaching. International schools are rarely tied to the restraints and regulations of a local curriculum, nor are they textbook-based. Beyond school, they can offer greater opportunities to attend, study and work abroad, with pupils usually having mastered at least one additional language. Horizons, therefore, can be considered broadened and friendships developed that will span the globe. My previous school in Qatar highlights this well, with pupils from over 40 countries and staff recruited from over 15 nations. Such diversity creates a unique learning community promoting open-mindedness and wide-spread acceptance. It is easy to understand why international schools seek to develop ‘globally minded’ leaders of the future. When one throws in with this increased globalisation in years to come, the benefits of an international education cannot be underestimated.
So, where does this leave parents and how do they choose the right school with so many educational experiences on offer? Well, fortunately, no schools are alike. For me, the facilities and curriculum play a part in deciding the right school but what remains key is the human factor. It is the people (from the Head to the bus drivers) that make a school, they create its culture, personality and that important sense of care and trust. If parents and children like the feel of the school, are clear on its motivations and vision, then it is probably a good choice. Looking beyond this at outstanding reputations and the best facilities does not always work. Quite simply, if a child is not happy at school or feel they do not fit in, they will underperform, whatever the school.
With the growth in international schools showing no sign of slowing (with Tokyo alone planning several large new schools in the next 5 years) we can only guess how far international education will go and what the next 20 years will bring. For us international teachers and our pupils, we just have to sit tight, buckle up and enjoy the ride.