Increased demand for a “western” education around the world has reshaped whom these institutions serve, by Alan Wechsler in The Atlantic of June 5, 2017.
Wikipedia defines an international school as a school that promotes international education, in an international environment, either by adopting a curriculum such as that of the International Baccalaureate, Edexcel or Cambridge International Examinations, or by following a national curriculum different from that of the school’s country . . . .
After losing two jobs in the Denver area due to budget cuts, the school librarian Jennifer Alevy found a new direction for her education career in 2011: an international school in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The origins of today’s international schools can be traced to 1924, but they’ve grown exponentially in the past 20 years. Originally created to ensure that expatriates and diplomats could get a “western” education for their children while working in far-flung countries, international schools have found a new purpose: educating the children of wealthy locals so those kids can compete for spots in western colleges—and, eventually, positions at multinational companies.
This dramatic change means increased opportunities for American teachers abroad—and, potentially, increased competition in the U.S. from a new demographic of English-fluent and cosmopolitan young people from all over the world.
Today, Alevy is the coordinator of library services at the American International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which caters to Vietnamese students. The school, which was founded in 2006, has devoted resources to its library that Alevy rarely saw back in the states. “I feel fortunate that the school I work in has seen the value in the library and librarians,” she said. “I am really excited for the opportunity to work with three other librarians. I have not had that chance in a long time.”
Across the world, teachers educated in America, Great Britain, Australia, and other English-speaking countries are being imported in droves to teach the kids of wealthy or even middle-class families of emerging nations in Asia, the Middle East, and other developing regions.
“The majority of the world wants a grounding in English,” said Bruce McWilliams, the executive vice president of International School Services, a New Jersey-based company that recruits teachers for international jobs.
The growth of international schools is staggering. Twenty years ago, there were only about 1,000 English-language international schools worldwide, according to the U.K.-based ISC Research. Most of the students in these schools were the kids of expat families working abroad—diplomats, journalists, NGO staff, technicians, and mid-level corporate types.
Today, there are more than 8,000 international schools, serving 4.5 million students with 420,000 teachers. And 80 percent of students are actually from the school’s host country. And, according to ISC, demand is rising—in the next 10 years, experts expect the number of international schools to double to more than 16,000 schools and 8.75 million students worldwide.
“I wanted my kids to be Chinese, to know who they are, but to learn with a global perspective.”
Mitsuko Sakakibara of Japan is a typical parent. Her son Leon, 8, attends the Hokkaido International School in Niseko. “I would like my son to have an international environment education to build his mind as a global citizen from a young age,” she said, explaining she didn’t think he would get that in a Japanese school. “English would be the basic tool to communicate smoothly … and also help to have more choice to decide where to study or work.”
The United Arab Emirates and China now have the most international schools—about 550 English-speaking schools in each, according to ISC—but places as India, Vietnam, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are also seeing huge increases. More than 20 cities in the world have at least 50 English-speaking international schools each, such as Dubai (which has more than 250) and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates; Beijing; Shanghai; Bangkok; Tokyo; Singapore; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Madrid.
The average annual tuition for these schools varies by country—in Bangladesh, it’s $5,200; in Singapore, it’s $18,500. In places like China or India, the tuition is often higher than what the average family in that country earns in a year, making the schools available only to the wealthy.
Recognizing this changing demographic, schools are finding new ways to meet growing demand—and get around rules in some countries that limit the schools local students can attend. Take the Elite K-12 Education Group, which began in Ningbo—located on the coast near Shanghai—and is expanding to Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, and other big Chinese cities. The school, which models itself after the British education system, offers an international bilingual program for Chinese nationals. Its local ownership allows local students to attend despite government rules which restrict Chinese nationals from attending internationally owned schools.
“I wanted my kids to be Chinese, to know who they are, but to learn with a global perspective and to be fully prepared for western university,” said Tao Sun, the chairman of the organization. “If you want your child to have many options for world-class universities, and if you want them to survive, thrive, and succeed there, then they need to start learning and speaking English as soon as they can.”
Look at some of the 8,000 international schools around the world, and it’s easy to see the appeal. In Dubai, the Safa Community School offers “clustered” classrooms with a common area that is “like a big sitting room for the community, where you can study at the ‘kitchen table,’ play a board game on the floor, film an action scene, bake some cookies, or sit on a bean bag with a laptop,” according to the school’s Facebook page. Down the road, the GEMS Nations Academy has classes in robotics and coding in a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University.
Michael E. DeBakey High School in Doha, Qatar, offers a focus on STEM training for professions in the medical field, while Cranleigh Abu Dhabi students are developing their own opera. Meanwhile, at the Nansha College Preparatory Academy in Guangzhou, China, content and English language teachers work together to plan and deliver lessons. That means that even in physics class, students’ English skills are constantly being tested.
Compare these approaches to a typical public school in many developing countries, where it is not uncommon to have more than 40 students in a class. In schools like that, the focus is on rote memorization and lectures, with little emphasis on student participation, according to international-school representatives. Of course, the children of many poor families in developing countries are often unable to attend school at all, because of cultural issues, the need to help out at home or earn money for the family, or the inability to afford school fees or uniforms. According to a UNICEF, more than 59 million children of primary-school age were out of school in 2013.
Plenty of international schools continue to cater to the expatriate family. With globalization, more people than ever are choosing to work abroad. This has led to a new euphemism: “Third Culture Kids,” or TCK. Picture a whole generation of, say, American kids who carry U.S. passports but have barely spent any time living in their home country.
“It’s all interrelated—this whole notion of free markets, global economy. Education has to meet that need,” said Cynthia Nagrath, the marketing and communication manager at The International Educator, a teacher-placement service based in Massachusetts. “People have to work together with students of different cultures,” she said. “That’s the beauty of these international schools. You’ve got students from all over the world, but they all learn together in English.”
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