The Semantics of International Schools

In an interview with Professionals in International Education News, Nick Brummitt, the founder and Chairman of the Board of International School Consultancy (ISC), defines an international school as “one that delivers a curriculum to any combination of infant, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country” for the purposes of market research and analysis. As an educator, based on my readings and understandings of the history of international schools and the current variations in definition of international schools, I would have to disagree slightly with Mr. Brummitt’s definition. And indeed, he does make mention of the exceptions to this definition, but neglects to mention the historical difficulty in defining international schools in the first place, and the modern dilemmas facing the field in terms of the need for an expanding definition of international schools.

According to Ian Hill, the history of defining international schools appears to start with Bob Leach and a report for the International Schools Association in 1962. At the time, Leach’s 7 typologies of an international school emphasized ‘overseas’ schools that were parent-owned, English-speaking, and American-programme-centered. This is the legacy definition of an international school as “national education abroad for expatriates”. These typologies sufficed for many years until the beginnings of the current international school boom which began in the late 1980’s, thus prompting the creation of ISC by Brummitt.

Another influence on the definition of international schools is the immortal Kurt Hahn. A German Jew, influenced by his experiences in WWI, his exile to the UK following his objection to the rise of Nazism, Hahn had a keen sense of the power of common experience and meaning in the lives young men during wartime. His aim in founding the Salem School in Germany, the Gordonstoun in Scotland, Outward Bound and the United World Colleges seems to be a response to this William James’ challenge to educators in The Moral Equivalent of War:

James hated war but he admits that war satisfies a primitive longing of men which will never be extinguished, to lose yourself in a common cause, which claims the whole man.

The intention was to develop an educational program that provided a positive outlet for that ‘primitive longing’ and an authentic physical test of self-discovery and ‘common cause’ to engender ‘self-respect’, esteem, challenge weaknesses, purge negative self-talk, and create compassion among diverse groups of young men. Speaking in 1936, three years after his exile from Germany, and at the precipice of the breakout of WWII, laid out the loftiest of aims of his vision for boys education in the 20th century, by which he laid the cornerstones of international education as a classless, multicultural compassion for all of humanity:

Nothing but goodwill between nations and classes can save this generation from wars and revolutions. And education can help to build this bedrock of goodwill as a foundation of the society to be.

The definition of international education thus remains clear and intact from Hahn’s time; an internationally ‘minded’ education which creates what we call today, a global citizen who possesses mutual-understanding with people of other countries and cultures, along with an ability for cross-cultural communication.While this entreaty failed to save that generation from the horrors of WWII, his work at Gordonstoun did serve as the philosophical impetus for the creation of international education initiatives like UNESCO and the pedagogical basis for many internationally minded programs like the International Baccalaureate curricula.

However, the definition and identification of international schools, while generally being related to international education, is not as clearly defined and continues to evolve. It started as elite education for families with a foreign affinity or living in an expat community in a foreign country. Terwilliger began a refinement of the definition in 1972, by identifying “four main requisites”:

  1. A student body made up of a significant number of students who are not nationals of the host country
  2. A board of directors which proportionally reflects the student body, thus foreign parents
  3. A teaching staff that ‘experienced a period of cultural adaptation’
  4. A curriculum utilizing the best instructional practices from all nations involved

These requisites have become complicated by the current landscape of traditionally international schools and also those schools newly claiming the title. Hill calls this expansion of the defintion in late 20th century and early 21st century the ‘dilution’ and ‘dilemma’ of international schools.

So the classic notion of an international school a la ISA/Leach becomes diluted with the establishment of other well-meaning and often perfectly sound educational institutions. The concept of an international school becomes complex and confusing if we consider the range of manifestations it can have…

The wide spectrum of international schools now includes market-based overseas schools serving expatriate populations (both for-profit and nonprofit), IB programs serving under-served populations in the developing world, ECIS, CIS and other membership association international schools, English-medium schools in Asia and the Middle East, cross-nation partnership schools like those funded by the U.S. State Department, transnational corporation schools for the children of employees living abroad but employing a strictly nation-specific curriculum, along with the government schools in U.S. combining IB programs taught in non-English languages.

International Schools Infographic

Hill first attempts a new definition of modern international schools by drawing distinctions between national schools and international schools:

Using this comparative definition, he then develops a continuum for the typology of schools:

Lastly, he created five criterion and the corresponding descriptors to allow educators and researchers to score the ‘purity’ of a national school or international based on a rubric:

  1. Raison d’etre – weighted by Hill, considered the hallmarks of national schools or IS
  2. Education programme – nationally or internationally minded
  3. Nature of the student body – nationals or wholly international
  4. Cultural diversity of governing body (board or proprietors) – all nationals or only 10% represent the host nation
  5. Student tuition fees – none to full tuition

Personally, I don’t have a stake in any particular definition, past or present, of an international school, and I do think schools like Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle, and any other U.S. school with a diverse immigrant population and an identified international or culturally responsive raison d’etre should be able to call themselves an international school. For me, the only non-negotiable for an international school is a mission and pedagogy that is international minded and matches the international makeup of the student body. This is a clear distinction from a national school which lacks diversity outside of student nationals and a curriculum reflecting national values and instructional practices. That distinction from national schools may not provide for a well-delineated international school definition, but it does allow for the diversity and innovation needed to provide quality education in a globalized world.

Citations:

Hill, I. (2015). What is an international school? International Schools Journal, XXXV(1). Retrieved January 24, 2018.

Hahn, K. (2018, January 25). Outward Bound. Address presented at Annual Meeting of the Outward Bound Trust in UK, London.

Hahn, K. (1936). Education and Peace: The Foundations for Modern Society. The Inverness Courier. Retrieved January 24, 2018.

International schools and international education: a relationship reviewed. By: Hayden, Mary C.,

Seattle Public Schools International Education Page

Hill, I. (2016). What is an international school? International Schools Journal, XXXV(2). Retrieved January 24, 2018.

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