The term ‘International schools’ has traditionally referred to schools that provide children of expatriate families (often living abroad due to the parents working for a multinational organisation) with an education of a similar quality and experience to the education they would have been able to access in their home country. What was once a reserve, then, for quite an exclusive demographic, has seen its popularity grow at a staggering pace – and continue to do so. According to the International School Consultancy (ISC) Group the number of international schools could almost double over the next decade.

There are an increasing number of reasons parents choose an international school for their children, explaining the pace of growth in the sector.  No longer are international schools populated only with the children of families living and working abroad; increasingly their ranks are swelled with the children of local families, seeking an international education either because they have their sights set on a ‘western university’, typically in North America, Canada, Australia or the UK, or because the standard and consistency of education delivered through an international curriculum is higher than that which could be expected of a local school.

Not only are local students attending international schools in their home countries as a way of improving their future prospects, but students are also moving abroad to seek the high quality education they desire. The number of college-aged foreign students in the US has increased by 72 percent during the past decade. This is the biggest academic migration in history, with more than a quarter of a million students from China alone now attending colleges in the US.

In the UK we have also seen a large number of established independent schools opening international branches across the world – local families are using these schools as a springboard to achieving a much-coveted place in a top overseas university.

International schools are commonly independently governed and can therefore choose the curriculums they offer.  Curriculums such as the International Baccalaureate, and Cambridge have long been the heartbeat of this school community but, as demand has grown, so has the variety of country or regional specific curriculums, such as CBSE in India, which also look to focus on the ‘experience’ not just the education outcomes.

This type of education is desirable for both parents and students, enhancing the student’s resume with the addition of subjects that reflect on the nature of knowledge such as the IB Theory of Knowledge, and with the development of personal qualities and skills including communication, international mindedness, and risk taking, to set them apart from other university or job applicants. Employers are constantly looking for new ways to differentiate the best candidates from the rest; companies may perceive a student with overseas experience as being more flexible, mature and knowledgeable than other students. Furthermore, many international schools prioritise the learning of a second language to higher education level, as a mandatory part of the curriculum. In an increasingly interconnected and global society, the ability to speak more than one language well is a valuable asset.

The number of independent schools in Shanghai alone increased by almost 40% from 2010 to 2014, and these schools currently educate over 71,000 students. This growth is partly due to the realisation that the national curriculum – the gaokao – is entirely focussed on academic results, thus limiting teachers’ investment in nurturing other vital areas of a student’s development, and so preventing a well-rounded school experience for children. Asia is largely responsible for the increase in the number of international schools around the world. China is leading the rapid expansion; from just a dozen schools 15 years ago, the country now has some 530 English-medium international schools, catering for 326,000 students.

The rest of the continent is set to follow in China’s footsteps. Thailand also had less than a dozen international schools a decade ago, but now has over 172. Hong Kong has almost doubled its number of international curriculum schools since 2001 – increasing from 92 to 171 – and Malaysia and Japan boast 142 and 233 respectively.

Not only is the number of international schools rising, demand for places (particularly by local wealthy families) is too – so much so that virtually all the leading international schools across Asia have long waiting lists.

With the ability for students to access an international education within their own country and opportunities for students to study abroad on the rise, combined with the increasing understanding that diversity in the classroom fosters new perspectives and enriches education, governments may need to give careful consideration to how they engage with the global market, to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, and to compete with the international school community.


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