What Is International School, Anyway, and How Can One Assess its Value?
Updated: Jun 29
When corporate employees embark on expat assignments around the world, one of the most expensive aspects of their assignment is often international school for their children. With annual tuition per child in the tens of thousands per year range, it’s a cost that employers will understandably question and that families will balk at covering privately.
And of course, education is a particularly sensitive and charged topic; no parents want to feel that they have put their children at a disadvantage by relocating them to another country, so international education is one of the ways in which they want to feel a degree of love, loyalty, and reassurance that their employer will “look after” things. Employers, having to act with fiduciary responsibility, and confronting the reality of budget limitations, must understandably wonder whether education with such a colossal price tag is always necessary or justified.
This is a huge question without a simple answer, and I must warn in advance that this blog won’t attempt to answer it. In our experience at Bennett, most companies will pay for international education if it’s truly necessary for a relocating student, but determining that necessity (versus preference) is where the challenge lies. And the fact is that the need for international education depends on so many things—the location, the type of curriculum on offer in the local system, exam points, language of instruction, all considered in the context of the particular student in question: age, background, languages spoken, academic needs, academic strengths and challenges. Indeed, assessing the need for international school for an individual or a cohort of students is something that Bennett is often asked to do and which we do through much research and internal discussion.
For now, instead of discussing the need (or lack thereof) of international school for relocating children, I’d like to back up and suggest that companies that fund international school first understand what it is that they are funding. A better understanding of the different kinds of international schools may be a first step towards creating a clearer policy.
The first step is to point out that international education has no one definition, and in a world of incredible growth in the international education sector (34.2% increase in IB programs globally between 2018 and 2022), it’s important to realize that the term “international” has never been patented and has no single meaning.
The traditional international school typically came into existence in a location where there was expat demand for a kind of education that would provide academic continuity to globally mobile students, and it was often tied to an embassy or a group of funding companies. It would have a board, it was a not-for-profit organization, and its mission would be education. It could be recognized by the international component visible in three areas: curriculum, student demographic and teacher demographic.
In terms of the curriculum, it might offer the International Baccalaureate (post its creation in 1968), the IPC (International Primary Curriculum, developed in the late 90’s) or perhaps the curriculum of another country in the form of an American, British, French or German curriculum school anywhere on the globe.
Depending on where these international schools were, they comprised a blend of local and international students, with a different balance reflective of local norms and sometimes, politics. In the 1960’s, for example, there was a growth in international schools in Latin America as a result of President Kennedy’s 1961 Alliance for Progress, and they tended to enroll many local students. In places such as London, however, American curriculum schools were more heavily enrolled by expat students.
Over the years, the global landscape of international education has changed enormously as the hunger for it has grown exponentially. Indeed, recent research indicates that in the last decade, increases have been as high as:
51% in the number of international schools to over 13,100
53% in student enrolments, now over 6.5 million
59% in teaching staff, to over 600,000
66% in total fee income which currently stands at $56.2 billion*
There are many factors driving the interest in international education, including the quest by parents in many countries for a type of education different from the local or national version, one that will make children more internationally competitive. Consequently, it has become a large and lucrative business.
Now, in addition to the traditional international schools described above, the landscape is populated by for-profit schools, many of them owned by large education companies such as Cognita, GEMS, Nord Anglia, and CATS, to name just a few. Nord Anglia, for example, is a publicly traded company on the New York stock exchange, and GEMS owns 250+ schools in 10+ countries.
Many of these companies offer varied versions of international education, some created for local populations and some for expats. The greatest growth in international education in recent years has been in Asia Pacific and the Middle East, and many of the new “international” schools are established with local demand in mind. In China, for example, hunger for international education that would provide a bridge to western universities exploded over the last 20 years, and local companies have created for-profit international programs within Chinese high schools to attract local students. The same is true in India, one of the countries with the highest growth of IB programs in the world.
There has, of course, been much discussion in the education community about the rise of for-profit schools and a begrudging acquiescence to the notion that “education” and “profit” can go hand in hand. In the US, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) is a “nonprofit membership association that provides services to more than 2,000 schools and associations of schools in the United States and abroad.” They define independent schools as “nonprofit, private schools that are independent in philosophy: each is driven by a unique mission. They are also independent in the way they are managed and financed: each is governed by an independent board of trustees, and each is primarily supported through tuition payments and charitable contributions. They are accountable to their communities and are accredited by state-approved accrediting bodies." NAIS does not offer membership to for-profit institutions.
This said, many for-profit schools, international or otherwise, offer their students a perfectly good education, often of a type that is much sought-after in a particular location. As I often say to families and companies who are apprehensive about a for-profit institution, it’s a matter of being sure that the school is delivering to its clients—the students—the services it has promised. In many instances, they do a perfectly good job.
In addition to the burgeoning world of for-profit international schools, there has been an increase in schools that, for purely educational purposes, are offering a more “globally minded” version of education than in the past. This includes public/state schools that offer a language immersion or bilingual program and schools that offer courses in the local language to enable foreign students to transition in more easily. Much of this is driven by world events—refugee crises as much as commercial interests—but the change has been real, and in many instances has provided many more varied options for both local and globally-mobile students.
So, what does all of this mean and how does one decide whether an international school is a “good” or “real” one and worth the hefty price tag attached to it? Here are some pointers for families and corporations who need to do their homework:
First, it is critical that families understand what kind of international school they are considering so that the investment made by either their employer or themselves will be well spent. Some questions to ask:
· What is the student demographic? How many “local” versus “non-local” students?
· What is the teacher demographic? Truly international schools should boast a robust international teaching staff.
· What is the academic program offered and how is it international? If it culminates with some kind of exam, what is the school’s track record vis à vis exam results?
· If the school includes a secondary or high school, where do its graduates matriculate at university or college?
· How well maintained and invested in are the facilities—classrooms, labs, athletic facilities, art studios, etc.?
· Is the school accredited and by whom?
For corporate Employers who Fund International Education:
In many instances, employers have a list (formal or informal) of international schools in different locations where they fund education for employees’ children. For them, also, it is important to know that the investment they are making provides something that less expensive, “local” schooling would not, so the above questions will yield relevant information for them, also.
Additionally, for those companies who conduct tuition surveys in order to establish education budgets per location, it is worthwhile to consider the following:
· International schools targeting local populations are typically less expensive than international schools founded for expat students but would not necessarily be accessible to or appropriate for non-local students.
· If the cost of such schools is factored into a tuition surveys, it may lower the average in a way that is ultimately not helpful to determining the cost of “real” international education in that location.
There’s much more to say on this topic and perhaps it will be worthy of another blog, so for now I will close with what I consider Step 1 of understanding the world of international schools: remembering that the word “international” is not owned, not regulated, and can be applied to almost any kind of education, anywhere in the world. I have encountered schools in the world where “international” was brandished for advertising purposes, simply because of the existence of a lone, native English speaker on staff!
Hopefully, a clearer understanding of what one may be purchasing—who it was designed for—may help determine if it is worth the cost, regardless of who’s paying the tab.
*Courtesy of ISC
By Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO
Over the years, Bennett International Education Consultancyhas worked with hundreds of corporations across the globe, many of them Fortune 500 companies, providing domestic and international school advisement & placement services - preschool through university - to the dependents of relocating employees. In addition to education placement, our team provides customized consulting for corporations with a range of education issues: education policy writing & benchmarking, tuition studies, group move advisement & planning, and remote education solutions.