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What is an international school?

What is an international school?

What is an international school? And what is an international education? These look like simple questions, but as any parent investigating international schools will soon discover, the reality is quite complicated! Now, more than ever, thousands of parents and young people around the world need clear answers to these questions. In this article Mark Waldron, Head teacher at Ryde School on the Isle of Wight, and a former Head teacher at The English College in Prague, explores these questions and gives you the background knowledge you need…


Over time, and especially since 1989, globalisation has created a new market for international education. Traditional schools, often based on old imperial ties to the United Kingdom, in Africa, Hong Kong and Australia, have been joined and outnumbered by numerous schools in the Middle East, China, Central and Eastern Europe, and lots of other places. A quick search on Wikipedia suggests that Qatar alone claims to have 338 ‘international’ schools. But what are all these schools like? And what does it mean when a school calls itself ‘international’?

International schools today

Most international schools were established for the children of expatriates, but increasingly these ‘international’ children have been joined by pupils from the local population, their parents eager for them to learn a new language, to broaden their higher education options, or simply to benefit from a more ‘international education’ with all its special qualities. In recent years many new schools have been established by school groups such as GEMS, Cognita and Nord Anglia, and in the last decade a number of well-known British boarding schools have established branches or franchises overseas.

The market is big, diverse and growing, and for parents this means there is often a much wider choice than there was in the past. Choice is usually a good thing, but it can make the decision harder and more daunting, and there are times when the process can seem overwhelming. Understanding the different types of international school, and working out which is best for your child, is more important than ever.

So what is an international school?

So how do you recognise an international school? What makes a school ‘international’? You certainly can’t rely on seeing ‘international’ in their names. The Council for British International Schools (COBIS) lists seven members in Prague, but only one of these schools has ‘International’ in its title.

You can’t rely on the curriculum as a guide either. The most explicitly international curriculum, the IB (International Baccalaureate), lists 4,335 schools following at least one of its three curricula, but this includes many schools, especially in North America, which are far from international in their student base.

On the other hand, a school as explicitly international as Doha College in Qatar follows the traditional British ‘A level’ system in the final two years of schooling. Looked at from the UK, you might think you could at least describe an international school as one situated overseas, but five of COBIS’s member schools are found in England. And it works the other way around, too: the HMC, the most prestigious organisation for British Independent schools, which includes schools like Eton and Westminster in its membership, lists 60 international members as far afield as Brazil, Canada and Australia.

Skiing trip with The English College in Prague

Skiing trip with The English College in Prague

"Some schools may be dominated by the children of expats, while in others a majority of pupils will come from the local population…"

Who these schools teach also varies enormously from one ‘international’ school to another. Some schools may be dominated by the children of expats, while in others a majority of pupils will come from the local population, like the two international schools I’ve worked in, Campion School in Athens and the English College in Prague. In both cases English may have been the language of the classroom and the first language of most of the teachers, but in the corridors and playgrounds it was Greek and Czech that were the lingua franca. I can’t imagine anyone describing the school where I’m currently Head, Ryde School on the quintessentially English Isle of Wight, as ‘international,’ but we follow an international curriculum, the IB Diploma, around 10% of our pupils come from overseas, and each year we have pupils who leave to study in North America, Europe and China.

So it’s not easy to say exactly what makes an international school! Despite this, there are some characteristics that we can identify and see as defining international schools.

1. The student body and the teaching staff will be multinational and multilingual (to varying extents), and both are likely to be more transient than in the average school.

2. The curriculum is likely to be international, or the school will follow a curriculum different to that of the national education system of its host country. Because of this it should be relatively easy for students to move from one international school to another, even on the other side of the world, or to return to their home country’s education system.

3. An international school usually prepares its pupils for higher education destinations beyond the host country. This is a clear part of the mission in these schools.

4. There is a special culture: an international school promotes international education in its widest sense. This means more than just being in an international environment, or having an international curriculum and multinational students. It’s about the school’s values, actions and ethos. In this sense a great deal can be learnt about the internationalism of a school from things like its History curriculum, the value placed on languages, the existence of school exchanges, overseas visits and on-line partnerships, and so on.

"…it’s about the school’s values, actions and ethos…"

Going further: types of international school

So those are some of the main characteristics that mark out ‘international schools’. But as you’ll probably have found already, there are lots of different kinds, so we need to look a bit more closely to get the full picture. If we do this we’ll soon identify a few recognisable sub-groups…

First of all there are those schools that are fundamentally British or American, but are located overseas. Historically these were independent and self-governing, but in recent years the older schools have been joined by new institutions established by British public schools like Wellington, Repton and Dulwich. All of these schools look to take on the best of a traditional British public school education, but some take this principle further than others, and the nature of their relationship with the ‘home school’ in the UK will also vary.

For the new British schools abroad, some of the similarities are largely symbolic, for example the style of the school uniform, or buildings that reflect the design of the parent school. But below the surface there are likely to be other much more significant influences at work, in areas like pastoral care, the development of leadership skills or the range of extra-curricular pursuits. It’s also worth exploring how much the international school benefits from the experiences and skills of staff in the parent school. Are there staff exchanges or transfers? Do senior staff from the UK monitor the school in various ways? Is there a shared governing body? Where are the Head and staff recruited from? The answers to these questions will help you to understand just how significant the link is.

"…it’s worth exploring how much the international school benefits from the experiences and skills of staff in the parent school…"

Graduation ceremony at Nord Anglia International School Shanghai, Pudong

Graduation ceremony at Nord Anglia International School Shanghai, Pudong

Young students at GEMS Wellington Primary School, Dubai

Young students at GEMS Wellington Primary School, Dubai

School groups represent another important and expanding type of international school. Some of these groups are very large, and are truly international in their reach. Nord Anglia, for example, boasts 42 schools around the world, from the US to Asia via the Middle East and Europe. GEMS educates 142,000 students in 16 different countries, and Cognita now has a presence in seven countries.

The schools in a group will have the support of an overall management structure, and generally share similar practice when it comes to assessment, school development and communication. Some groups are explicit about their core values. GEMS, for example, talks of ‘the four core values that are woven into every curricula offered by GEMS schools.’

Groups will often take advantage of their network to host international conferences or events, such as Nord Anglia’s recent ‘Global Orchestra’ in New York, and Cognita’s ExPro programme, a well-developed series of exchanges, tournaments and visits among its schools. Some of these groups have a very distinctive philosophy, none more so than the fifteen United World Colleges, run by a foundation established in 1962 with the explicit aim of using education as a ‘force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.’

"It’s quite interesting to ask whether a school would be any different if it were picked up and moved to an entirely different country or city…"

Whether a school belongs to a group or is completely independent, it will have its own culture, its own strengths, its own special character. You’ll need to look at each school as a unique entity to understand exactly what it offers and whether it’s right for your child.

It’s quite interesting to ask whether a school would be any different if it were picked up and moved to an entirely different country or city. In some cases parents will value the school as a separate entity, distinct in many ways from the place where it’s found, while others will prefer to see the ways that a school integrates into the local culture. Often individual schools will have a distinct history of their own – even quite a long and complicated history – and many will have developed a curriculum that runs alongside the local systems. The English College in Prague, for example, runs a Czech curriculum alongside its British/IB courses, and Czech Language, Literature and History are taught to Czech students by Czech teachers and assessed within the Czech system. In Belgium the British School in Brussels runs a bilingual primary stream, whilst the International School of Brussels has its own ‘Common Ground’ curriculum alongside the IB.

Accreditations, inspections and more…

Many schools will be independent, but will belong to an umbrella organisation that usually requires a range of standards to be met and inspects the school. This is a useful form of quality control, and can provide you with reassurance about a school’s credentials and access to school reports by outside observers.

Some of these organisations are regionally based, such as BSME (British Schools in the Middle East); others reflect national roots, for example COBIS and NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges); and some are explicitly international, such as CIS (Council of International Schools).

International schools will often need to be inspected by both the host country and the country or organisation from which they draw their inspiration or support. British-inspired schools can, for example, apply to be listed on the Department for Education (DfE) website, but to do so they have to have been inspected by a UK-accredited inspection regime. These inspection reports can be found on the DfE website.

The umbrella organisations that schools belong to can give you significant information about that school. This might be about the curriculum they follow – in the case of the 4,335 IB schools, for example – or it might be about a particular philosophy that guides the school, for example in the Round Square schools (theories drawn from the teaching of Kurt Hahn), or the United World Colleges. 

Some schools will be members of the ISSA, which involves playing international sports competitions, while others will participate in the ‘World Scholar’s Cup’ or various Model United Nations events. Such involvement not only highlights the opportunities available to pupils, but also the ethos, values and priorities of the schools.

Model United Nations event at The Lady Elizabeth School, Alicante

Model United Nations event at The Lady Elizabeth School, Alicante

A lot to think about…

So there’s a lot to think about, but when you’re choosing a school you’ll probably have some clear priorities that can help you get through the maze. The curriculum will probably be very important to you, so this is worth looking at particularly closely. Just because a school is called ‘American’ or ‘British’, this doesn’t mean it necessarily follows British or American exams. In the same way, ‘International’ schools may well teach British ‘A’ levels or American Advanced Placements. The IGCSE is a very popular exam at 16 for schools all around the world, whether or not they identify themselves as ‘British’ schools in any way.

"...look at the culture of the individual school and think about the kinds of experiences and opportunities you want your child to have."

A school may have more in common with another one that’s hundreds of miles away than with the school next door, so look at the culture of the individual school and think about the kinds of experiences and opportunities you want your child to have.

It’s not my intention to suggest all the things you should think about when you’re choosing a school. Instead I hope I’ve been able to give you some idea of what an international school is, and of the diversity of this growing and dynamic sector. In my experience parents and students quickly get a feel for what kind of school works for them. International schools today offer such a diverse set of options that the right one is certainly out there for you, so you need to look carefully, but in the end you should trust your gut instinct.


If you’d like to read about some of the key points to think about when you’re deciding on the right school for your child, have a look at the advice in Choosing a school.

Top image: TASIS The American School in England

Other images

Sherborne Qatar

The English College in Prague

Nord Anglia International School Shanghai, Pudong

GEMS Wellington Primary School, Dubai

The Lady Elizabeth School

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