Generally speaking, international schools have always held a dual identity: on the one hand, the vision and mission of the international schools movement has been for international mindedness, humanistic values and global citizenship; on the other hand, the administrative function of international schools has been, and continues to be in most cases, to provide an expensive, exclusive English medium education for expatriates and wealthy locals aspiring to be recruited to selective universities, mainly in the UK and North America. In other words, many if not most international schools preach a message of inclusion but practice elitism. To read more about this, see Bunnell, 2014; Cambridge & Thompson, 2004 and Hill, 2012.
It is important to nuance this. Several international school consortia are focussed on opening access. For example, the International Schools of Geneva and Brussels welcome children with severe learning needs and are inclusive in this regard; the United World Colleges movement provides bursaries to students through national committees that give access to children with extremely limited financial means, and groups of international schools targeting less affluent families such as the Enko group in Africa, are growing. These are just some examples.
However, the norm in international schooling is high cost, often a selective admissions policy and a number of other dimensions of operation and impact that are heavily elitist.
As recent years have seen an increase in global initiatives seeking access to quality education for all, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, and movements seeking more equity and social justice in schools, such as the work of AIELOC, international schools have been faced more and more squarely with the challenge of reconciling the tensions that exist between their mission and their administrative functioning.
It is essentially important to reconcile vision and strategy since any misalignment between the two creates not only a feeling of insincerity within the organisation but a structurally dissonant, confused relationship between the apex of the institution and its base.
Here are the four most predominant elitist practices that still create misalignment between vision and operation in a number of international schools:
- Separate salaries for local and international hires, creating a dual system where some are paid more than others on the basis of nationality.
- Culturally monochromatic staffing, leadership, references and curriculum, often with a strong, unreflective bias towards Eurocentrism.
- In most countries, inaccessible fees, cutting out most students from a chance to join international schools.
- Academic selectivity, creaming off entry by grades or admissions tests, barring access to neurodiverse students and students who might be struggling academically.
Although these facets of the day-to-day running do not apply to every international school, the problem is widespread enough for a number of damning articles to have been written about it, culminating, in some cases, in accusations of racism, which is a central trope in elitism.
What can international schools do to reverse this trend?
I fear that, as is the case with any deep-seated problem in an organisation, no silver bullet or easy panacea will suffice. Several different elements of school life need to be investigated together: the culture and leadership, the systems and processes, the relationships between entities and stakeholders. It is not through looking at only one lens (such as training, marketing or admissions practice) that deep change will come about. The approach needs to be systematic and interrelated. Ultimately, it requires a conviction that the mission of international schools must come first. Perhaps most powerfully stated in article 3 of the charter of the International School of Geneva (the world’s first international school), this is a commitment to the equal value of all human beings.
From there, it takes courage to ensure that such a credo runs right the way through the organisation: a curriculum that explores all cultures and supports all learners, a financial model that includes a bursary scheme, an employment package that rewards excellence according to the job description and not on the basis of nationality. To really get to the core of the way that not only international schools but all schools propagate a certain level of elitism, the entire assessment system needs to be rethought, so that a celebration of different types of learning is brought to the same level of importance as academic assessments since these favour socially advantaged students. A movement that is working on alternative transcripts with a view to having these recognised and accepted by universities around the world is the coalition to honour all learning.
May the work be systematic and widespread, to bring the mission to the fore, to change the dynamic of international schools so that their association with elitism becomes something different in the future: a space where planetary challenges such as sustainability and peace are looked at coherently through the beauty of diversity and inclusion and not askance through the ugliness of separation and superiority.
This article was written by Dr Conrad Hughes, the Campus and Secondary Principal at The International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. To explore the theme of elitism in international schools in more detail, see Dr Conrad Hughes' 2021 book Education and Elitism: Challenges and Opportunities, and a chapter in Akkari & Maleq’s 2020 book Global Citizenship Education Critical and International Perspectives which discusses the matter in some depth.
Join Dr Conrad Hughes at the upcoming Outstanding Schools Asia 2022 Conference, taking place online between the 29th - 30th of November 2022, for the keynote presentation 'Elitism at International Schools'.
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Cambridge, J., & Thompson, J. (2004). Internationalism and globalization as contexts for international education. Compare: A Journal of Comparative Education, 34(2), 161–175.
Clark, N. (2014). The Booming International Schools Sector. WENR. Retrieved from: https://wenr.wes.org/2014/07/the-booming-international-schools-sector.
Hill, I. (2012). An international model of world-class education: The International Baccalaureate. Prospects, 42(3), 341–359. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-012-9243-9.
Hughes, C. (2020). International Schools and Global Citizenship Education. In: Akkari, A., Maleq, K. (eds) Global Citizenship Education. Amsterdam: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44617-8_13
Hughes, C. (2021). Education and Elitism: Challenges and Opportunities. Oxford: Routledge.
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McKenzie, M. (1998). Going, going, gone… global! In M. Hayden & J. Thompson (Eds.), International education: Principles and practice (pp. 242–252). London: Kogan Page.
Obiko Pearson, N. (2022). Elite International Schools Have a Racism Problem. Bloomberg.
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