Parenting international school

My child goes to an international school

The definition of what it is to be an international school, or more precisely, a school providing an internationally minded education, has been debated for years if not decades and covers a wide spectrum. When deciding on an international school for their child(ren), parents should be aware of this fact, and establish where on the continuum the best choice for their particular family situation lies.

The first international schools were defined by their curriculum – the American School of X and the British School of Y – and frequently had embassy links, providing a “home from home” for expats on assignments abroad. At best, such schools demonstrated their lip-service to an international outlook by a “flags, foods and festivals” approach of fun activities rather than weaving internationalism into the fabric of what students learned and experienced on a day to day basis, a philosophy which took some time to evolve.[1]  Their mission was to prepare students for the same school-leaving qualifications as their peers in the country of origin, on the assumption that they would be returning there to pursue higher education. They also attracted varying numbers of local nationals, whose ambition it was to eventually study in the UK or the USA, for example.

The inception of the International Baccalaureate[2] in 1968 gave new meaning and purpose to the delivery of an international education : learning one or more additional languages, having an understanding of other cultures, and aware of one’s social responsibility as a global citizen, as defined in the criteria for the ECIS Award for International Understanding.[3] Add to this a diversity of nationalities in the student body, interaction with the host country community, and university destinations around the world, and internationalism becomes less of a label and more of a way of life. Even so, it is a question of degree, and a precise definition is elusive. At a conference in Italy in 2009 the International Association of School Librarianship established a list of criteria that a truly international school should fulfil which included, in addition to the above, ease of transferability, international accreditation and non-selective enrollment.

Some of the older ‘overseas’ schools adapted to the growing trend and introduced the IB, many more new ones were established. They ranged from relatively small individual institutions, founded and overseen by families or trusts, to worldwide networks run on a corporate scale.  The IB not only found favour with so-called expat schools, but was also adopted in many countries instead of or alongside the national curriculum in state schools.

The quality of the IB is ensured by a centralised approach to curriculum, training, examinations and assessment, and regular authorization visits to schools. In addition, there are also a number of accreditation services such as the Council of International Schools[4] or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges[5] , that ensure that the physical, professional and financial framework within which the education is delivered provides students with the best possible environment and opportunities both academically and in terms of their personal well-being.

The International Baccalaureate is not only a means to an end. Behind the elements of its Learner Profile lies the intention that these should evolve into lifelong guiding principles, fulfilling the aim of the pioneers at the heart of the IB, that of creating global citizens truly aware of the world around them and the opportunities for interacting with it in the interests of peace and understanding.[6]

It seems surprising that some colleges and universities are still reticent about accepting the International Baccalaureate qualification. They misguidedly attempt to interpret the individual subject results of the IB Diploma by seeking to equate them with grade levels of systems that they are more familiar with, thus depriving themselves (and their potential students) of the full appreciation of its intrinsic value which lies in the work that was invested to achieve the sum of all its parts. They are outnumbered by those institutions that recognize the rigour of the IB programme which also promotes the skills of research, critical thinking and perseverance. IB students are known to have a lesser drop-out or failure rate early on in their tertiary studies.

Interestingly, the monopoly of the USA and the UK as the geographical hubs of the most desirable further education centres in the world has been broken over the years by institutions spread across the globe. Rankings no longer just take into account ‘the best’ in terms of results, research and publications, but recognize that there are other qualities that merit consideration. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings data, for example, includes ‘international outlook’ as an important indicator.[7]

The IB is currently no longer the only academic programme designed to be used by an international or internationally-minded student population, but it remains the ‘gold standard’ the world over. Alternatives, all UK based, include the International General Certificate of Education (a variant of the British GCSE qualification) and the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE), offered by Cambridge International Examinations[8]; the International Diploma and other qualifications awarded by Edexel[9]; and the newer International Primary and Middle Years Curricula (IPC and IMYC) [10].

Accordingly, it must not be forgotten that the values and outlook of most “International” schools are rooted in the “western tradition”, and that their language of instruction is generally English or bilingual (integrating the host country language). There is still scope to explore further avenues in the development of what can be considered the ideal of a widely applicable international education!


In conclusion it is also worth mentioning that parents interested in looking at the educational offerings available to their children in Switzerland as an alternative to the ‘public’ state system need to be clear that although an international school is generally private, a private school is not necessarily international, terms which tend to get confused here. Browsing the websites of bodies such as the Swiss Federation of Private Schools[11] or the regionally more restricted Association Vaudoise des Ecoles Privées[12] , both of which also provide advisory services, demonstrates the rich variety of schools that consider themselves ‘private’ by definition. Some have their origins in times when such establishments were founded to meet the needs of (Swiss) parents who wanted something more ‘specialised’ or ‘different’ for their offspring and could afford to pay for it.

As such, they were regarded as elitist and, often incorrectly, had the reputation of being places where you might send a ‘difficult’ child. Thankfully, this perception has now changed, and the schools that have survived, or have been more recently set up, voluntarily submit to the quality criteria of the Swiss Private School Register[13] . They still serve a predominantly Swiss clientele but can equally be a valid choice for an expat family.

It is important for parents to examine more closely which of the listed schools are actually also international – or to refer to websites of organisations whose membership is specifically comprised of international schools, such as the Swiss Group of International Schools[14] or, on a larger scale, the Council of International Schools[4] . These are the best sources of information both for the mobile expat community as well as interested local families who have may have spent a part of their life abroad, or who simply want to give their children the opportunity to broaden their horizons. It takes some time and effort do the necessary research to discover the various types of education available and learn about the differences before making an informed decision – but it is certainly worth the investment before one starts paying the fees!

Haut-Lac International Bilingual School successfully combines the benefits of a close-knit community with the demands of 21st century learning. A private ‘local’ school by virtue of its origins and location – it was founded in 1993 by two families who had decided to make their home in the Vevey area – it is decidedly international in character. From the start, the emphasis was on providing a bilingual English/French education with a global outlook, thus allowing expat and Swiss families to benefit equally. As the school grew, and a pre-university programme was introduced, the curriculum choice could be no other than the International Baccalaureate.

In addition, the option for students to follow a predominantly English-speaking programme (with French as a Foreign Language) was made available in parallel to the bilingual classes. Twenty years on, and several times its original size in physical campus and student enrolment, the same formula is still applied with great success. Many of the students leaving Haut-Lac go on to further education in Switzerland and mainland Europe, but the UK, and increasingly the USA, are equally popular destinations.


[1] ASCD publications, Educational Leadership series, The World in the Classroom, October 2002, Volume 60, Number 2
[6] Marie-Thérèse Maurette, Pioneer of International Education, by Georges Walker (Director General of the Ecolint from 1991 to 1999)
[13] www.swissprivateschoolregister

Co-authored by Christine Knight and Sara Dubler of Haut-Lac International Bilingual School. Christine, herself a TCK, has been a teacher and administrator in schools in the UK, Spain and Kuwait before coming to Switzerland to take up her current post of Head of Administration. Sara completed her schooling at Haut-Lac, and after studies in the UK and France, has returned to the school as Communications and Alumni Coordinator.

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