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The Future of International Schooling: A Delicate Balancing Act

International schooling, since its earliest days, has felt an ongoing tension between two divergent aims. These aims may be broadly described as the ‘pragmatic’ versus the ‘idealistic’. The more pragmatic aim of international schooling is to meet the educational needs of the mobile elite and to provide a set of transferable credentials which are recognised in various schools of higher-education around the world. The idealistic aim is more closely tied to the altruism of developing intercultural understanding and respect in order to positively impact the world and promote peaceful relations within and across cultural and national boundaries.

While several eras of globalisation can be identified throughout history, the current era of globalisation is unique in the advanced state of transportation and telecommunications technologies proliferating throughout the world. This has led to a world which is more connected and interdependent than ever before. Unquestionably, globalisation is an increasingly important issue for schools around the world to consider in their quest to prepare students for the world they live in.

This rapid globalisation has led to increasing numbers of economically-advantaged locals, whose parents perceive an English medium international school education as a means of ensuring a competitive edge when seeking entry to university or to the global marketplace.

Along with this intense globalisation and emergence of a greater middle-class comes a greater acceptance of the principles of neoliberalism: privatisation, competition, choice, consumerism and commercialisation. International credentials are ever-more frequently viewed by local elites as a means through which to establish economic advantage, as they bring a qualitatively new dimension to the issue of credentialism and credential inflation, as they exclude the majority from the new competition for access to the most advantageous occupational opportunities.

International schools have subsequently felt the pressure to meet the economic-instrumentalist demands of the emerging upper- and middle-class families who desire their children to have access to the best opportunities for full participation in an increasingly globalised world. A challenge to international schools is then to balance this pressure against the development of skills and attitudes for responsible global citizenship.

The current era of globalisation, and the international school movement which followed it, began in the era immediately following the two world wars and was informed by the tragedy and destruction of these global conflicts. While the aim of developing intercultural understanding, and making a positive impact on the world, continues to be a focus of most international schools and their accrediting bodies, this aim may be viewed as under threat by the more pragmatic, economic aims identified earlier. Skilfully balancing these two aims of international schooling is likely to be an ongoing challenge for the foreseeable future.

One possible consequence of the proliferation and growth of propriety international schools may be a further corporatization and commercialisation of these schools. As a result, we may see further development of accountability measures and standardisation following similar developments in a number of western countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. Unfortunately, these approaches have not been altogether successful in their stated aims of raising educational standards and should pose some serious questions about the efficacy of such accountability measures being implemented in international schools.

Robertson (2003) reports that the ‘New Right’ model of schooling which was aimed at deregulation to ensure that schools were more responsive to consumers and more ‘competitive’ has actually had the opposite effect as schools are pushed under a centralised system of accountability. This ‘business model’ of accountability naturally focuses on quantitative measures to judge effectiveness, “…and has been poorly received by the majority of teachers”. It is not difficult to envision how international schools, influenced by this neoliberal economic hegemony, could follow a similar arc of focusing primarily on quantitative measures, such as standardised achievement tests, to prove their ‘value’ to their ‘customers’. The danger here is the backwash effect in which what is tested impacts what is taught and learnt. This backwash effect may contribute to an increased emphasis on the teaching of ‘content’ over the teaching of values and dispositions which are less easily measured such as critical thinking, innovation & entrepreneurialism, communication skills, or creativity through the arts. The irony here is that the skills which are probably most likely to prepare students for a more globalised, competitive world, are not the skills which are most easily measured.  Innovation is more highly sought after in the global marketplace than memorisation after all.

Schools at the forefront of international education will strike a delicate balance between the pragmatic and idealistic aims by developing and sustaining curricula which combines a vision of education for peace and understanding with a market perspective which answers the demand for internationally transferable skills and credentials which are valued in the global marketplace.

Previously Published on

Contributor: Kyle Hawkins, Assistant Principal of the Primary School, International School of Zug & Luzern (ISZL)

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