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What are the challenges facing international schools?

Lucinda Reid talks to a panel of senior leaders about their experiences overseas

Posted by Rianna Newman | July 04, 2017 | International

The panel includes:

Q. How do you ensure that every child achieves their potential and language isn’t a barrier?

Emma Dibden: As an ‘English speaking school’, most of our children join with an acquisition of English that enables them to access the curriculum. However, we recognise that barriers to learning can take many forms, and therefore all staff work together to monitor progress and develop to identify learning needs early. We provide a graduated programme of support and enrichment that enables us to engage our learners – allowing them all to be successful and to reach their potential.

Matthew Savage: For us, the answer lies in a triangle of data. Only if we fully understand a child’s aptitude, attainment and attitudes can we fully understand the child. And only if we understand the child, can we ensure they achieve their potential. As for language, we identify what I like to call the ‘verbal deficit’ for each child – the difference between their conceptual ability and the extent of their language acquisition. In this way, learning is tailored to a child’s aptitude and not just to their language level.

Lucinda Willis: One of the ways that we do that is we try to approach every child as an individual, and look at individual needs, and individual provision and support. It’s one of the things that’s been really lucky about moving out of the state system in the UK – that we’re able to plan that provision based on our own assessments and we don’t have to justify it to any external agencies or external people or ask for funding. We can look at the child’s needs as an individual, look at how to help them to achieve their potential, and look at how we can be teachers of language. Teachers at international schools are used to people coming in with multiple language needs so it’s very clear in our documentation in our language policy that all our teachers are teachers of language.

We provide training for all our teachers on how to be teachers of language – that’s run by the English Language Learning Team – and the Student Services Team also writes plans with suggestions and strategies for teachers to use in class. There are also dedicated ELL teachers that work in the classroom with students, but also work with teachers to differentiate the materials, so there’s a very strong focus on language and how we use language. We see in international schools that people make very quick progress with their language, and are able to move from low levels of English to accessing the curriculum pretty fully, sometimes in quite a short time. 

Nicola Lambros: The Cognitive Abilities Test 4 is a key component of our data collection and analysis as this provides us with key information about a child’s potential in the form of their verbal, non-verbal, quantitative and spatial reasoning ability. Analysing this data allows us to quickly identify a child’s areas of strength and areas in which they may potentially need support, such as with their language development. This information is vital within the context of international schools as for many of our pupils, their lack of English may mask their true ability or, in some circumstances, specific educational needs. 

Q. What are your thoughts about personalised learning?

MS: Personalised learning is, too often, a cliché. At my school, we aim to make it a reality. We achieve this by digging deep into their cognitive profile, and understanding the relationship between each of their cognitive batteries. In this way, we can ensure that children are served a varied, personalised, relevant and challenging diet, which keeps their growth mindset alive. We call this #themonalisaeffect.

NL: For students to achieve their best academically it is important they feel that they have the capabilities and skills to be successful in each of their subjects. Numerous research papers have proved that without a strong self-efficacy students underachieve whatever their ability. Teachers must therefore build every student’s feelings of self-efficacy and for this to happen effective differentiation is key. Teachers must be cognisant of each child’s strengths and areas of development and consider these in their lesson planning to ensure every child experiences success and feels confident in their learning. Students must see that they are making progress and working successfully towards their goals. In this sense personalising learning is essential to building a strong self-efficacy in every student, as without this we cannot attain the best academic outcomes.

We see in international schools that people make very quick progress with their language, and are able to move from low levels of English to accessing the curriculum pretty fully, sometimes in quite a short time

Q. What challenges and opportunities do you face with recruiting teachers?

ED: As one of the oldest schools in the region, with an outstanding KHDA rating and an excellent reputation, we are fortunate to recruit some of the best educators in the region. The process is rigorous, from beginning to end, focused on identifying teachers who are passionate about teaching and learning. Our main challenge, being situated in the Middle East, is recruiting top talent from the global pool; memberships with COBIS and IAPS help in this regard.

In part, we portray an outward facing persona aimed at revealing some of the inner workings of the school. Using social media, we are beginning to demonstrate to potential teaching staff the high-quality learning and teaching that takes place routinely at JESS. We place significant importance on our safer recruitment – this includes NSPCC training for all senior leaders in the process. The rigour of ensuring teachers on the international circuit have a suitable history for working with our students can be difficult if they have taught in a number of countries. Stringent systems and procedures ensure we maintain the highest standards during the recruitment process. 

MS: International recruitment is a risky business: oftentimes, the risk pays off; sometimes, inevitably, it doesn’t. Unlike in the UK, when I would have handed over much of the recruitment process to the students, this is much more difficult internationally. In addition, making a critical decision like this only through Skype is problematic, and can be frustrating. Here in Amman, there is some nervousness about our location, regardless of the facts: Jordan is one of the safest and most amazing countries I know, but that is not the regional stereotype. However, that aside, we have enjoyed an exceptionally strong field for most posts this year, and so we must be doing something right! 

Q. As international schools continue to grow, how are you managing this growth?

ED: The number of schools in Dubai is increasing at a rapid pace, with 169 schools in 2014 increasing to 250 by 2020. International private schools are the fastest growing sector in the market. There is a new era of competitiveness amongst schools. JESS Jumeirah has historically been popular, due to our outstanding reputation and our rich history but with new independent school franchises coming onto the market with modern facilities and a trusted UK brand, there are battle lines being drawn in the desert sand.  

To make sure that we are competitive with these new schools, we have had to look at our competitors very closely. We have completed an in-depth competitor analysis, highlighted our strengths as well as where we need to improve to compete.  Investment in new specialist facilities, and specialist teachers and curriculum that stands out has led us to our new ‘Making a Difference Award Programme’ (MAD); focused on developing independence for the international child. The support for working parents with our new early morning and after-school care programmes and our reputation globally with the use of Twitter and our JESS Digital Summit, mean that rather than expanding, we are growing from within. Improving on what we already do, reflecting on our environment, our competitors. Instead of just being outstanding, we want to stand out.

Jumeirah English Speaking School, Dubai

LW: Actually, our school has grown hugely in the last year. We’re a pre-K, so that’s nursery through to grade 12, and we were around 350 children, and we’re going to be up to above 500 come August, which is when our new year starts. So how are we managing this growth? Well, actually I think – in terms of inclusion and personalising learning – there’s a perception that there are more children with needs in the school, but actually they were always here, they just weren’t being identified. So one of the ways we’re managing the growth is to build support services that didn’t exist before, because I think that helps to support those students. 

NL: Schools are successful when they remain true to their vision and mission. Using this as a tool for reflection helps a school to maintain a razor-like focus on their true purpose which enables them to grow in a manner in which quality is never compromised. Placing the students at the centre of every decision-making process guarantees school growth that is constructive and positive.

Q. What do you think is an international school’s main strength?

ED: Networks! Students that study for a prolonged period of time in an international setting will make significant connections with a very diverse range of people, from all across the globe. Their understanding of the norms will be challenged by peers who hail from different cultural, social and emotional backgrounds. JESS is situated in Dubai – a city known for its drive, innovation and ambitious futuristic vision. Undertaking your formative schooling years immersed in an environment known for pushing established boundaries, alongside contemporaries that want to solve some of the world’s greatest problems, will set you apart in future employment markets.

MS: Freedom. We pride ourselves on being a ‘British-style’ international school, which, essentially, means we are able to cherry-pick and hybridise best pedagogy and practice from around the world. We are not subject to governmental agendas or prey to political footballs; instead, we can orient every strategic decision right where it should be – around the learning and wellbeing of each individual child.

Nagoya International School Japan

NL: The privilege of creating a curriculum that is perfectly suited to the cultural context within which the school resides. This can however, also be a school’s downfall as all too often schools try to copy a model of success that is not appropriate for their own cultural context. Schools must always apply a cultural lens if they are to be truly successful. Encompassed within this is the opportunity for international schools to provide the learning environments and curriculums that nurture and create true global citizens; young people who demonstrate tolerance, humanity and integrity in all they do. 

LW: It is that we have the freedom to really make decisions about best practice. Particularly in the area of inclusion, we can make decisions about how best to support students’ needs without the need for evidence and documentation that I used to have to produce in the UK. 

Schools are successful when they remain true to their vision and mission

Q. What role does technology play in your school? 

ED: Technology forms part of the bedrock of learning at JESS, with our Director of Digital Learning and Innovation driving innovative approaches to fully immersive technology learning experiences. JESS Secondary is a Microsoft Showcase school which is an indication of the commitment we have for readying our learner for a 21st-century world. We utilise a range of technology to assist all learners, including those with additional educational needs, so no one is left behind. 

MS: Our best classrooms exploit learning technologies but do not depend on them. The best learning is fed first by relationships, and then by the candle of curiosity which burns, either brightly or hidden, within every child. If we can enhance this with devices, platforms and tools which can enfranchise the young learner and meet them where they are native, so much the better. The days of the school ICT room are over, but ours is a device-rich school, and many teachers could learn a lot more about learning technologies from their students than vice versa.

LW: Well, we’re a BYOD school and technology is such a great tool for differentiation and language teaching, that I think people are making more and more use of that. I’m a big advocate of really understanding what technology the students are using themselves. People can fight technology, or think that students overuse it, but I think that we really need to go into their world and understand how they are using technology. Then we can utilise technology to help learning. 

NL: Technology is an integral part of young people’s lives and their future and therefore we aim to use it to its best advantage to support teaching and learning. All secondary students have Chromebooks and primary students use iPads on a regular basis. The plethora of educational applications available to schools can be rather daunting but careful research and consideration of how an application can support learning can be very fruitful. When used appropriately in lessons and at home as a learning tool many of these programs, tools and applications support effective teaching and improve differentiation, engagement, challenge, creativity and the development of learning and collaboration skills. 

The future in international schools is looking very exciting

Q. In five years’ time, what will be the future of teaching in an international school?

MS: International schools are proliferating at a dramatic rate. However, the number of ‘international’ families are not keeping up with this rise, and so, increasingly, international schools will need to cater for an increasingly local market and student cohort. International teachers will, therefore, need dramatically to enhance their ability to teach students at an earlier stage of their language journey – every teacher will be, in essence, an EAL teacher. In addition, international schools will need consciously to avoid the risks of cultural imperialism, synthesising the tenets of an international school education with the fundamental foundations of the host culture. These are exciting challenges though, and ones to which I look forward immensely.

LW: I’ve only experienced UK state sector and then international schools, but to me, I’m seeing that the international curriculum that we teach is truly developing global citizens. These are young people who are passionate and believe that they can change the world. It’s really inspiring to work in an international school.

NL: With continued globalisation, international schools will remain an important part of the educational landscape. The idea of teaching overseas has changed enormously since I left the UK in 2006, it is a much more common occurrence, evidence of this shown in the huge growth of international school recruitment agencies over the past few years. If the predicted trends for growth in the international school sector are realised the opportunities open to teachers within international schools will become even more attractive. Teachers will be faced with an even larger variety of options in countries across the world. The future in international schools is looking very exciting. 

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