Melanie Warnes, principal, British School of Brussels (pictured above)
Sarah Harley, deputy principal, Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong
Roger Schultz, head of school, Alice Smith School, Kuala Lumpur
Dr Fiona Rogers, deputy CEO and director of professional development and research, COBIS
Sam Fraser, director of research, ISC Research
What were the biggest triumphs for British international schools in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
Sam Fraser (SF): Some of the most inspirational education delivered during the pandemic was evidenced in international schools, several of which were associated with British independent school brands. This included best practice in online learning, device provision, tech support, wellbeing focus, assessment, extra-curricular opportunities and parental engagement.
These schools, cited for such provision by the global media, have raised the bar for the entire international schools market. They have also resulted in more enquiries from families who, previously, had never considered an international school as an option.
Melanie Warnes (MW): The best British schools are renowned for superb levels of pastoral care and a genuine and deep dedication to a holistic education for their students. This is not always a characteristic of other educational systems, but it is the care for the whole child which I believe has provided excellent, flexible and robust emotional and social scaffolding for children and families during the pandemic.
This holistic approach means that many British international schools have a strongly established support network of specialist staff coupled with excellent engagement with parents. This has been essential in enabling the best version of distance learning during the various iterations of lockdown and restrictions.
Sarah Harley (SH): The quality of online learning and the adaptive use of online platforms to ensure it offered us what we needed to teach students, eg adapting Teams for classroom use. The speed and creativity shown by outstanding teachers as we moved from face-to-face teaching to online full-time teaching, and then to a blended approach.
Many independent school leaders in the UK cited schools overseas as invaluable sources of guidance. Is this collaboration between the UK and international sectors a positive outcome of the crisis?
Roger Schultz (RS): Being able to share best practice and learn from others during the pandemic has been a positive outcome and, in my opinion, has been beneficial to school leaders worldwide. This increased scope and scale of connectedness virtually has also benefited teachers, parents and school boards.
SF: The sharing of good practice, particularly between British international schools and independent schools in the UK has been recognised for many years. Several associations, particularly the Independent Schools Council, HMC and ISBA, frequently share news and practice from the international schools community with their members. Covid-19 only enhanced this sharing of good practice further.
MW: My experience has always been that the best school leaders and practitioners always work openly and collaboratively with colleagues in other schools. Obviously, the pandemic meant a common problem, irrespective of our context and country. There is nothing like a ‘burning platform’ to focus minds and energies, and the Covid crisis compelled collaborative, creative thinking and brave actions collectively.
I really do hope that some of the professional friendships forged in adversity last beyond the pandemic as we have so much to share and learn from one another.
SH: Prior to the pandemic many UK schools may have been sceptical about the quality and innovation from international schools and the pandemic has shown that international schools are at the forefront of educational development. This has been shown through the way we responded to moving to a virtual school experience for the last 12 months, without compromising on quality and attainment. We have always followed the safeguarding best practice from the UK and we have been able to build on this and share developments for safeguarding in a virtual world.
Do you think the pandemic has had an impact on the wellbeing support British international schools provide for staff and pupils?
SF: As a result of Covid-19, wellbeing is now commonly discussed and increasingly addressed within international schools and there is a growing recognition of wellbeing as a success factor for staffing, as well as for student learning in international schools. This was identified in the recent wellbeing report published by ISC Research.
The research suggested that authentic communication between school stakeholders was important in order for schools to successfully adapt and maintain wellbeing through an extended period of challenge. This was perhaps more profound for international schools due to the expatriate nature of their staff and some, if not many, students. The fact that borders were closed was a harsh reminder of the physical isolation between wider families and emphasised the crucial support structure that international schools became throughout the pandemic.
Our research suggests that more teachers will evaluate wellbeing provision as part of their future recruitment conversations resulting in it becoming an important factor within a school’s hiring strategy. Wellbeing provision is also now a priority question for many parents during their school selection process.
Fiona Rogers (FR): This was something that was already high on the agenda for British international schools, but it has certainly been brought into even sharper focus by the pandemic. In addition to wellbeing support for teachers and pupils, there is a clear need for support for headteachers and senior leaders as well.
SH: Undoubtably. As a school you are always a big focus within the community and schools overseas become the community for its students and families. We have had to increase the support for everyone and it has brought us together as a community – from an employee assistance programme which covers all of our schools around the world, to school-based support for those away from home with no family close by, to counselling and support for students.
RS: Wellbeing has been brought to the forefront of educational debate, as schools worldwide deal with the impact of extended periods of closure on students, staff and their communities.
What are the biggest challenges British international schools now face?
MW: For many schools relying upon expatriate families, recruitment is or will be an issue. This is because many firms are balancing their own costs against the perceived economic advantages of having personnel working from home or because they are waiting to see how things evolve and have, therefore, frozen or reduced recruitment.
In addition, many parents who are self-payers have seen their income drop, sometimes catastrophically and they, in turn, look to the school for financial support – this is unsustainable for many schools.
RS: In my view, the expectations that society now places on teachers is much greater than ever. Parents are much better informed and want the education of their child to be as personalised as it can be.
Any school needs to balance and address the interests, expectations, wellbeing and ambitions of its stakeholders to be successful. Challenges arise when people feel their interests are not being considered. Effective communication is such an important part of what all schools do and getting this right, in my opinion, is the most challenging area of school leadership.
SF: The international schools market continues to expand. In some cities, there are over 100 international schools and the global market now includes over 12,000 international schools. So although demand is high, so too is competition.
Regardless of facilities, international schools require quality teachers, skilled in international teaching and learning to deliver high standards and this is now the greatest challenge for most international schools; to recruit and retain the very best teachers and leaders.
What can be done to more effectively recruit and retain teachers?
FR: Teaching is a global profession, and we know that teachers will move between domestic and international school sectors (bringing with them a wealth of transferrable skills and experiences). What continues to be needed is greater recognition of the value of international experience to facilitate the movement between sectors, and fewer barriers to training in an international context.
MW: Invest in the best potential, be creative about how you spot talent and grow your own. I’m often shocked by how little schools invest in the professional learning and career development of their staff.
Staff are the most important resource and it’s not enough to pay good salaries, we need to do everything we can to professionally nourish staff. BSB has a well-established Professional Learning Community which is well supported, well resourced and enjoys a phenomenally high buy-in from staff. It helps us recruit great people and it is a definite factor in why we retain such a high percentage of our staff.
RS: A world-class curriculum can only go so far if you do not have high-quality teachers. Schools need to invest considerable resources in recruitment and place a high value on their teaching staff to attract and retain top teachers from around the world.
There needs to be continual investment in developing their staff’s skills and in supporting their professional growth and personal wellbeing to create a personal connection, sense of purpose and belonging.
SH: We have a strong and well-designed professional development focus and this is accessible to all as a large part of it is online, with courses which can be done in your own time.
SF: No longer the domain of backpacking educators for a short-term experience, the international schools market is now a recognised education sector that attracts teachers and leaders aspiring to a career in international education.
However, as the market continues to grow, so is the need for more such career-minded international educators. International schools and international school associations are recognising this challenge, and some are already responding, as are teacher training providers and higher education institutions too.
Several universities are now offering iPGCEs (International Postgraduate Certificate in Education). Some schools have established their own teaching institutes such as the PGCE courses that have been developed by Durham University with the Wellington College China Institute of Learning, and some international schools are offering the Straight to Teaching programme which prepares applicants, such as teaching assistants, for qualified teacher status through an assessment-only route while the applicant continues to work at the school.
Do you think British international schools are more advanced in their use of technology now?
SH: We have all had to learn new skills and strategies, and teaching has become more flexible and teachers more adept in their use of technology.
We do need to ensure the technology is appropriate for the learning and skills we are trying to teach and ensure a balance for students to ensure we are preparing them for the future. We have had to change the intended use of some platforms and adapt them for what we needed – there is no off-the-shelf fix – so it becomes bespoke and personalised to the needs of the school and students.
RS: Yes, I think that all schools have invested considerable time and resources in their development and use of learning technologies. There is no doubt that the benefits to be gained from integrating the best features of technology into a school’s programme of learning and teaching are here to stay.
That being said, learning technologies need to be seen as a tool that adds value and not the panacea for the future of education.
Which parts of the world represent key areas of growth for British international schools?
FR: There continues to be a strong global demand for high-quality British international schools. There are a variety of reasons for the strength of this brand – the global reputation of British education, breadth of the curriculum, pastoral care and co-curricular activities, and the pathway to further study at top universities in the UK and elsewhere.
Regions experiencing particular growth include parts of SE Asia including Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, as well as Nigeria, China and parts of the Middle East. This growth is driven by a variety of factors – brand recognition and ongoing demand for globally recognised qualifications, but also increasing demand for mid-priced schools and bilingual options, as well as demand for premium schools and recognised brands.
SF: Asia currently dominates the international schools market with 6,961 international schools, which is 57% of all the world’s international schools and 64% of all the students attending international schools globally. The leading countries for international schools offering a UK curriculum and examinations are the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, Spain, Egypt, Thailand, India and Malaysia.
Many non-British parents around the world want a British education for their child. They recognise the benefits of learning in the language of English, they like the rigorous approach to behaviour management, teaching and learning, and personal growth, and the progression it offers to British and global universities and ultimately to international career success.
The wealthiest, most aspirational of parents, particularly in Asia, want the very best of British education from the most prestigious of British brands that money can buy, and they want it all on their home turf, which is why foreign campuses of British independent schools have gained so much popularity in recent years.