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Shanghai skyline: Shanghai Tower
Shanghai skyline: Shanghai Tower
Leader interview

Oct 30, 2019

Flexibility needed in new era of the ‘international school’

Explore CRS consultant Robin Watts writes that today’s international teachers need to be flexible above all if they’re to take advantage of the rapidly changing market.

In the winter of 2012, I was a teacher and I attended the Explore CRS job fair in Shanghai as a candidate. When I think back to the types of international teaching roles that were being recruited for then, in comparison to the roles I recruit for now, it’s quite clear that things in the international school market have changed a great deal.

According to recent ISC Research data, there are now more than 10,000 international schools teaching over 5.3 million students worldwide. This figure has increased more than threefold since 2000, a growth rate of around seven per cent, and is expected to at least continue at the current rate.

With the international education industry currently valued at $46.7 billion, a figure that is expected to rise to $66.6 billion four years from now (Morrison, N, 2019), the market itself seems very healthy indeed. But what’s driving this massive growth has become an increasingly important question. 

Shifting demographics

This growth explosion has principally been driven by the shifting demographics of those accessing international education around the world.

According to Hayden and Thompson (2017, page 4) in the 1980s “approximately 80 per cent of international school students worldwide were transitory expatriates and around 20 per cent were host country nationals.” By 2013, however, this situation had reversed.

In Asia, where the number of international schools has risen the most, it’s the expanding local middle-class population that accounts for the increased demand for English-medium schooling.

In countries such as China, Vietnam and Indonesia, parents’ desire for their children to access the global job market (usually via attendance at highly regarded international universities), along with their belief in the efficacy of international curricula exams has seen local families choose to invest heavily in international schooling (Hayden, M and Thompson, J, 2017).

Concurrent to this has been a period of plateau and reduction in the number of large international companies operating out of countries such as China and other parts of Asia. Consequently, we have seen a marked decrease in the type of expat salary package that was previously common for foreign employees working abroad, which usually included schooling for children.

This shift in the demographic of the international student explains why the term ‘international school’ has now come to cover a much more diverse group of schools than it did previously. The prevalence of what was seen as the ‘traditional’ not-for-profit international school, e.g. an overseas British or American or Canadian school using curricula of their home country and principally catering for children of the same nationality, has at best slowed and, in some areas, reduced altogether (Hayden, M and Thompson, J, 2017).

The vast majority of the growth within the sector has been for international or bilingual schools that accommodate both local and international students. In many cases, these schools are owned by for-profit organisations.

Increased opportunities

Expansion in the market is undoubtedly good news for teachers who are experienced and trained in a country with English-medium teaching and who are familiar with the curricula used by international schools. Many new schools understand the need to maintain certain aspects that made (and continue to make) the traditional international school so popular and are keen to attract teachers who have experience at more established schools.

Demand for such professionals has risen and I have seen a wider range of choices of roles and locations than ever before.

The rapid market growth has also brought increased opportunities for career development, including greater options for moving from less formal teaching into international school roles, as well as more possibilities of qualifying once hired. Working in a newer school also offers potentially faster routes to leadership than in more established schools, with longer-standing staff.

Given that it’s the local market that has forged the growth in international schooling, most of the positions that come up are in new international schools with a high percent of local students rather than international students, or new bilingual schools that cater to both, but primarily local students. 

Managing expectations

With a market that has changed beyond recognition since I was last working as a teacher, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the most frequent things I notice now is the discrepancy between what candidates expect and what the ‘international school’ market entails.

The changing notion of what an international school is, has required a big shift in what an international teacher should expect or be prepared for.

Nowadays, international teachers going into new roles need to consider issues such as different holiday times, the possibility that they’ll have to co-teach (particularly with younger age groups) and the potentially quite different human resource practices of staff who are less familiar with dealing with overseas employees.

Teachers with children who attend the school where they work might want to consider the pros and cons of a bilingual environment. While it typically involves much smaller class sizes for international students and lots of access to the local language, there can also be disadvantages that come with being in a school where English is not the dominant playground language.

Holidays and some school procedures are likely to be tied to local norms rather than international ones, such as a very short (or perhaps no) break for Christmas. Lessons might be moved at short (or no) notice for a festival you had no idea was happening - an occurrence we of happening from a fair number of teachers.

Flexibility is key

My personal conclusion is that while opportunities abound for international teachers, they are fundamentally different to the opportunities available just a few years ago.

Teachers are likely to have to consider shifting expectations and prepare to adapt to this changing market to continue enjoying the benefits of international teaching. In what is a thriving international education sector, an ever-expanding range of career options exist and teachers still stand to benefit from this.

Knowing what is critical personally and what you can’t be flexible on will be as crucial as knowing where you have flexibility. Teachers must determine the extent to which that flexibility can be tested - this will be essential to your success and the range of options available to you in this very different market.

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