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Education

International schools: breeding grounds for diversity or an international "mono-culture"?

Flickr: THINK Global School

My mom has been an expat teacher in international schools for over 25 years. That meant I was lucky enough to receive a private school education for free. I spent my childhood mooching off of my Indian best friend’s biryani and dancing along to korean music videos.

3.7 million other students will have had a similar story to mine, and that number is growing. The International School Consultancy Group estimates that there will be over 11,000 international schools teaching 6.3 million students 10 years from now.

I’m an avid supporter of the purpose of international schools. It’s so important that we learn how to work with people from different cultural backgrounds before entering the real world. But here’s the million dollar question: are international schools really international and diverse?

In terms of nationality based on passport origin, international schools are extremely diverse--some school represent up to 50 nationalities.

In terms of socio-economic standing though, not so much. Most students fall under “upper-middle” or “upper” class, because their families are the only ones that can pay the steep $30,000 yearly tuition.

My thoughts exactly, Jerry Seinfeld. Of course, that’s a rough average because elementary-aged children pay slightly less than high school kids.

International schools aren’t typically accessible to kids from lower income families, and it gets even more restrictive. Many international schools don’t accept students from the country the school is based in. When I was in China, my school didn’t take in any Chinese kids even though rich, local families could pay higher sums of money. The same goes for my old high school in Singapore. Other schools have a percentage quota for the number of host school kids they can take in.

An effective way to get to know a culture is to interact with people from it, but most people in my old high school haven’t befriended a host-country student. The only reason I know Singaporeans my age is because I joined a local acapella group. Otherwise, my knowledge of Singapore might’ve been limited to the subway system, the trendiest neighborhoods and the most popular nightclubs (which is why I always advocate to be a tourist in your own country!).

Because of cost and the preferred Western-style curriculum, international schools are home to many diplomat’s kids, embassy kids and children of international business men and women. A lot of these kids don’t stay in one country for more than 3 years and are therefore considered Third Culture Kids (TCKs).

I’m a proud TCK myself, but I’m part of a culture that can be considered both diverse and generic. Diverse, in the sense that a TCK is from many places and may be able to see the world through multiple lenses (well, that’s the TCK dream). In reality, many TCKs in international schools develop similar, mostly-liberal, mostly-Western perspectives derived from the Western curricula. That is, if interested in global issues at all.

I, a Canadian-Chinese, can’t contribute to a discussion through the lens of a Han-Beijinger or a small-city Canadian because I don’t truly know what it’s like to be either. Nor can I say that I know how to collaborate with Saudi Arabian people, when I’ve only seen one small slice of the culture that may have been diluted.


Basically, I’ve painted a picture of a rich, sheltered tourist-of-the-world who is essentially out-of-touch. I’m not going to deny that you’ll see students like that in international schools. But you’ll also find kids that get involved in their communities and care about world issues--young people who are willing to engage with different cultures outside of the four walls of a classroom.

International school students have every opportunity to become global citizens. Opportunity breeds more opportunity. Most students do not have nearly as many opportunities. 

To ensure that all students around the world can receive a world-class education, TAKE ACTION NOW by writing an email to Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway and asking her to invest in education.