A new social mission: International schools as creative catalysts for change - RSA

A new social mission: international schools as creative catalysts for change

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  • Picture of Kenny McCarthy
    Kenny McCarthy
    Project Manager and Production Leader
  • Education
  • Creativity
  • Schools
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

The RSA has been working on a vision of how international schools can be a movement for positive change within education. Working with ECIS - a group of international schools on its 50th anniversary, we have produced a think piece and supported the development of an animation to outline this change.

International education grew out of the rubble of the First World War, and a perceived need for education that emphasised what we all have in common - placing a focus on language learning and cultural studies. After a steady start, international education is booming student numbers are up, teacher numbers are increasing and school numbers have grown sevenfold in the last 25 years. The international education sector now rests between Belgium and The Netherlands in terms of student numbers and has become a major education sector in its own right.

Its recent growth has been fuelled by the bourgeoning middle classes of developing nations and the perception that the English curriculum and International Baccalaureate (IB) are bastions of quality education. This shifting intake means that some international schools are becoming less international. But what makes an international school? During Matthew Taylor’s workshop at ECIS’s annual conference the overwhelming answer from international schools to what should make up an international school was intercultural capability, intercultural awareness, and inclusiveness. In terms of what wasn’t necessarily seen as part of the movement was ‘eliteness’, teaching in English and an international intake.

This inclusive and intercultural vision of an international school may be more aspirational than descriptive of the movement’s current trajectory. The sustained growth of international education appears to have led to a fragmentation of its early cause. International schools risk serving a privileged few, those who can afford an education which is free from the constraints of national systems.  And with English increasingly seen as the lingua franca of the business world, there is a real demand for teaching in English.

The growth of international schools hasn’t happened in a vacuum, the world is rapidly changing. Education systems now face a whole host of problems such as the growth of inequality, increasing complexity, sustainability issues and dwindling resources. Last week Adrian Wooldridge, editor at The Economist gave a talk at the RSA about his new book the age of disruption. He suggests that automation of working and middle class jobs will lead to a huge employment crisis in the next decade. Such disruption of the world of work due to technological change raises huge questions about the way we educate. The challenges of globalisation have led to a social and economic need for new learning approaches, premised on the creativity of individuals. In an increasingly automated world – creativity becomes our comparative advantage.  There is a real need for new approaches and ideas to these problems as we move towards a vision of society we need and want (see Power to Create).

International education needs a new social mission, one that places the sector at the heart of a transformation in learning. International schools have the freedom to escape the parochialism which too often surrounds debates on education in the UK, with the government recently described as ‘bleeding the profession dry’. Reimagining international schools as ‘Third culture schools’ emphasises the system leadership role they could play in bridging an often polarised education world to support improved learning outcomes for all. The challenge we present to international schools is how in the modern world they can become a ‘creative community with a cause’, mobilising their knowledge and resources for social good. The opportunity for ECIS as a network is to see itself as a social movement for creative change, not just for its own schools and learners, but to support any teacher, school or system whose practices can be informed by collaboration with its network.


The RSA makes three recommendations:

  • Our first recommendation is for ECIS to work with its members to develop a new 21st century account of what internationalism means in an educational context. If brave, this account would be, to some extent, applicable to any school in the world, regardless of resources or intake, but would also exclude some schools which have the ‘international’ word on their front door and letterhead, but little of substance once you go through the front door. The answers that ECIS creates will not be set in stone; such debate must be dynamic and, through its media of conference and publications, it must carry this discussion on and find its practical outcomes.

  • Our second recommendation is for ECIS, again with its members, to select two or three distinctive educational themes – such as bilingualism or creativity – that its network will seek to champion, and exemplify, year in and year out, to drive change as system leaders. The themes should be chosen to separate the schools from the usual preoccupations of state-funded schools, but it should not be a bar to improved communication between state-funded and international schools.

  • Our third idea is for ECIS to develop a dynamic account that supports the first two suggestions. We recommend that ECIS should work with its school leaders, governors, and proprietors to pilot a different form of accreditation and peer review system for international schools that puts a social mission at the heart of judgements about quality. This should not be seen as another inspection regime, but something that is celebratory and affirming, if still rigorous and interrogative, continuously improving standards and expectations over time.

 We enjoyed the opportunity to explore some of our thinking in the context of international education, and are grateful to Kevin Ruth, Director of ECIS for his leadership in bringing this project together and his ambitious vision for the future of international education. Read the full report here.



Kenny McCarthy is one of the authors of Third Culture Schools, along with Joe Hallgarten and Ralph Tabberer FRSA

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