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Learning from International schools

International parents know what they want and we should all pay attention, says Melanie Butler

What do parents want? It’s not a question the language travel industry ever asks – though their agents might. But for local language schools, as for the international school down the road, the question is critical.

In truth it doesn’t matter what kind of school you’re running, English language or English medium, if you’re enrolling under 16s you should be analysing parental choice and tracking trends, because it’s the parents who pay your bill.

Luckily for you, the International Schools Consultancy (ISC) has already done the research. In mid-pandemic they surveyed admissions officers in a wide variety of schools around the world and their findings will ring a lot of bells with both the smallest language schools and the largest educational conglomerates. Most of the respondents were in the key areas for international school enrolment: Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South East Asia, all also key markets for language schools.

Number one on the ISC list of parental concerns reported to them is that their children will be learning in English. Bearing in mind that 80% that the 5.98 million children worldwide enrolled in international schools are from local families and do not speak English as a first language, this should come as no surprise.

To quote the report: “English is considered by many families in non-English-speaking countries to be a major factor in achieving global higher education success and, ultimately, international career opportunities and prosperity.”

Another key parental criteria, according to 83% of the admissions officers, is good academic outcomes and accession to global university education. The former will come as no surprise to local language schools, but they may need to pay more attention to the latter: a little more CLIL-style content, more emphasis on EAP, offerings for academic exams like IELTS and, as we highlight on the opposite page, IGCSE English.

Let that be a warning to language travel chains whose mantra is “it’s all about the student experience”. Not for the parents who pay your bills, it isn’t. Why do you think the fastest-growing summer school market is for programmes featuring STEM subjects, 21st century skills and pre-university coaching?

Three other parental priorities which emerge from the ISC report will sound familiar across all sectors of international education: native-speaker teachers, small class sizes and, especially post-pandemic, cheaper fees.

The problem, of course, is that native- speaker teachers and small class sizes almost inevitably mean higher fees. Teachers and parents obsess about class size, although research suggests it has a positive but limited effect on student outcomes, according to Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

“Native-speaker teachers and small class sizes almost inevitably mean higher 

“Everywhere, teachers, parents and policymakers fuss about small classes for more personalised education. Reductions in class size have driven up expenditure per student in most countries over the past decade. And yet, PISA results show no relationship between class size and learning outcomes, neither within nor between countries,” Andreas wrote in a 2014 paper on schooling myths.

More interestingly, the highest performing education systems in PISA tend to systematically prioritise the quality of teachers over the size of classes.”

Which brings us to that other expensive parental obsession: native-speaker teachers.

There is no empirical evidence at all that L2 language teachers are any worse at teaching the target language than L1 teachers, as long as their L2 language level is at least C1 on the Common European Framework. Indeed, the evidence from one longitudinal study suggests they might be better, as long as they have the right language level.

While the trope about native speakers teaching their mother tongue makes a convincing old wives’ tale, what has it got to do with teaching, say, maths in an international school? Why would a parent object to a maths teacher from Singapore or Estonia, countries which excel at English and top the PISA rankings in maths?

Ironically, if either teacher applied to teach EFL in England, as long as they had a work visa and a four -week training course under their belt, nobody would ask them to prove they could speak English.

That’s because, in the UK, the main accreditation scheme has gone the whole hog: allowing non-graduate teachers, academic managers who are not fully qualified and non-native teachers, frankly the least problematic of the changes, without any external proof of language level. All reference to class sizes have gone from the accreditation report.

Just pray the parents don’t find out.

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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