Is an International School Right for a Child When Schools are Already Multicultural?

“Should I let my child study in a private school, or a public one?” That’s a question most expatriates or assignees ask before flying to their new country of employment. It’s also been answered in one of our blogs. 

Some expatriate workers, though, have posed a third question about another option: “What about international schools? What are the pros and cons of enrolling my child in such an institution? What choices do I have when it comes to systems?” 

That is one question that adds another layer of inquiry: What makes international schools different when nearly all schools in northern California are multicultural? The International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) came up with a set of criteria to define international schools:

  • Students’ education is transferable across international schools
  • There is a mobile population (more so than in state schools)
  • There is a multinational and multilingual student body
  • Pupils follow an international curriculum
  • Schools are internationally accredited, for example by the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) or the Council of International Schools (CIS).
  • Schools are non-selective
  • English is the main or bilingual language.

However, these criteria are not set in stone; for example, some international schools are selective — and vastly different. It’s important to look at the curriculum.

The first thing that the assignee has to consider is the nature of the international school they are considering. As defined by Expat Child, there are several main school systems that are based on the western model: American, British, and Canadian. In northern California, though, there are other international schools more specific to an ethnic culture such as Chinese, French and German schools, as listed here.

All of them accept international students and encourage a multicultural community; what sets them apart are their faculty, curriculum, and school structure, which can be based on their home country or country-agnostic. While there are classes for other foreign languages, English remains the language of instruction.

Expat Child also makes a distinction between these schools and the “broadly international schools” which do not originate from the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada. 

The ethnic composition of their students is more pronounced, and the curriculum can be tweaked to cater to the majority who might come from one region, e.g. Asia.  Though English remains the language of instruction, the faculty members represent many nations, and not necessarily from the western hemisphere.

When it comes to weighing the advantages over the disadvantages of an expatriate child studying in an international school, the Expatriate Health Care sums it up in one word: culture. An assignee’s child will be exposed to a lot of cultures in that environment. 

They can develop an appreciation of the various histories, traditions, and religions that permeate the globe. At the same time, they can gradually understand the values of the new society they are living in, while remaining anchored on the familiar one they had temporarily left behind. For example, an Indian child can acquaint themselves with American pop culture while still participating in an ethnic course rooted in New Delhi art. 

Because an expatriate child is soaked in various cultures in this setting, their adjustment to their parent’s new country of work need not be difficult or lonely. They will be studying and playing with classmates who are in their same exact situation. They might even befriend a few who come from their original country. Because the emphasis of the curriculum is on multiculturalism, they can appreciate their own individual uniqueness without feeling alienated from everybody else.

Emphasis on multiculturalism, though, can have a downside. Its strength does present itself as a weakness when one flips the other side of the educational coin: integration with the local society. The expatriate child studying in an international school will not be mingling a lot with the members of the predominant community in their new home. 

In contrast, an Indian child studying in a private school in Northern California will be exposed to Americans who are their same age. To integrate faster, they will have to learn the language, mannerisms, and the pop culture of these American kids. It is the only way that they might be able to feel that they ‘belong.’  

Those are the fundamental differences that the assignee must look at. An international school education means exposure to a greater multicultural environment, a proximity to one’s national roots, and a broader space for adjustment. On the other hand, it can mean limiting the child’s interaction with the larger population of neighbors and fellow students that compose their new home. 

Which of these factors are more important, both to the assignee and their child? That is the question that the parent will need to navigate for their child. The important thing is to make feel at home in their “international” school away from “home,” the latter becoming even more relative as children see more than just the world they live in.