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Self-Licking Lollipops

By Damian Bacchoo
Self-Licking Lollipops

“It sounds like a big self-licking lollipop.”


“A self-licking lollipop.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

I was talking to my brother over my Christmas break about my work and the world of international education. After patiently listening for some time, his paraphrasing went something like this:

“So…rich folk pay to send their children to international schools because they have a reputation for churning out high exam results and getting kids into the top universities. The high fees pay for the best teachers, the best facilities, the best curriculum (International Baccalaureate), the best support services, and the best opportunities to achieve those desired grades and university placements. In turn, their reputation is enhanced and they can then attract more rich folk to pay the high fees needed to secure the best teachers, facilities, support, opportunities...leading to the best results and university placements…leading to more rich folk prepared to pay high fees…Wow! It sounds like a self-serving system designed to perpetuate the privilege of the elites. It sounds like one big self-licking lollipop!”

It was not something I had heard before. I looked it up. “Self-licking ice cream cone n. a process, department, institution, or other thing that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify or perpetuate its own existence. Also in the form self-licking lollipop” (Double-Tongued Dictionary).

Food for thought, do international schools just exist to perpetuate privilege? I could see where he was coming from, and I was uncomfortable with his sentiments about my work. However, I wasn’t immediately sure how to respond.

Many students who attend international schools do so because they are ex-pats who need to avail a continuity of education in lieu of not being able to attend schools in their home nations. Paying for children’s education when overseas is, therefore, an inevitable necessity for these families. On the other hand, there is also a growing number of national students who wish to attend local international schools and are prepared to pay significant fees to access this perceived privilege and what it might bring them.

That said, not all international schools are the same and there is significant price point variance depending on what you are looking for. It is true that some are more sought after than others. It is also true that some international schools are seeking to take steps to avoid being self-serving…no matter what that costs them. But what does that look like?

So, what do we do if we find ourselves holding one of these self-licking lollipops?

It seems to me that there are two options:

  • Dipping it in glitter
  • Consuming it

Dipping it in glitter

What does that mean? It means leaning into the status quo of the current system. It means doubling down on marketing the school’s glittering exam results. It means protecting the school’s averages by leveraging special selection techniques. It means elevating academic rigor at any cost.  It means keeping things just the way that they are. 

If you keep dipping that lollipop in glitter it will continue to look attractive and last longer.  Privilege in, privilege out.

Consuming it

Conversely, schools can accept that they are holding a self-licking lollipop and commit to a future where that lollipop will eventually disappear. This means taking a view that it is possible to provide high-quality education that does not rely on perpetuating privilege. For me, it can be distilled down to whether a school is seriously committed to increasing diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice (DEIJ) or not.  

On the surface, this always sounds so easy. I have not had a conversation with anyone who does not say that they are committed to DEIJ or make a case for less of it. But is it more important than sustaining the big self-licking lollipop? For example, if a results-oriented school decides to become less selective and more inclusive to a diverse group of young people, it would stand to reason that their school averages would start to slide. So how might some parents react to that when they have chosen that school for precisely that school’s reputation and results? Is it a case that DEIJ is great as long as it doesn’t adversely impact our own children’s chances of getting ahead?  

The purpose of an education

There is a need at times to remind ourselves what we think the purpose of education is. Achieving one’s best self is a virtuous pursuit and that may or may not lead a child to attend a prestigious university and on to some form of high-income profession. However, I am also reminded of a colleague who has the following displayed clearly in his classroom:

“Dear Teacher,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians, infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”  Haim Ginot (1972)

For him, the purpose of education is to help his students be human.  

One of my privileges is to work and lead at one of the 18 United World Colleges (UWC) situated around the world. The mission of the UWC movement is to make education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. 

We are not selling results (they look after themselves). We are selling a mission and a particular set of action-orientated values and competencies that we believe will make that mission (more) possible. This is my purpose for education.  But it is not everyone’s, and I do accept that. I also accept that most international schools are (whether they like it or not) self-licking lollipops. It makes sense that organizations would want to preserve what they have in some form or another (I guess that’s being human too). But it doesn’t sit comfortably with me at all. It probably doesn’t sit well with them either.

So, if I have to be a part of a system that makes me hold a self-licking lollipop, I do not want to be dipping it in glitter. I want to make my way through it as fast as possible, finish it off, and then put it out with the rubbish.

That’s exactly what I wish I had said to my brother. Maybe next time!

Originally published in Serendipities.


Damian Bacchoo is currently a high school principal at the United World College of South East Asia, Singapore. He has previously worked in Switzerland as a founder of a new International Baccalaureate Career-Related Programme (IBCP) school, been the global head of the diploma program and career-related program for the IB in The Hague, and was a secondary principal in Dubai at GEMS Wellington, Silicon Oasis. Prior to this, Damian was a Major in the British Army serving as an education officer in the UK, Brunei, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Damian’s blog, Serendipities, is loosely centered around school leadership, curriculum, wellbeing, and belonging.  

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