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International Schools - Understanding the Differences

By Cynthia Nagrath
International Schools - Understanding the Differences

Not all international schools follow the same curriculum and with thousands of international schools located around the world, there are a variety of systems designed to service the various expatriate constituencies. There are American, Canadian, British and the more generic, “international” schools, that follow one of these systems or a combination of them in their curriculum. In addition, many of these schools offer the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) Program which can lead to an IB diploma.

Types of International Schools
Teachers who are interested in teaching overseas for the first time will find it easier to teach in the curriculum for which they already have experience (i.e. American, British, etc.), but with experience and training, teachers will find that they are qualified to teach in a variety of formats. The following provides a sampling of the most common types of international schools worldwide.

American Schools
American schools, located in capital cities around the world, were originally created to service the educational needs of American citizens working abroad at the embassies or in private companies overseas. Surprisingly, many teachers find that these schools follow a similar curriculum to that of their local districts. There are currently 197 American overseas schools in 138 countries that are directly or indirectly assisted by the U.S. State Department to promote an American-style program for citizens abroad. These schools, while incorporating American educational programs, are truly international. According to the US State Department’s website, enrollment in the schools at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year totaled 126,510, of whom 34,602 were U.S. citizens. Of 15,687 teachers and administrators employed in the schools, 6,809 were U.S. citizens. Combined annual operating budgets of the 197 schools total over $500 million. Tuition payments are the principal source of financing for American overseas schools. In addition, many schools receive further support from gifts and contributions from businesses, foundations, individuals, and local governments. Assisted schools receive some funding from the Office of Overseas Schools. In addition, there are hundreds of other American schools around the world that are not assisted or do not have endorsement by the US Dept of State. The majority of these schools are private, non-profit institutions with considerable parental involvement in their governance. All offer instruction in the English language and there are usually American-trained teachers represented on the faculty. Many American schools are accredited by a U.S. regional accrediting body such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, etc. As a result, American teachers report that they are able to jump right into their new school’s curriculum, without too many adjustments because they are already familiar with it. American international schools are designed to provide a core curriculum that prepares students to enter schools, colleges, and universities in the United States. Bambi Betts, CEO of the Academy for International School Heads, reminds us: "In reality, there is no such thing as an ‘American’ curriculum since each state (and even district) in the US makes its own decisions and sets its own standards." Despite this lack of uniformity in the US educational system, Betts explains, "there are certainly some common themes and practices that teachers in ‘American’ style overseas schools will be familiar with."

Canadian Schools
Similar to the American schools abroad, there are many elementary and secondary schools around the world that offer the curriculum of one of Canada's provinces. For example, there are schools with accreditation from Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Alberta, etc. At these schools, mostly Canadian teachers and staff utilize Canadian educational materials providing the children of Canadian expats an excellent quality of education, in dozens of schools in over 30 locations throughout the world.

British Schools
The old expression that the sun never sets on the British Empire is still true if one looks at the number and location of British schools around the world. There are more than 2,200 British schools in every corner of the world contributing to the large number of international schools worldwide. This can be misleading, however, since these schools do not actually receive formal recognition or support from the British government. While many of these schools follow the British national curriculum there is wide variance in their structure and quality. This is because British schools outside the UK are private entities with no governmental monitoring of their programs. This is where COBIS comes in. COBIS (Council of British International Schools), is a membership association of British schools of quality and is a member of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) of the United Kingdom. According to Colin Bell, Executive Director of COBIS, the 30-year-old non-profit organization, “provides accountability for the British schools abroad by working with the British Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), to accredit British schools all around the world.” Teachers looking for guidance on navigating the varied terrain of British international schools (whose ownership can fall in the hands of private companies, charities or individuals), would be well served by checking whether the school in question is accredited by COBIS. COBIS has been instrumental in working with the U.K. Department of Education in getting British Overseas Schools inspected under OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education). OFSTED reports directly to Parliament and inspects and regulates services in education and other related matters. This seal of approval, should distinguish British schools in the COBIS network from those schools that use the term British school, but are mainly teaching the local curriculum with some elements of the British system. Colin Bell of COBIS says, “We receive many applicants for COBIS membership, but only few meet all of our criteria. Of the thousands of British schools located around the world, only 106 are COBIS members.” In addition to the seven key criteria for membership (see table), COBIS takes strong precautions in the hiring process. “We conduct CRC (Criminal Records Checks) on all teachers recruited from the U.K. to insure safe hiring for our member schools,” informs Bell. When asked about teachers who are recruited from countries outside of the U.K. Bell said “We have agreements with law enforcement authorities in Thailand and Spain and can utilize Interpol if needed, to meet our safe hiring standards.”

International Baccalaureate (IB) Schools
What was once seen as a system designed to provide uniformity for the children of expats living and working abroad, (primarily in Europe), has grown since its founding in 1968, into a premiere worldwide educational system in 141 countries servicing nearly a million students aged 3-19. The IB program is now seen as the educational gold-standard around the world, including the United States, which boasts more IB schools than anywhere in the world. In fact, a recent survey of university admissions officers in some of the 141 countries that offer the credential, found that it is the "the top passport to international education." The IB program is offered in a variety of international schools and even schools that do not consider themselves international, in both the private and public sectors. Schools that offer the curriculum seek to provide a rigorous academic program to its students. The Diploma Programme as it is known, or DP, is designed for students aged 16 to 19, to be taken in the last two years of secondary school. Juniors and seniors who earn the IB diploma must take six courses at higher level or standard level. In addition, the DP has three core requirements that are included to challenge students:
The extended essay –students conduct independent research through an in-depth study of a question relating to one of the subjects they are studying.
Theory of knowledge -- a course designed to encourage each student to reflect on the nature of knowledge by critically examining different ways of knowing.
Creativity, action, service -- requires that students actively learn from hands-on experience beyond the classroom.

International Schools
While some international schools have an American, Canadian, British or other slant, some simply call themselves an international school because they have incorporated multiple approaches from different formats, and provide an international curriculum with a global perspective. Not all international schools deliver the IB program (just as not all IB schools are international), but one common thread that runs through these schools is the desire to create global citizens who have an understanding of other countries, cultures and histories beyond their own national perspective and/or system. In the accompanying article, What Makes a School International there is some debate as to what constitutes an international school. Is it the curriculum, the student body, the teaching staff – or all of the above? Most seasoned international educators are wary of coming up with a definition or checklist for qualifying a school as international, but prefer to take a broad approach to the subject. Nick Brummitt, Managing Director of ISC Research, a UK-based organization dedicated to tracking the international schools market, points out that “professionally ISC Research doesn’t apply any value judgements to the inclusion of schools. We simply include them if they fulfil our criteria for doing so.” That criteria is quite simple: A school is included in their database if it teaches wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country. (Language schools are not included.) Asked if he holds any personal opinions about the matter he says, “Privately, I simply feel that there are many different types of international schools, and that a school full of Chinese children studying an international curriculum is one type." “The composition of the faculty will always be mixed; how mixed depends on the individual school, the city, and the country,” according to Brummitt. Furthermore, Brummitt contends: “Schools with half local staff and half expatriate staff are just as ‘international’ in my mind as ones with all expatriates -- perhaps even more so.” International schools are as varied as the students in which they serve.

Choosing the school that’s right for you is a personal decision, but as Forrest Broman, President of The International Educator is fond of saying, “If you keep an open mind and are willing to be flexible, the world is your oyster!”

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


12/05/2021 - Emily
Hi there, great article. Do you know who called the IB an educational gold standard? I can’t find any results.
12/05/2021 - Emily
Hi there, great article. Do you know who called the IB an educational gold standard? I can’t find any results.
11/06/2017 - CraigN
I know very little about them, but I know that there are Australian International Schools in China as well.
04/18/2017 - jdtf
I'm having a hard time understanding if a child taught in the U.S. can continue high school in England? I've researched and I keep coming up blank. My daughter is 16, England seems to have a set of tests to work towards a diploma at 16, whereas she would simply have 2 more years of high school in the U.S. Can she still finish high school in England, receive her diploma and go on to university, or does she have to go to a certain type of school or international school? Any advice someone can provide is greatly appreciated...
06/14/2016 - Nagib
What are the standards of the English language in the international schools? By the end of each grade or year what do they develop in the English language ( Egyptian international schools)
04/26/2016 - Aswini Murali
Thanks for the post, just like to add a point of consideration, accreditation is important while choosing international schools in India.

Interested to join an international school in India, New Global School is a leading international school in Chennai. Visit
07/28/2015 - Cindy
I personally don't believe only foreign students should be allowed to enroll in international schools. Having a good mix of nationalities, including students from the host country makes for a dynamic and multicultural environment which can only benefit an international school.

I am aware that certain countries restrict enrollment of international schools and don't allow local national students to attend. This is the host country's government policy, not the school's policy.

Thanks for your though-provoking question!
07/27/2015 - kipper
Ladies and gentlemen, do you believe that only foreign students should be allowed to enroll in international schools.
05/30/2015 - passionate teacher
I would really appreciate your advice on a matter that I am currently confused about.

I have been teaching in an IB school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for 5 years and have a Bachelors Degree of Arts in Education from Roehampton University (UK). I am currently looking for a new job opportunity and I have been applying both locally and internationally. I have not received many interviews/job opportunities and I am thinking this is due to not possessing a teaching qualification or masters.

I have been researching about which route I should take to progress my career, but I am still confused. I am looking at doing a Masters in Education, iPGCE or PGCE Overseas (OS). The PGCE in the UK is not possible for me, as I'm not a UK citizen. I am wondering what your advice would be for my next step. I am more inclined to get a teaching qualification, either iPGCE or PGCE OS, where the course fee is different, as well as the contents. If I was to apply to your school, which qualification would suffice for you.

Your advice would be greatly beneficial to me.

Thank you so much

passionate teacher
04/18/2015 - Brijesh
The IB program can be found in the various international schools and in India also Best International schools have grown in numbers just like
12/15/2014 - SEEMA
11/11/2014 - Lara
Regarding international students, will they be asked to chose only one currriculum or are they allowed to use the combination? Our school offers GCE (British system) and the American high school system... I was just wondering if universities accept a mix of ordinary levels and AP's or not..
Thank you
05/22/2014 - Cindy
There are two COBIS schools in India:

1.) British Oak Tree Nursery in Gurgaon Haryana, India

2.) DSB International School in Mumbai, India
05/22/2014 - Pri
Which are the COBIS schools in India?
04/02/2014 - Shannon
My apologies if this information is already on your site but I am looking for a list of multilingual schools. I am an experienced teacher (primary) and would like to teach in English; however I will be traveling with my son (age 6/7 during our travels) and his entire education so far has been in French and I want to maintain that. I am open to any country in Europe.
Many thanks!
10/02/2013 - elaheh
interesting article for schools
05/27/2013 - Vijay
Do we have data on international schools in India teaching (CIE) cambridge international examination`s IGCSE curriculum . Is IGCSE better than Indian CBSE(central board of secondary education) ? How do the students doing IGCSE benefit more than the students doing CBSE (X class) . Is CIE recognised by COBIS(Council of British International Schools) or by OFSTED( Office of standard in education) .Is there any Indian Agency -govt/non govt who keeps a check on international schools in India offering CIE.
09/11/2012 - Emma
I was in Bangalore ( India ) last year and i was surprised to see many good International schools in Bangalore,, including a British International School (Trio World School ) where i have finally settled. I would say expats must visit all the schools and then made their choice.
02/15/2012 - Cindy
Dear Wil Smith,

You can definitely teach at an international school. The requirement is that you can teach your subject in English. International schools look for native speakers of English or teachers with a high level of fluency and proficiency in English.

So absolutely, if you have the experience, qualifications, and fluency in English -- buy all means work at an international school! I’m sure they’d be glad to have you.

02/12/2012 - wilsmith
my understanding of international schools is that they should accomodate almost if not all citizens. i wonder why only native english speakers are given chance. i am a well trained teacher from a recognised university in kenya. kenyan curriculum is taught in english that means i'm a good english speaker. i'm interested in teaching in middle east. can you still help?
09/20/2011 - Cindy
Great question!

That really depends on the plans of the parents. Sometimes parents know that their overseas stint is short-term, say a year or two, and then it makes sense that they remain consistent with their home curriculum.

But other families, that know they'll be leading an expat lifestyle for many years, do opt to choose a different system. Many British parents select American schools for their kids and the same with Canadians. Many expats choose an international school that is not beholden to one national system or another, but embraces a global format.

As mentioned, the IB program can be found in the various international schools and that is considered a challenging curriculum for students.

Whichever type of international school program is chosen, students will be exposed to a global approach to education and thinking.

09/20/2011 - Eileen
Thank you for your article. As a newcomer to this subject, I found clarity in the differentiation between curricula. I wonder which system would be most beneficial in raising a globally-oriented student., staying with the known or having the student reach to experience a new approach.
09/16/2011 - Cindy
Hi Punam,

You're right, we can no longer live and learn under the lens of one national program or curriculum, we are living in a global world where we all have to adapt to many ways of viewing and operating in the world.

It is true, India is a country that in the past 10-15 years has become more outward looking than ever before in its history. The need for international standards has taken root in Inida's schools, businesses, and so many other areas.

The growth of international schools in India is a relection of that new outlook that India is now competing in the global marketplace.

All the best!
09/16/2011 - Cindy
Hello Hannah,

Thank you for your post -- you’re right, non-profit versus for-profit is another factor that comes into play when considering various international schools.

The article’s main focus was really on curriculum differences, which did touch upon various funding methods, however, this subject of for-profit schools raises some very interesting, and perhaps, controversial issues.

I think your point is well taken and this topic is probably worthy of its own article so we can drill-down a little deeper on the subject.

Keep checking the TIEonline website for more discussions and/or articles on this in the future.

Thank you!
09/14/2011 - punam
I feel the world is like one global village with diversity and students have to live and have more international understanding to survive and evolve. In India also many IB schools have grown in numbers
09/14/2011 - hannah
One very important distinction has been left out...non-profit vs proprietary schools.
This is the question I ask about all schools before I inquire about curriculum or host national vs foreign national student body.