BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


What Makes a School International?

By Cynthia Nagrath
What Makes a School International?

"What's in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
The Bard reminded us that a name by itself means nothing – it’s what’s behind the name that really matters. Does having the word international in a school’s name make it international? That is the question! Shakespeare references aside, this raises a very valid question – what is an international school, and what, exactly, makes it international?
International schools come in many different shapes and sizes and the term itself, includes a variety of school systems encompassing a wide variety of formats and curricula, with some being more international than others.
In order to be considered an actual international school, it is widely agreed that a school generally follows a national or international curriculum different from that of the host country. Additionally, an emphasis is placed on international education (with such programs as the IB) and global citizenship.
Rapid Growth
The international school market has experienced explosive growth over the past 10 years with the number of international schools more than doubling across the globe. This past year alone, 345 new schools were added to the network of thousands of international schools worldwide. ISC Research, a UK-based organization dedicated to analyzing, researching and tracking developments in the international school market, calculates that there are currently over 2.8 million students enrolled in international schools around the world.
Big Business
International K-12 education is a big business – with annual income of approximately $27 billion dollars (US) a year, employing over 270,000 teachers and administrators. According to Nick Brummitt, Managing Director of ISC Research, “the internationals schools market doubled in size over the last ten years and will undoubtedly double again within the next ten.”
More than two-thirds of the annual increase for 2011 came from Asia where ISC reports 238 new schools were added this year alone. This is largely fueled by China where the growth in foreign businesses, the expatriate community, and the export market mirrors the expansion of the international schools market. With 46 new schools, China accounts for one in five of the new Asian schools started this past year.
Brummitt of ISC projects, “The greatest demand will continue to come from increasingly wealthy families in Asia, including the Middle East, wanting an English-medium education for their children.” The trend will continue in China because “Chinese nationals are not allowed to attend foreign-owned schools, therefore, dramatic growth is expected in new international sections of private Chinese schools,” predicts Brummitt.
What is an International School?
The rapid growth has corresponded with the proliferation of the title, “international” placed on many schools that may possibly have the veneer of being international in name only. For example, of the 345 new schools opened last year, 80 or 23% are offering one or more of the IB programs (i.e. MYP, PYP, DP). The question is what about the more than three-quarters of international schools that are not offering that program? Of course the IB is not the only game in town, but it raises the question of what sort of international program or curriculum are all these new schools offering? Are they truly international schools? These questions and others are what prompted the International Association of School Librarianship, at their 2009 conference in Italy, to outline a list of criteria for a school to be described as an international school. They noted that although all international schools may not meet all criteria, a majority of the eight specified criteria should be met.
IASL Criteria for International Schools
1. Transferability of students’ education across international schools
2. A moving population (higher than in national public schools)
3. Multinational and multilingual student body
4. An international curriculum (i.e. IB - DP, MYP, PYP)
5. International accreditation (e.g. CIS, IBO, North Eastern ASC, Western Ass. of Schools and colleges, etc.)
6. A transient and multinational teacher population
7. Non-selective student enrollment
8. Usually English or bi-lingual as the language of instruction
Disagreement on Criteria
Not everyone agrees with the above criteria. Frank Anderson, Superintendent Emeritus of Colegio Internacional de Carabobo in Venezuela believes “It’s not where the students come from, but how the educational program is delivered.” “If the school’s mission is to deliver an international education through a curriculum such as the IB and to produce global citizens,” than according to Anderson, “it’s an international school.” Anderson also believes in giving more leeway to the accrediting body, noting that in addition to the international accreditation organizations, many international schools are accredited by the host country’s Ministry of Education.
This view is echoed by Connie Buford, Regional Educational officer for the Office of Overseas Schools at the U.S. State Department. “As obvious as it may seem, the exact definition of an international school is really hard to pin down.” Buford is quick to point out that many schools are using an international curriculum even if they’re not using the IB: “They’re teaching international culture, history and perspectives, and those hallmark features make it international.”
Buford feels that if a school has at least two of the characteristics noted above it should be considered an international school. Furthermore, she emphasizes that the key point of distinction is that “No matter what the make-up of the student population, or the curriculum employed, the school should instill an ‘international-mindedness’ among its students. Buford notes that this is not her own term, and in fact, it’s what the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization) claims sets them apart from other programs. According to the IBO, “It is a philosophy students will carry with them through the rest of their lives.”
Buford says that this idea can be distilled into a very simple goal: “Students should realize that there’s a big world out there and there’s more than just your own country and culture.”
There are others who believe that having all, or many, of the criteria outlined by the IASL puts a school in a top tier category of international schools. One international teacher said that he only considers a school truly international if it has: “an international curriculum, a multi-national student body, and a multinational, English-speaking faculty. These are the three main categories that qualify a school as being truly international,” according to this teacher who requested anonymity because of his recent experience at a school which he believes did not deserve the title of international in its name.
By her own admission, Ingrid Skirrow, one of the authors on the committee says that “Defining an international school is almost impossible.....we talked round and round to come up with the criteria above and although we were not 100% satisfied, we wanted to get something down in writing - mainly to try to distinguish . . . (International Schools) from national schools in the context of the IASL Regions.”
ISC, the largest research company of international schools in the world, provides a very simple definition of what is required to be included in their database of 5,857 international schools: “A school is included on our database if it teaches wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country. Language schools are therefore completely different and are excluded.”
Who are the Students?
Students are the children or dependents of employees of international businesses, international organizations, foreign embassies, NGO’s, missions, or missionary programs. In addition to the children of expatriates, many schools have local students from the host country attending. International schools are growing in popularity for host country students and their parents are willing to pay the high tuition so their children can learn the language of the international school (mostly English) and obtain qualifications for higher education in a foreign country.
Some international schools have restrictions on the number or percentage of host country students the school can admit, while others are unable to admit host country students at all. For example, the American Embassy School in New Delhi does not admit students of Indian nationality, except in specific circumstances as mandated by the Government of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.*
Admission is guaranteed to the dependents of US citizens residing in New Delhi provided they meet the school’s eligibility requirements. Additionally, other foreign national students are admitted at the school.
This specification of student make-up is not arbitrary --- it’s the result of a 1973 bilateral agreement between the governments of India and the United States. According to the school’s admission page, “. . . The American Embassy School was established to enable American children to study under the American system of education, as well as third country nationals (non-Indian, non-US) that are in Delhi on a temporary basis for the purpose of employment. The American Embassy School is not in competition with Indian schools, and is neither designed nor empowered to serve the needs of Indian students.”
Not all countries and/or schools have such agreements or restrictions on the nationality composition of their student body, so there is a wide range of diversity (or lack thereof) in international schools.
Variety is the Spice of Life
International schools come in a wide variety of organizations, curricula, and approaches, but they all offer teachers the opportunity to live and work abroad in a challenging and stimulating environment.
Just as international schools serve to teach students that there’s a big world out there beyond just their own country and culture, teachers at international schools benefit immeasurably as they learn the same life lessons along with their students.
*Note: This does not mean that there are not students of Indian ethnicity, quite the contrary; students of Indian-origin are well-represented at AES. It should be noted, however, they are mostly the children or dependents of NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who hold non-Indian passports.
ISC Research Ltd.
International Association of School Librarianship (IASL)
American Embassy School New Delhi
IB-International Baccalaureate
Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet

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


09/12/2022 - Diyafah International School
Describes wonderful information, it is very useful to student achievement—including school, teacher, and student. Keep posting like this informative articles.

04/30/2022 - RCInternational School

Really a very helpful article thanks for sharing and keep on sharing!

RC International is one of the most preferred CBSE schools in Chikkabanavra premier educational institutions in Bangalore and has attained unparalleled status and stability with its own sprawling campus.
Read more:

01/09/2022 - Dr. WHO
International schools should at the very least be audited by their governing bodies more than once every 5 years to maintain its accreditation. Accredited academics vs. curriculum ideology needs to be re-examined in many so-called international schools for the simple fact that student's aptitude of a subject is not up to international standards when progressing on to the next level whether it be in academics or a certain vocation. A framework alone without guided and directed curriculum to accomplish the mission at hand can also be dangerously mis-used.
08/01/2021 - angeles university foundation
Such nice ideas.. you have written it so well. Love this post!
11/13/2020 - RC International School

Really a very helpful article thanks for sharing and keep on sharing!

RC International is one of the most preferred CBSE schools in Chikkabanavra premier educational institutions in Bangalore and has attained unparalleled status and stability

with its own sprawling campus.

01/21/2020 - RC International School

Really a very helpful article thanks for sharing and keep on sharing!

RC International is one of the most preferred CBSE schools in Chikkabanavra premier educational institutions in Bangalore and has attained unparalleled status and stability with its own sprawling campus.
01/16/2019 - Bussy Girl
I agree wholly with Connie Buford that a school that promotes international mindedness in its students by teaching international history, culture and perspectives is an international school. What is important is not the appellation or the diversity of the student or teacher population but rather that the emphasis is on international education and global citizenship.

The article is very insightful. Thank you.
02/21/2018 - kyuukyambi
Its very brilliant and resourseful
04/28/2017 - Kian
I just visited your blog/site and thought you made some really great points.Very Informative Article…
02/19/2017 - jt
Its really not clear of what an international school exactly is. But i would suggest that it is a school that provides an environment that suits every student according to the global standards of life irrespective of their nationality.
11/23/2015 - momluk
We are planning to setup an international school in Bangladesh.
09/10/2014 - adri
I enjoyed reading it so much because I love the filosophy goals of this kind of schools and agree on the basis of the 3 aspects to be taken into account to consider a school international:an international curriculum, multinational student and faculty bodies
I used to teach History at a school like this in Buenos Aires,Argentina in the nineties and I would like to have a go overseas in the near future.

Kind regards,
09/03/2014 - Cobweb
Thanks very much for your efforts in here.
i administer a local Arabic school that i would like to transform into an international school with an international curriculum, how may you help me achieve this in term of curriculum design, accreditation, parents community, affiliation, infrastructural and the like?
i will be very happy to hear from you.
03/19/2013 - Cindy
Hi Nair,

This is a good question and observation that you have made because you’re right, we are seeing a new crop of schools emerging with these labels of Global or World schools.

I think in many ways they’re interchangeable and reflect the growing recognition that countries and school systems all over the world have come to understand and embrace that today’s schools need to have a global or world focus in education. It’s no longer adequate to stick to a “national curriculum” when students will graduate into a global economy that’s more interconnected than ever before. This trend has been happening for quite some time and is only going to increase with each passing year. It’s not uncommon to have an employee working in Delhi for an American company or a Chinese manager relocated to the United States to handle North American operations.

The traditional international school was created and set-up to accommodate the children of expats (be they foreign service/diplomatic workers or employees of multinational corporations) and this expat community moved around the world as their companies or governments posted and relocated them from one country to another. The international school put all of these students together with a common curriculum and outward focus that prepared them to attend university in any country of the world, and ultimately, prepared them to live and work anywhere in the world.

Today some of the Global and World schools that you speak of may also have an international student body composed of the children of expats living overseas, but many of these emerging schools consist of local national students whose parents and educators recognize that in order to be competitive and fully prepared for today’s economy a more global perspective is needed. To fill this need, new schools, both private and public, have been created to address this growing need and trend.

I hope this addresses your question and I can safely predict that we’ll continue to see more international, world, or global schools emerging in every corner of the world!


03/19/2013 - SN
So how's an international school different from Global and World schools, terms which are also making significant entries in schools.
09/07/2012 - Cindy
Hi HM,

To answer your questions (all great questions, by the way), we asked the experts to clarify these distinctions. We spoke with Bambi Betts, CEO of the Principals' Training Center, and here is how she answered your questions:

Q: What is the difference between community school and international school?

A: Each school is independent and typically private. Many schools include international in their name. This means different things to different people but essentially means that the school welcomes those from varied nationalities and generally promotes the skills and attitudes of global citizenship through its curriculum. -

Q: What do host countries benefit form international school?

A: This varies according to the laws in the country. In most, children from the host country are welcome, as long as they can meet the language requirements and the school is a good match with the type of education the parents desire. In some countries host country children are not allowed by the government to attend private, international, non-government schools ( eg China).

Q: From the point of civic, social and moral responsibilities, how do international school address such issues in relation to the national or local students of the host country?

A: This is completely dependent on the laws, incorporation arrangements and sentiments in each country.

Hope we have answered your questions, and all the best to you!

09/05/2012 - Hailemichael
I do appreciate the points discussed in this article. Would you please comment on the following questions too?
- What is the difference between community school and international school?
- What do host countries benefit form international school?
- From the point of civic, social and moral responsibilities, how do international school address such issues in relation to the national or local students of the host country?

07/11/2012 - Cindy
You would most likely be qualified for being a counselor at an international school.
Good luck!
07/10/2012 - Emmy
Hi, I am a licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience working with families and children. I have taught two college courses also.

Would there be any kind of position that I might be qualified for?
02/27/2012 - sasi
I love this article, indeed it is true in some places international school is pure business.
10/28/2011 - Cindy
Hi Rcardo,

Thank you for your positive feedback and interest. Yes, this is a hot button topic as the term international school is being used loosely in some places and it means different things to different people.

You are more than welcome to use excerpts for your piece and welcome your sharing it when it's done.

Thanks and best of luck!

10/27/2011 - Ricardo Sigwalt
Hello Cynthia,
Congratulations for this great article. I'm the Communication Assistant at the International School of Curitiba ( and I'm writing an article to the next issue of our magazine* about the criteria to be an International Education. Then I came across your article that says exactly what I need, so I was wondering if I could use some excerpts of it as quotes in mine, and of course give all the credits and the link to this website.

Here is the link to the online version of our magazine: (

Best regards.
- Ricardo Sigwalt -

09/22/2011 - Cindy
Hi Bill,
Thanks for your comments -- yes there is a wide range of types, styles, management structure, etc. among international schools. Please see Forrest Broman's article, International Schools -- Know Before You Go article --he clearly lays out 5 key points teachers should look for when making the decision on where to teach.
If you're interested in getting back into international teaching, I encourage you to subscribe to TIE, so you can immediately choose between hundreds (even thousands during peak periods) of international teaching jobs at top international schools.
09/21/2011 - Bill
I happened upon this article and for me having taught in international schools 11-12 years ago, found it addressed the issue head-on. It is well known among teachers in the international school community that there is quite a bit of disparity among international schools. We may not have been able to define it as some have attempted here, but you just knew when you saw it and when you worked there. I'd imagine with the growth of these schools around the world this is more of an issue. Thanks for clearly laying out the issues and information and it's making me interested in getting out there again!
08/31/2011 - Rani
I love this article! Great statistics!
08/30/2011 - Cindy Nagrath
Hello Gail,

Great question! There are two main transitions that kids in international schools often have to make – the academic and the social.

For the children of expats who travel frequently from country-to-country, parents generally enroll their children in schools compatible with their home country. So for example, British parents tend to seek British international schools, Americans will often seek American or American international schools, and Canadians may prefer Canadian overseas schools. These nation-specific programs are often preferred when parents know that their child will soon be returning to their home country, and wish to insure that their child is on track to continue their grade placement without missing any requirements or having to repeat a grade.

In addition to these types of schools, the vast majority of international students are enrolled in schools that are not beholden to one system or another, but simply termed, international school. These schools accommodate a wide range of students from many different countries and educational systems. Generally speaking, the international schools follow a curriculum that makes transitions relatively smooth, as the curriculum is compatible with other international schools, along with that of many nation-specific educational systems.

Furthermore, international schools teach in English as that is the one common denominator for all students. (Please look for our upcoming article, "International Schools – Understanding the Differences" for more detail on this subject.)

As far as the social and emotional transitions that children experience, most international schools are well equipped to handle these matters with their students. In fact, many students of these schools, have been referred to as third culture kids (TCK’s). This term was originally coined in the early 1960’s by a sociologist named, Ruth Hill Useem after her second year-long visit to India with her three children in the early 1950s. This phenomenon refers to children who have spent a significant portion of their childhood living in a foreign country or culture. Because they have travelled with their parents overseas and have spent their developmental years outside of their passport country, they have adopted three cultures – their parents or their home country’s culture; their host country’s culture; and a third culture -- which is a unique mix of the two, along with the various foreign cultures they have been exposed to through friendships and classmates from all over the world. TCK’s, because of their frequent travel and lack of time spent in their home country, often find that they have more in common with other TCK’s than they do with kids from their passport country. In fact, many, report a feeling of reverse culture shock upon returning to their home country.

08/28/2011 - Gail
Do the international schools make the transition easier or harder for those students whose parents may move from country to country over the term of their children's school years? Are there similiarities of curriculum which would make the adjustment more comfortable?