As international schools navigate their changing customer bases in the post-pandemic world, Liz Duffy sets out the opportunities and challenges for the sector.
International schools, which traditionally cater to the children of expat workers, are at a tipping point. As fewer companies relocate staff in the age of Zoom and Slack, tuition fees are increasingly coming from families, not corporations. And, facing an economic downturn and high running costs, income is becoming more precarious for some schools as their core customers change and their purpose shifts.
“While there are some schools that are in sort of unusual positions in the sense that they’re growing, a lot of schools are facing shrinking enrolments or just pressure on tuition and, at the same time, pressure on prices,” says Liz Duffy, president of International Schools Services.
“The pandemic accelerated this because a lot of companies recognised that you didn’t have to send people overseas.”
Now international schools are increasingly focusing on local children whose families want them to have a globally-minded education. Through her role at ISS, a global nonprofit with a mission to improve the quality of international education, Duffy is in a prime position to see how this paradigm shift will ultimately play out.
ISS has been around since 1955 and employs approximately 75 people, half of whom are based in the US. The other half are spread around the world. The organisation offers services including teacher and leader recruitment, school start-up and management, and financial services, focusing on English-medium schools in all locations.
“Ultimately we want to make a difference to the students who are at international schools and prepare them to be global leaders,” Duffy says. “But we do that again through the schools and the educators.”
Duffy began her career in higher education in the US before going on to head up a boarding school in New Jersey which, although not an international school, hosted pupils from across the globe. She has been working at ISS for the past eight years.
During that time, one of the regions that has changed the most is China. “For a long time, China was a real focus because there was huge growth,” says Duffy.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have begun to crackdown on international schools and foreign-owned private schools, including limiting the teaching of international curriculums and banning schools that teach Chinese students from using foreign words in their names.
As a result, some international school brands are reconsidering investing in China. “I think many Chinese families who want international education for their kids are leaving China and going to other parts of Asia,” Duffy says, explaining that countries including Vietnam, Thailand and Laos are emerging as a result.
At the same time, international schools are also facing a reckoning when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, including grappling with their own colonial pasts.
“What does it mean to prioritise English?”
These histories are reflected in various aspects of the international school experience, from the sometimes differing treatment of expat and local staff to the language of instruction.
“There’s still plenty of schools around the world where you get in trouble if you don’t speak English, which is really different than having a bilingual or multilingual emphasis,” Duffy says. “What does it mean to prioritise English? And are there ways to actually prioritise multilingualism as opposed to only English speaking?”
She believes that international schools are well-positioned to overcome these challenges, particularly “given the diversity among the students and increasingly among the faculty and staff”.
Post-pandemic, international schools also face questions around the role of technology in the classroom.
“I think Covid taught us what’s really special about schools in that face-to-face, person-to-person interaction,” says Duffy. “On the other hand, there was really a lot that was good about online education for some students. It actually served them better.
“What’s interesting is, now that we’ve gone back to face-to-face, there was such a desire to recapture the magic of that, that I think some of what we learned has been lost and people are trying to recalibrate again.”
These worries have been exacerbated with the advent of AI chatbot ChatGPT. Duffy says that while she understands people’s concerns about whether students will be writing their own essays, AI is here to stay. “So how can schools actually harness the power of those tools and help kids to harness the power of those tools?” she asks.
“Oftentimes the instinctive reaction is ‘no, it’s bad’. I think we need to take a much more nuanced approach to that.”
Despite the turbulence facing the sector, Duffy continues to advocate for the industry. “Being an educator is one of the most rewarding opportunities, and I think that’s true anywhere in the world, but particularly being an international teacher,” says Duffy.
“It’s a great way for you and your family to truly see the world, meet people from all over, have a voice in training the next generation of kids that are going to go out and do great things in the world.”
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