FF Life: The international school conundrum

A new, growing set of international schools in India offer the allure of a contemporary and modern educational experience and well-rounded development of your child. But are they really able to live up to that promise?

Ambica Naithani

[From Unsplash]

International schools are starting to mushroom across the country. Not just in the metropolitan cities, but increasingly in the Tier II cities as well. Names like Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Pathways School, JBCN, Ecole Mondiale, and Oberoi International School, are now starting to get noticed. 

Traditional favourites like the Doon School, Cathedral and John Connon School, Mussoorie International, and some DPS franchise schools have added the option of an international curricula—International Baccalaureate (IB) and Cambridge IGCSE—to their existing menu of CBSE or ICSE, the two dominant national boards.

Before we dive into what to consider when choosing the right school, let’s address some basics.  

For most part, these international schools remain on the fringes. At last count, there were a little more than 600 schools offering the IGCSE programme run by the University of Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE). The IGCSE programme is recognised world-wide, with over 10,000 schools in 160 countries offering the qualifications. 

On the other hand, there are around 210 schools across the country offering either one or more IB programmes. But you will find many schools offer the IB Primary Year Programme (for ages 3 to 12), then switch to Cambridge IGCSE (far more popular than its counterpart, IB’s Middle Year Programme for ages 11 to 16), and then back to IB Diploma Programme (for ages 16 to 19) as the transition from IGCSE is smoother for a student.

(IGCSE is popular because the assessments are a certain type so there are no surprises. In IB’s Middle Year Programme, it is up to the teacher to design the assessments, so creative assessments could sometimes come at the cost of structured papers as we know them.) 

There are basic differences in the way these curricula are run. (You can read about that here.) 

However, without getting caught in the weeds, there’s a basic thumb rule: based on current trends, the chances are that the IB Diploma Programme, meant for high school students in Class XI and XII, is seen as a preferred option because of its innovative approach to curriculum development and the wider choice students can make, compared to its counterpart the Cambridge A levels. 

Schools have traditionally carried unique identities—some are known for their academic successes and their legacy and heritage, while others boast of sporting capabilities, exposure to co-curricular activities, etc. International schools go a step further by innovating around teaching and learning, assessments, professional development, outreach programmes for local communities, to name a few. That is because unlike their Indian counterparts, international boards encourage schools to innovate around these practices and schools on their part try their best to stand out.

Choosing between the Cambridge and IB boards is still not an easy decision for many parents. Especially for those who want to send their kids abroad for higher studies.

I’ve now invested a decade in studying this international school phenomenon, first as a business journalist at The Economic Times, and then as an economics teacher at Bombay International School (BIS) and at Cathedral and John Connon where I have also coordinated aspects of international curricula. My more recent work as a programme leader with the IB board has taken me to many schools that have signed up for the IB programme, to evaluate how they were adapting to the new approach.

To put it mildly, these schools are expensive even for an upper middle class family. But costs aside, there are very good reasons why these schools could emerge as alternatives to CBSE and ICSE schools. Equally, there are many myths and misconceptions associated with these international boards as well. 

This column is meant to provide a balanced perspective, based on my experience, on what to watch out for—and some of the key questions that are worth asking.

How does the prevailing obsession with grades impact the quality of learning in an international school?

Parents dole out an exorbitant amount for an international education—three to four times what they would have paid in the national curriculum. Add to it the examination fee, and fee for school excursions, bus, canteen, uniform, etc. Not to forget tuitions that have become as ubiquitous in the international curricula as they have been in the national curricula.

For instance, in Mumbai, the cost of tuition for high school students in an international curriculum can range from Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 an hour depending on the subject, pin code where the student resides and the class size. A complete package for completing the syllabus over approximately 18 months is Rs 2-2.5 lakh, which is more than half of what a student would pay as tuition fees in the national curricula. 

When parents invest so heavily in their child’s education, they invariably demand tangible/quantifiable returns. Grades are a tangible measure, but it almost borders on obsession. I’ve been part of parent teacher meetings where parents, instead of inquiring about the student’s overall development, end up taking copious notes on their child’s performance, on what needs to be done to improve grades and predicting their child’s learning graph. Even students are under severe stress to haggle over grades, particularly in high school. 

This insidious obsession with grades systematically prevents students from enjoying a curriculum that has a lot to offer.  

It is not uncommon to see high school students opt for subjects that they feel are “more scoring” even if they were really inclined towards the “tougher subjects”. 

There’s an obvious reason for this mad pursuit of grades—students need a higher GPA to secure university admissions abroad. In fact, some schools that run fantastic early year and primary programmes, true every bit to the philosophy of an international board, have senior classes that look very different. 

Most schools, and hence teachers, are under severe pressure to justify the high fees they charge. This gets accentuated by the fact that teacher and student/parent relationships are now more akin to that of a consultant and client. The reason why schools shy away from taking a road less travelled is that the current system helps them attract and retain clients—parents—and in turn keeps their cash registers ringing. Schools dangle the grades carrot and demonstrate their “track record” to parents (where success is defined by how many of their students were able to get into Ivy League colleges). This perpetuates the fear that grades are the only way out. After all, most parents are also products of the same system. It takes deep conviction to break away from the rat race, even if it means that their student isn’t able to secure admission to a top college abroad or in India.

As a result, teachers are often forced to perpetuate the rote learning system and focus on arming students with the skills for assessments. So a teacher may not innovate around assessments and administer these as they would look like in the final exam—an opportunity for creating a podcast could get crushed by a question and answer format .

At one level, that’s not surprising. With the proliferation of nuclear families and the trend that most couples now have fewer children, the attention parents give their wards is a lot more than what it used to be. While parental involvement is critical for a child’s development, this often comes at the cost of a teacher’s autonomy and independence.

Mind you, this is a systemic issue, and isn’t just restricted to the international curricula. Take the case of the Krishnamurti Foundation (KFI) that runs the Rishi Valley School, among others. During a teacher training programme organised by KFI that I attended, a faculty member mentioned that when a child comes to Grade 9, even parents who are invested in the philosophy of no competition invariably ask, “All this is okay, but how will they be prepared to crack the board exams?”

How does the focus on all-round development of your ward manifest in an international school?

The international curricula aims to develop curious, independent thinkers who are equipped with real life skills such as research, collaboration, and risk taking, that emerge not as a part of exams and unit tests.

Teaching to only crack exams is a unidirectional approach—it can actually prevent developing some very critical skills that play a role in life-long learning.

The international boards lay a lot of emphasis on co-curricular activities to build entrepreneurial and leadership skills and promote risk-taking ability. 

For example, you have Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) which is not a formally assessed subject in the IB Diploma Program where students undertake one project that has outcomes of personal growth and community service. If executed with genuineness, this can have a huge impact on a child. 

But sadly, the focus on grades and tangible outcomes transcends to even the non-academic side of school life such as CAS. I’ve seen many students deftly articulate moving tales of community service without having fully internalised the experience. Then again, in the pursuit of building their profiles, I’ve also seen some students invest disproportionate time pursuing inter-school festivals like Mock United Nations, and begin to panic when their grades start to drop. Striking a balance between academics and extracurricular activities isn’t always easy when students are under pressure to deliver results and tend to forget that learning, both inside the classroom and outside, needs to be an enjoyable experience.

How do parents trust teachers who’ve transitioned from the national to international curriculum?

In 2015, one of the leading ICSE schools in Mumbai I was associated with, decided to introduce the IB curriculum. They asked how many from the existing pool of teachers would be interested in teaching the new international curriculum and be willing to undergo the mandatory training programme. As soon as the parents heard about this development, they raised a hue and cry. How can a teacher who has taught the traditional curriculum for many years cope with an entirely different teaching-learning approach? To be fair, it isn’t a trivial argument. Not every teacher has the agility and the adaptability to make this transition. 

Likewise, there are also teachers who have a natural orientation towards incorporating innovative teaching methods and skill building as emphasised in the international curricula, but are stuck in a system that doesn't allow a way out. 

So, it becomes difficult for a school to take a call on staffing while adding international curriculum without upsetting teachers or parents or both.

When I was part of the team that was instrumental in setting up the IGCSE system at Cathedral and John Connon in 2019, a parent asked me why schools didn’t hire expats for leadership positions. I found this baffling. The emphasis seemed more on colour than on competence. 

It is baffling more so because early Indian educationists stood for values that resonate deeply with the international curricula. For example, Tagore’s educational philosophy was marked by four fundamental themes: naturalism, humanism, internationalism and idealism. But rather than an organic path to pursue these objectives, very often schools work backwards to create evidence to comply with standards designed by international boards. The problem with this is that international education’s dynamism is thwarted and the benefits to students are reduced significantly. Take for example Oberoi International School—I hear from colleagues that they take the inclusivity arrangements very seriously. There are two staff members in every class for remedial teaching for students who need it. Not all schools are invested in ensuring emotional well being to this extent; some just do the bare minimum to tick the box.

Having said that, it isn’t entirely an unfair demand to ask for expat school leaders. Expat school leaders bring years of cross-cultural experience in running an international schooling system. They understand the task of building culture and leadership from scratch. But their salaries could be nearly triple that of a locally groomed teacher and this ends up distorting cost structures. It also creates inequities in the system. After all, there are local teachers, albeit a small pool, who have the requisite leadership skills to fashion a transformative educational experience. Then there’s the added risk of these expat school leaders suddenly leaving, before the school has been able to build its own leadership pipeline. It creates a void that is difficult to fill.

Developing a pipeline of teachers calls for a far more systemic approach. For instance, Singapore is lauded for its education system, and like India, the system lays a lot of emphasis on assessments. Singapore has been criticised in the past for creating a high stress environment for its students. But that is just one side of the story. They have been able to systematically develop a pool of competent teachers. Only the top third of high school graduates have a chance to be recruited as teachers. Teacher trainees receive a monthly stipend, equivalent to 60% of a teacher’s starting salary. They also don’t have to pay any tuition if they commit to investing at least three years in teaching. In India, school teaching still remains the profession of the last resort, for most part.

In fact, The Indian Express reported on May 9 that Delhi University would replace the Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed) with an Integrated Teacher Education Program (ITEP), which is a far less rigorous course. This is another blow to our system and the move has been severely criticised. 

Even in Singapore, the system is being overhauled. The government has started to take cognisance of the duress caused by high stake exams. Starting this year, the system of mid-year exams for primary and secondary school goers has been scrapped.

What will it take to overhaul the system?

Now, here’s the moot point. Just having an international board, but with an archaic mindset will not bring about change. There is a dire need for schools that celebrate human uniqueness and promote student agency (not appeasement), build capabilities among teachers and co-opt parents into building the ethos of a school. All through a democratic process. And instead of a single-minded pursuit of grades, there is a need to pursue excellence in all facets. Grades will follow. For that to happen, policies, practices and the culture of the school need to come together to promote excellence.

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About the author

Ambica Naithani
Ambica Naithani


at international schools

Ambica Naithani is a teacher with almost a decade-long experience of working at international schools. She has taught economics to high school students in Bombay International School and The Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai where she also coordinated some aspects of the international curriculum. Ambica is also a programme leader with the IBO and visits schools for evaluation and verification. 

A third-generation teacher in her family, Ambica strongly believes in retaining the nobility of the vocation while embracing contemporary practices in education. Apart from teaching, Ambica is also deeply involved in professional development and leads workshops with the IBO and also in-house workshops in schools. Previously, Ambica covered education as part of the features team at The Economic Times which helps her give a balanced perspective to a narrative. 

Ambica completed her masters in development studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London as a Sir Ratan Tata trust (SRTT) scholar. Apart from teaching, Ambica loves to write on education and on stories of human interest. Her twitter handle is @ambicanaithani 

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