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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

Are international schools worth it? Cost Versus Value

"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest" – Benjamin Franklin

Fact checks: More and more Malaysian parents opt for international schools with the hope to expose their children to the best education program possible. The desires for Western education programs remain high in Malaysia, but education can be an expensive affair. Despite the hefty price tag, many parents believe it is a worthwhile investment.

In an era of global changes, students who study at international schools will benefit from the exposure of a multicultural classroom. These schools not only teach students the importance of being open minded, most importantly, they acquire skills that can help them tackle multiple challenges the future may present as they enter adulthood. A more balanced international curriculum that focuses on both academic and personal development can better prepare students to become confident, well-adjusted individuals. On top of that, international schools are constantly looking around the world for international best practices rooted in ideas of discovery and self-directed learning to help students reach their full potential.

Jarlath Madine, Principal of Beaconhouse Newlands International School

Why international schools are worth it? According to Jarlath Madine, a global education expert who understands the importance of promoting teacher diversity and a broader range of learning experiences to students, international schools can better support the current generations to thrive in global communities. It can open doors to more opportunities including entering competitive Western universities. Blending an international curriculum with contemporary modern thinking are some characteristics of international schools.

An Ireland resident, Jarlath has over 30 years of experience managing schools in the UK and other parts of the world including Qatar, Bangkok, Vietnam and Dubai. Currently, he is the school principal of Beaconhouse Newlands International School.

What are the core factors that contribute to a good international school that can be realistically achieved around the world?

In a tech-saturated world, having the right teachers who are globally competent is crucial. They can inspire young people to foster a global mindset, and provide the necessary skills to help them build more confidence and develop better social skills. A good international school understands the importance of promoting global awareness and intercultural communication competence. It will be a tough challenge for our future generations if they don’t acquire some understanding of other people of other cultures in other countries. Modern day students must recognise the importance of cultural diversity so that they can develop better cross-cultural communication skills.

Exposing students to issues related to real-world problems is another characteristic of international schools. Students learn how to share their views and value different opinions even if they don’t see eye to eye with each other. Teachers from international schools care a great deal about how to improve student critical thinking skills, not just grades. In a traditional classroom, students are taught to rely on teachers to feed them the materials, information and proper instructions. Individuality and independent thinking are not promoted to those students. This is one of the reasons why many parents send their children to international schools. They want their children to feel safe to express their ideas and beliefs.

Based on the fees paid by Malaysian parents, what benefits do you think international education brings over locally sourced education?

Education is a form of investment. It can set a child up for future success. A good international school should provide resources to meet the growing educational needs of children. It’s true schools with teachers from overseas usually cost more to employ. A school with a high percentage of expatriate teachers will demand higher fees from parents. However, expatriate teachers don’t necessarily guarantee value for money or even quality of teaching. It all depends on a teacher’s teaching experience, qualification, teaching skills, continuous teacher training plans but most of all, his or her ability to inspire students to develop a global mindset. Having overseas teaching experience is great, but it's not a must. Kids around the world share many similarities.

Most international schools in Malaysia have a tendency to hire teachers of different cultural backgrounds. That’s a plus point. No doubt, exposing students to an international environment at a young age will help them strengthen their social skills and minimise the fear of cross-cultural communication.

Are expatriate teachers truly necessary to create your definition of a good international school?

The answer is no. I have met very good Asian teachers who can teach an international curriculum successfully. In Vietnam, some local teachers are highly skillful. They constantly up-skill themselves and keep up with the latest education development. I have no doubt that they can teach anywhere in the world. I have also met expatriate teachers who lack of good teaching and communication skills. To me, having a good blend of expatriate and local teachers are important. This will help parents save some money on school fees but most of all; students are given the opportunity to expose themselves to a broader range of ideas from teachers of different backgrounds.

In today’s world, a global mindset is no longer considered a novelty, but a necessity. Educators who know how to prepare students as leaders with a global mindset are valuable assets to schools. They possess the ability to inspire students to open up to new experiences, embrace new ideas and challenge old beliefs.

It’s not hard to find teachers who can follow a syllabus and deliver the contents of subjects, transferring knowledge from books to students. Some international schools still practice the traditional approach to education for international education programs. Students are conditioned to listen and give “correct” answers. Because they are not trained to make an effort to think for themselves and share their views, they become passive listeners. As they grow older, they may show less interest in learning new knowledge. Usually, these students are more reserved in asking creative questions. To sum up, teacher quality matters most. Good teachers are a school’s greatest asset regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality.

In a country focused highly on academic performance, what are the biggest challenges faced by you and your school?

The role plays by culture in influencing students cannot be underestimated. Culture affects parenting styles, attitudes toward the child and academic achievement. To achieve academic success is not a problem. They are ways and tips to help a child to improve his or her study in order to get higher marks in exams. But this is not what education is about. Education is about preparing a child for life, not how to ace exams. Students who focus most of their energy on how to score exams may lack good social skills. Therefore a good school must provide extra activities that can support a child’s interest and overall growth. I often tell parents to focus on their children interests besides academic performance. A child who loves to dance should go to a school that includes dance in extracurricular activities.

I have four grown-up children. When they were little, one of them enjoyed spending long hours reading. My daughter loved to play and chat with her dolls and teddy bears. As for my other sons, one was fond of drawing and the other enjoyed assembling construction kits. I supported their interests and helped them develop new skills. They all ended up selecting the courses related to their interests in universities. Now, one is working in a field related to English and American literature. The one who enjoyed messing with construction kits; he is a mechanical engineer today. My daughter runs her own business, she is an event planner. She enjoys socializing with people and organizing parties. The one who enjoyed drawing works as a graphic designer. They all do very well in their professions. This is what education is about. The school must provide a wide range of activities for students to pursue their interests and empower their sense of self-worth.

We can’t deny the fact that exams are important to assess a child’s learning but success in life can’t be defined by exam results alone. There are many factors that contribute to a successful career; one of them is life skills. For example leadership skills, confidence in speaking, problem-solving skills just to name a few. Without these skills, it is impossible to prepare students to be effective global citizens.

Some local parents are concerned about the disciplinary issues at international schools especially schools run by expatriates due to different cultural backgrounds and values. What is your view on this?

Managing disciplinary issues is a major concern for any school, not just international schools. As I have mentioned before, teachers with global mindsets are an asset to any school because they can analyse problems from multiple perspectives, due to the fact that they have experience teaching in multicultural classrooms.

Depending on where you come from, discipline can mean different thing to different people. Some schools prefer students to sit still and remain quiet during lessons, answer questions only when asked by teachers. They are not encouraged to discuss or share their views during class time. This usually happens to larger classes. If teachers are given 45 minutes to teach, it is impossible for them to spend 2 to 5 minutes answering questions from different students. In this case, being quiet is seen as a good virtue. Even today, for the most part, we can still find schools that focus on training students to sit quietly during lessons, take notes, memorizing the content and score exams.

Fortunately, some schools are changing for the better. Taking small steps in changing the school management styles and teaching approaches are always a good start. It can lead to big results. Experts say students need movement to improve their ability to focus better. For schools that embrace modern teaching methods, students are allowed to stretch or sit casually in classrooms. They are encouraged to ask questions that can open up to more meaningful discussions related to critical topics. Teachers who use a flipped classroom model not only increase student-teacher interaction, but student-student interaction as well.

To me, discipline means using preventative strategies to support positive learning habit, and promote self-regulated behaviour so that students can create routines and structure that help them do well in school.

Some international schools are extremely diverse - represent more than 30 nationalities. We need to understand that what we see as misbehaviour in some children may not be viewed the same thing to those from another culture. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to find effective strategies to meet the needs of students from different cultural backgrounds to minimise misunderstandings. Comparing and

contrasting Eastern and Western values will lead to a better understanding of the world we live in. Our students will certainty benefit from having teachers of different nationalities as we are living in an era of ongoing globalisation.

Published in Dreamic Educational Magazine 2021.

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