Smoke and mirrors at private international schools

Forward: This article about private international schools is my personal opinion only and in many ways reflects a number of generalisations, but it comes from decades of experience working in international schools including setting up and operating schools. Some food for thought, if you will…… (Greg Parry, Author)

<Famous Name> Private International Schools

Branding is very important and it will certainly attract market awareness. What is often not known however is that the overseas school can have a branding or licence agreement but it is not always being operated by the original school, or even for that matter by a high quality education team. Research will quickly show you that schools only succeed through high quality and strong management that reflects the very same standards that other successful schools represent. The name is just a name. Great schools are not easily duplicated in a McDonalds-like model of franchising. There are excellent examples of famous schools thriving but also many sad tales of failures. It was never the brand. It was the execution.

Best Academic Results in the Country

academic performance at Private schools

Commonly private international schools will brag about their graduating classes and the very high results they achieved. So they should! They should be proud of excellent results. However, 70-80% of students might actually have performed poorly. It is important to understand the concept of “distance travelled” and the ability of teachers, and a school, to move “most” students in a positive progression of achievement. ‘No student should remain anonymous’ and it can often be argued that excellent students can do well “in spite of the teacher”. Great schools move ALL children. Great schools move “C’s” to a “B” and “B’s” to “A’s”. Excellent teachers and schools improve all students. High results can be misleading, especially in high socio-economic areas, expensive schools and schools with selective admissions policies.

The Very Best Teachers /Principals/Heads of Private International Schools

The criteria that most “premium” international schools use for selecting international school teachers is: Minimum of 3 years overseas experience. For administrators it might be 5 or more years.

Yes, the students and schools are different in overseas locations and if the teacher/Head has 20 years experience in the UK, Australia or USA that could actually signal weaknesses in their profile, including the ability to adapt and change for a very different clientele and cultural context.

The school is in a unique country, most students might be ESL, their families have different cultural filters and perceptions on quality. There will be different legislative requirements, less support from colleagues, no historical track record, unique policies and procedures. It is likely to be nothing like the home country’s context.

The very best teachers will be the ones who can adapt to unique cultural contexts and meet the needs of students from a variety of backgrounds. Teacher and administrator profiles used just for branding may not be that helpful on the ground. Working internationally is very different and there is a reason why experienced teachers and administrators find it hard to be shortlisted overseas, without experience outside their country.

Best International Schools in the Country

A popular marketing game is for advertising agencies to list schools, for payment, in their directory and then list them as the “Best International Schools” in the country or region. Frequently these lists will include high quality schools that deserve such recognition but sometimes the list is in fact a list of those who contributed sponsorship. In many countries awards, recognition and the appearances on lists come with sponsorship.

Schools are best judged by two key measures:

1. Data (representing many factors including student achievement, and

2. School Opinion (What do parents, students and the community say)

What is the definition of a great school? Is it elite, so it only takes high performing students? Is it inclusive, meaning it takes children with learning disabilities? Is it small, large, focussed on a specific areas like Science, Technology, the Arts? By what measure are we defining greatness?

Profit verses Non-Profit International Schools

For decades there has been a clear separation made by both parents and teachers between “for-profit” and “not-for-profit” schools. The assumption was that for-profit schools were of a poorer quality because they were commercially focussed and less determined to achieve quality. This is certainly an incorrect generalisation. There are several non-profit schools with tens of millions of dollars in their bank and there are for-profits that make less profit than you might expect. There are also several non-profits under significant financial distress. Yes, there is a lot of profit to be made in education but decisions about quality are best made using education parameters and management alignment to vision and mission, not their financial status as an institution. It might be a better question to ask “How are decisions being made” because one or the other rather than both making the decisions together, can put educational or financial matters at risk.

private International schools

Who makes the Best Administrators?

The characteristics of great international school leaders include expertise in a myriad of areas:

The ability to navigate cultural Diversity

Understanding differentiation in the classroom


Curriculum leadership

Interpersonal Relationships

Business and Finance Acumen

…and countless others

Change Management


Critical Thinking



The ability to lead the curriculum, be it knowledge of IB, UK, US or others

For more details consider reading “What is the Recipe for Outstanding School Leadership?” and/or “Leadership Effectiveness – Being Global” and/or “Global Leadership and Cultural Diversity in Practice”

The list of characteristics is quite endless but I don’t see gender in any of the above. I don’t see colour. I don’t see nationality. There are many outstanding leaders of all backgrounds and we also need to challenge the paradigm of what personality type represents great leadership.

In an anecdotal, but not published study using Meyers Briggs profiling, it was found that many school leaders had a very similar “_STJ” profile. I would argue that “the system” led by other “_STJ’s” created a culture whereby that became the preferred personality profile for schools in that region. There is no perfect or preferred profile, surely. Read More

Great leadership looks different for different contexts and it does not look male, female, introvert, extrovert, logical, pragmatic, intuitive or sensory. It looks like the outcomes it delivers.

Misuse of the term “International School”

Sadly, the term “International School” has morphed into many different definitions. Originally, international schools were created for expatriates who travel frequently over the school life of a child. Parents wanted a seamless and consistent model that was not dependent on location.

Now I pose several questions that challenge assumptions:

Is a British/American School located overseas automatically “international”?

Is a school “international” just because it is offering an overseas curriculum?

Is a school international because of the nature of its students or is it ok if there is limited diversity in the student population?

Do the teacher nationalities make the school international?

I will not answer these questions directly but it is certainly food for thought. The term is being used for everything from small tuition centres to genuine and premium K-12 international schools.

Beautiful Buildings and Big Offices at Private International Schools

Certainly in some cultures the grand nature of large offices and buildings brings status and a perception of quality. The very best, and most expensive, schools have amazing facilities but some schools can tip the balance in the wrong direction. Are they designed for purpose and function?

The following images reflect two very different school designs:

Both are great schools. Chancellor College in Queensland, Australia, is arguably one of the finest schools in the State. Eton College requires no introduction. The above designs match the location, the climate and clientele but some of the decisions are educational, some are historical and others are architectural.

The point is, facilities don’t tell the full story. Every school is different and the full balance of investment, where funds are spent and why, is very important. Grand offices might impress visitors but books and technology accelerates learning for students.

The very best Architects use a comprehensive design process to “make things beautiful” but also accelerate educational outcomes for students.

We Can See Where The Tuition Fees Are Being Spent. Can you really?

salaries in private international schools

Beautiful facilities, large marketing campaigns, offices and entertainment.

You might be surprised.

The largest expense in any school is human resources. i.e. teacher salaries.

In schools the staff salaries can represent anywhere from 40-80% of annual operation costs. Full accredited, experienced, well qualified teachers are very expensive and this budget line item requires high tuition fees to balance costs. Parents get tricked when they pay high tuition fees but the school might be employing poor quality teachers at marginal rates. Similarly, in a school start up it is challenging when developers want an “affordable” school but the very best teachers. This requires careful planning and budget balancing. Tuition fees directly correlate to teacher salaries, most of the time.

Look closely, plan carefully.

Whether you are looking to set up a new school or improve an existing one.

Maybe you are a parent looking to choose a school or a teacher wanting to enter international education.

International education is a complex but very exciting world.

If you want to learn more about the steps required to set up a school or an international school franchise check out some of our other articles:

Steps to Setting Up a New School

10 Steps and Articles on How to Set Up a New School

GSE International School Franchise Models

GSE provide specialist services to set up all forms of education institutions including international schools, kindergartens, vocational colleges, universities and online/virtual schools.

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CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry

Greg Parry

Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.

Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and principals throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.

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