We all know that some international schools are definitely better than others. What are the secrets? What are the differences? What makes one international school better than another?
Long Term Vision
Great schools have an incredible conviction towards standards that are above and beyond the norm. Their focus on education quality is central to success of the school. The very good for-profit schools achieve profit but that is not where their conversations begin. The profit comes as a consequence of their insatiable thirst for quality. If we consider countries that have recently been highlighted as having the very best schools or education models in the world we see visions that also reflect this determination. Singapore had an ambitious vision to propel their economy from third world to first by making education central to their plan; China’s 2020 vision was developed with a determined focus on universal high school graduation and world-class universities; Alberta, Canada engaged its citizens to contribute to a discussions on what the educated Albertan of 2030 should look like. A clear example of making vision crystal clear. Finland’s schools determined a vision that made education quality central to its goals of becoming a modern society and economy, free from domination by larger powers. Great schools do not compromise on a long term quality vision and this vision permeates every conversation and decision. It becomes the every day. It is not the educational content, not always the micro-strategies. It is all the things that reflect and power a remarkable vision.
Strong and Sustained Leadership
The above countries determined visions and they set goals well beyond the tenure of their political leaders. Schools must also build visions beyond the tenure of their current Heads of School or Principals. Community buy-in, ambitious and almost unreachable goals must be attached to long term strategic frameworks. They must be attached to very clear and deliberate plans. Substantial changes on a large scale must be driven and motivated by a very attractive vision as well as a plan that goes beyond the current contracts of school leadership. If the goal seems unreachable and a little bit ambitious it might just be the right goal. If the achievement is not likely to happen immediately, it might also be a good timeline you are setting for the school. Legacies are not built within 2-3 years. It takes long term and sustained leadership.
Highly Ambitious Standards
It goes without saying that very high standards need to drive planning and performance however it takes all stakeholders to fully grasp that reach. It begins with school leadership then this picture needs to become equally clear to all stakeholders. We know that high socioeconomic groups and demographics of parents who have previously achieved high educational standards also have children who achieve similar standards. But it is not biology. The “quality world picture” is shared by all members of that group and the environment lives and breathes an expectation of high performance. There is no consideration other than a determined focus on positive achievement. The countries that have achieved an excellent reputation for education quality all adopted standards at a national level, not a local level. The standards were driven from the top then all stakeholders were engaged. International schools must be led by leaders with highly ambitious standards and an ability to stretch the vision and picture of their stakeholders.
Very Strong Commitment to Equity
International School leaders all proclaim their commitment to equity, but successful international schools focus on achieving equity in a strong and deliberate way across the complete cohort. We know that high achieving students sometimes achieve excellent grades in spite of their teacher of the environment they are educated in. Of course schools will celebrate their highest achievers, but what about “the average” students. “No child should remain anonymous” and every child should improve. We refer to this as “distance travelled”. If a child is a “C” then what must be done to move that grade to a “B.” If a child is an “A” then are we done? What about an “A+”? Every child must improve and we need to commit to every child sharing equitable attention and influence by the strategies and vision we have in place.
High Quality International School Teachers and Leaders
The big ideas, vision, strategic plans and reforms are exciting but unless schools have the teachers and leadership to carry them out then they remain empty words. No matter what reform strategy a school is pursuing pursuing, the quality of the school rests on the quality of its teachers. Excellent international schools adopt policies to attract, prepare, support, reward, retain, and advance high-quality teachers. Their focus and energy is up front in recruiting and supporting high-quality teachers rather than on the back end of reducing attrition and firing weak teachers.
Alignment and Coherence of Vision and Practice
During reform processes it is not uncommon for gaps to appear between vision and policy or actual practice within the classrooms. Michael Fullan refers to this as the Implementation Dip. A short term reduction in quality after making changes is natural so we need to predict and counter that with other strategies that build alignment. Behaviours will change before beliefs. Leadership must model and direct behaviours that align to the vision and in time the beliefs will come around. “Does this idea, plan, policy or change reflect or contribute to achievement of our vision” must be a question leaders ask out loud on a daily basis. Feelings are important. Emotion counts. Stakeholders will accelerate change when they become emotionally invested and committed to the vision. It starts with small steps but it must happen in order for Alignment and coherence to occur. We can all perform tasks in isolation but unless the action reflects complete coherence with a vision it is just an action.
School systems such as Singapore and Finland have devolved leadership as much as they can to the schools and the teachers. Although they set high standards at a national level they encourage schools, leaders and teachers to take responsibility for the “how.” There are lessons from this in all schools and international school leaders should be cautious when directing teachers too much, in a micro-management model, that tells people how to achieve the goal. When we build capacity within the organisation, devolve responsibility and share buy-in our team members are more likely to commit and then produce the results. Let’s face it, good teachers are more likely to understand their unique grade level or subject contexts as well as their children. Let’s make the standards crystal clear but then require staff to develop and implement a plan to achieve it. Set the standard but be cautious about drafting the exact plan.
Effective use of Educational Resources
High expenditure does not mean high performance. In fact many schools achieve excellent results with moderate budgets. Having said that, resources do matter and well informed choices must be made to ensure selection and utilisation is optimised. In general, our experience with high performing schools is that they don’t spend as much of their budget on buildings, sports, marketing or separate and unique education functions. They also tend to make different types of trade offs between class size and time for teachers to devote to professional development. They invest in time for their team. They recognise that their human resources are the most valuable resource.
Student Motivation and Engagement
The difference in intensity and the focus and time on task of students in high-performing systems is strikingly different to other schools.
How do they do it?
High-performing systems motivate their students to study hard through both intrinsic and external incentives. There are also cultural factors that come in to play. Not all children and families are different.
In Asian international schools, the intense belief that effort, not ability, is the prime determinant of success, combined with the high value families place on education as a route to social mobility creates powerful motivation. They care about exams and the results signal success.
Students in Finnish classrooms are also intently engaged, but by a different means. Finnish education is rooted in ideas of discovery and self-directed learning. Teachers are extremely well-trained in this type of education. Their motivation is much more intrinsic and holistic education is highly valued.
In Ontario, the focus is on individualization. The system employs staff, who work individually with at-risk students to create multiple pathways to graduation. Coaching and mentoring has become central to helping students achieve.
Profit verse Non-Profit
Is one better than the other? There are arguments on both sides but to be honest the fact that they are for-profit, or not, is not what will make one school better performing than another. It is “how” decisions are made, the true long term vision of the school and the management priorities of the school. All schools should have the same goal of high achievement including both student grades as well as the many other characteristics of high quality education we all know and value. A school is profitable long term, as a consequence of quality education and service to its community. Problems occur when there is not an alignment between management practice and vision. If the conversations are about profit first, then of course decisions will reflect that paradigm or way of thinking. If the focus is on quality standards, the profit will come naturally as a consequence of the education it provides. There is no money without mission and of course there is no mission without money. A school climate that values education standards first though, will always make more profit than others.
Global Orientation and International-Mindedness
International schools care about grades but they also care a great deal about children’s ways of thinking. The word “international-minded” has become a unique concept that drives the vision and values of international school culture and achievement. They also emphasize international benchmarking, constantly looking around the world for international best practices, and using benchmarking as a tool for improving their pedagogy, curriculum and practices. Many international schools study international best practice but then contextualise and implement it in unique ways locally.The truth is, you cannot copy best practice. It is not the content or the strategy alone. It is the effectiveness of implementation and the “how.” The world is much smaller now and international schools are very committed to making it smaller. They seek out new practices and operationalise a vision that is truly global.
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CEO and Education Expert 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.
Global Services in Education set up and operate schools in all parts of the world. Governed by a philosophy of global citizenship, every member of the GSE team shares a passion to help shape international education and student achievement through inspiration and collaboration.
Our goal is to meet the highest objectives of every school, teacher, student and parent, with an unwavering dedication to quality education, shared ideals and intercultural perspectives.