What Makes an International School International?

Written by BFIS Staff

As you may have noticed, International schools continue to grow in number at an ever increasing pace. ISC Research, an organization dedicated to researching and analyzing the international school market, reported in July 2022 that there were more than 13,000 English international schools around the world enrolling 5.8 million students.

According to ISC, Spain leads the ranking in Europe with 280 international schools, many of them located in Madrid and Barcelona. 

When a family decides to enroll their children in an International school, what should they expect? 

Are all international schools the same? 

As a matter of fact, what makes an international school really international? What is behind the word  International on a school name?

What should an International school be?

International schools appear in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of formats and curricula. There is not an established definition for what an international school should be. In fact, ISC Research considers that an international school is just any school that teaches in English outside English-speaking territories. But many education leaders around the world do not agree with that definition.

Criteria Checklist

In 2009, the IASL (International Association of School Librarianship) offered the following (now widely referenced) international school criteria checklist:

  1. Transferability of students’ education across international schools
  2. A more transient student population (higher than in national public schools)
  3. A multinational and multilingual student body
  4. An international curriculum (ex. International Baccalaureate Diploma, Middle Years Program etc.)
  5. International accreditation and memberships (e.g. Council of International Schools, International Baccalaureate, foreign country specific accrediting agencies, Educational Collaborative of International Schools etc.)
  6. A more transient, multinational teacher population
  7. Non-selective student enrollment
  8. Usually English (or bi-lingual) as a language of instruction with English as an additional language support for International students.

But again, not everyone in the education sector agrees with those criteria.

What about schools that comply with three or four points of the checklist but not with all of them? 

And to what extent should they meet these criteria? 

Is it enough to host a 10% multinational student body to meet criteria number 3? 

Is it enough to teach the IB Diploma Program in the last two years of High School to meet number 4? 

Should or shouldn’t these schools be allowed to call themselves international? Where is the line that separates one from the others?

That is a tricky question that has been out there for decades and, unfortunately, we won’t solve it in this article. But, as an international school that complies with all the criteria listed above, we, at BFIS, believe there is an important element missing in that list, or at least it is not explicitly identified. 

International Mindedness

The aspect that truly makes a difference when speaking about international education is: “infusing an international-mindedness among the student body”. 

In an international school setting, international-mindedness is a core aspect of the school’s philosophy, curriculum and teaching and learning approach. 

It refers to the school’s commitment to fostering global awareness and intercultural understanding in its students, encouraging them to see things from different perspectives and to understand different beliefs and practices from around the world.

It means helping students to gain a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of global issues, cultures, and communities and that the world is so much bigger than ourselves and our surroundings. It means to encourage them to take collective action to solve complex global problems (poverty, migration, human rights abuses, climate change, etc.) and promoting values such as tolerance, empathy, compassion, and respect for all people. 

BFIS’ graduate profile is rooted in the concept of international mindedness. The school aims to develop well-rounded and open-minded global citizens who navigate an interconnected world and solve problems that contribute to making the world a better place to live and coexist.  

International School Barcelona

Interconnected and globalized world

International mindedness is not just taught in the classroom. It is embedded in all aspects of the school, in the interpersonal relationships (between peers, students and teachers, among school staff, and among all members of the school community), in extracurricular activities, in school clubs, in school community events, and service-learning projects.

International mindedness is not a new concept. It has been around for many years and it has been gaining importance as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and globalized. In fact, international mindedness is a central aspect of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, created more than 50 years ago. 

And it is surprising that even though this concept has been around for so long, it is so often sidelined when talking about some schools that call themselves international schools. 

Research and debate about what makes an international school international has gone on for a long time and has never reached a consensus. There is not a single and universally accepted definition of what an international school is, and the criteria to determine what constitutes one can vary from country to country, from school to school and even from individual to individual. 

For us, international-mindedness captures the aim of an international education which is what BFIS aims to offer to its students, besides a high quality academic curriculum. 

Charo Rodríguez
BFIS Director of Communications

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