What parents want from international schools in a pandemic

International schools provide relocating families and their children with a seamless curriculum wherever their assignment takes them. But how is the pandemic impacting parents choices, now and in future?

This was one of the questions explored in Thursday’s highly stimulating Great International Education and Schools Fair webinar. Education experts from around the world joined BBC World presenter Jayne Constantinis and Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie to discuss the challenges and opportunities for the growing number of international schools in the coronavirus pandemic.Jitin Sethi, Partner, Global Education Practice, L.E.K. Consulting, Ashwin Assomull, Partner, Global Education Practice (L.E.K. Consulting), Jonathan Taylor, Principal, International School Zurich North, (Cognita) and David Willows, Director of Advancement, The International School of Brussels offered their insightful perspectives in the discussion on ‘International Schools, Innovation and the Response to the Pandemic’, which is available now to view.The webinar showcased the great agility, collaborative endeavour and foresight with which international schools are responding to the pandemic and facing their future challenges – including the role of technology in and out of the classroom.The conversation offers parents, as well as employers and relocation professionals supporting international relocations, a wealth of valuable insight into how the pandemic is changing the focus of education provision, and its important role in assignment success and take-up.

Wider choice for a high-quality international education

Opening the discussion, Ashwin Assomull, whose organisation L.E.K. Consulting advises schools and governments around the world, remarked that parents today have some of the best offerings available to them.“If you’re leaving the UK, you have a real myriad of choices. Whether it’s a school run by a global operator, or a partnership locally with schools that are very well known internationally, like the British schools Harrow and Dulwich College, there is also a whole host of local operators that you mustn’t discount. “These are homegrown schools brought together by local operators bringing in their knowledge and that are also a very well-regarded and a high-quality product.”

What matters to parents selecting an international school?

While parents have a great selection of schools open to them, knowing what is important to parents is critical for international schools providers and employers of globally mobile assignees, as well as parents themselves as they narrow down their options. L.E.K Consulting carries out regular surveys of thousands of parents to find out what are top of mind when it comes to international school selection. While reputation remains important, parents are looking for more than exam results.“Typical feedback is that reputation is important, but they also want to choose a curriculum that makes sense for them and their family,” explained Ashwin Assomull. “Parents tend to choose the curriculum of their home country, but academic quality is typically what parents look for.” Academic quality is something many parents find hard to articulate, but L.E.K. Consulting’s research suggests that it encompasses a range of points, like the standard of teaching as well as academic outcome. Location is also important. For parents making education choices in the UK, information is quite easily available through official state and independent school inspection reports, league tables and guides like Relocate Global’s International Schools and Education Guide and Education Experts Directory, and The Good Schools Guide.“But in some markets, for expats relocating getting that information is harder,” says Ashwin Assomull. “There is word of mouth and visits, but there is often nothing tangible to see how one school compares to another.” This is why the services of education and schools search consultants are a good option for relocating families. 

How has the pandemic impacted factors in school choice decision making?

Health, safety and security remain important, but increasingly parents in a post-Covid-19 world are looking for more in an international school. The 3,000 parents surveyed by L.E.K. Consulting in the last three months are also looking at the quality of online and remote learning. This is an increasingly critical competence for schools and teaching staff because of the events of this year.On the delivery of education remotely using technology, “the level of satisfactions is quite high and above expectations,” says Ashwin Assomull. “The best schools are really stating their value proposition of what they are doing to deliver learning if we go back into full lockdown and schools close. Schools continue to need to deliver on that and maybe beyond. Parents want to see how they are embedding technology in what they do.”Parents are also looking to schools to communicate the health and safety protocols they have in place. They want to know if schools are doing enough to ensure the spread of coronavirus is limited in the school environment. “Schools are doing a pretty good job of explaining how their systems and infrastructure allow them to do this,” says Ashwin Assomull. “Some of the newer and less full schools are using this to their advantage.” Pastoral care also remains high on parents’ agendas, as well as financial stability. For single-school operators, the question is do they have the financial resilience to withstand an exodus of expatriates if companies start to pull out of their overseas operations because of an economic downturn. 

How are school leaders responding?

“Parents are increasingly interested in how we are managing safety,” said Jonathan Taylor. “It is now very much around operational safety.” This requires “nimble planning and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances”, which effective leaders in education are focused on at the moment. Dealing with uncertainty is currently a core challenge for the leadership and teaching body of international schools, as well as leaders elsewhere in all areas of life. “When coronavirus first arrived, it was the uncertainty about how it was going to play out. The challenge in February and March was not knowing what came next,” said Jonathan Taylor.School leaders have faced big challenges, but there is lots of success to celebrate as schools continue to adapt. “I suspect if you ask all headteachers if they are proud of what they have achieved, they are proud of how their communities have supported students’ learning, are connecting socially and the wider focus on exercise and physical activity,” continued Jonathan Taylor. “One area where Cognita excelled is bringing children around the world together in the online international school games.”“No doubt it’s been a challenge, but don’t think that challenge is over for all of us yet,” he added. “Stage 1 was about getting students learning in some capacity. From my school’s perspective, we have been making digital literacy key since I started 18 months ago. When the school closed down earlier this year in lockdown, we trained the teachers first. “Stage 2 was refining that, and now Stage 3 is managing wellbeing and connectivity, as well as equity: if schools demand all students use devices to access learning, how do we ensure all students have equity in this, like around access to devices and wifi? 

Facing the future

For David Willows, when it comes to uncertainty, it is usually possible to look at the past for how to respond. However, there is no playbook for school leadership in a pandemic. “There are no historical trends for us to model and reassure us about where this was taking us. This was one of the challenges we were facing in those early days. “We are now back in this situation of in a second lockdown and period of distance learning. To be honest this has come earlier than expected, but we have something to fall back on and it feels different. Students have adapted quicky and immediately but there is a general sense that moving forward is likely to be more challenging than that first. On the horizon are some of those future challenges where we see seismic changes in international education.”To manage this uncertainty, school leaders are working and collaborating with one another. “Traditionally, big schools have supported smaller, more niche schools, but now we are seeing that in reverse and niche schools might be more important,” said David Willows. “Because of the particular experiences those schools have faced we can learn a lot from their agility and adaptability and style of leadership. It is much easier for small schools in some ways to adapt, but they have their own pressures eg a lack of resources and capital to fall back on if they have a downturn in income.”For Jonathan Taylor, being “anti-fragile”, resilient and agile will be critical for all international schools. “There are some organisations and physical structures that get stronger through stress. It’ll be curious to see what are the conditions that make some schools rigid and others anti-fragile, and a greater sense of positioning for the next era of education. Those schools that are rigid and unable to change are broadly the least likely to adapt.”“Absolutely some schools have become stronger,” agreed Jitin Sethi. “When we look at international schools overall – when you see how schools function across academic years, and see the numbers they are reporting on enrolment, they have pretty much been able to stay at level or very minor declines. If schools are able to do that then they are demonstrating their offering is robust. Parents are happy for their children to be able to continue their education in lockdown.”

Technology in the classroom

But what of adapting to the growing, vital and potentially disruptive role of technology for classroom-based as well as remote and distance learning during lockdown? Education technology is still in its early days. “In the last few months schools have been working really hard with teachers in terms of how they have migrated to distance learning to actual online product,” says Ashwin Assomull. “We have seen some sharing of best practice and lots of banding together, with private schools sharing with state schools. Lots of articles have been written and teachers are exchanging notes and collaborating to come up with solutions. The focus has now shifted from the online experience to more social and emotional aspects of school and how we can continue that.”“Uncertainty requires some call to action,” says Jitin Sethi. “Everyone – schools, parents, teachers - are behind this and making the move online happen. Now we are in the second round of lockdown and have to think about how to manage this more efficiently. Parents want more structures and teachers need more help. Schools are implementing systems and processes, but this will be a big challenge in current phase and going forward.” “The international schools we speak to are very dynamic and we can all learn from each other during the pandemic,” concluded Fiona Murchie. “They are clearly doing a great job. I think there are going to be lots of positives coming out of it and we’ll be drilling down into these with shorter sessions in the coming weeks to keep these conversations going.”

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