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? Ruth Holmes finds out.

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This was one of the questions explored in the Great International Education & Schools’ Fair webinar, “International Schools, Innovation and the Response to the Pandemic”. Education experts from around the world joined BBC World presenter Jayne Constantinis and Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the coronavirus pandemic for the growing number of international schools.Offering their insightful perspectives in the discussion, available now to view, were:The webinar showcases the great agility and collaborative endeavour with which international schools are responding to the pandemic and facing future challenges – including harnessing the benefits of technology in and out of the classroom.The conversation offers parents, employers and relocation professionals supporting international moves a wealth of valuable insight into international schools’ vital role in assignment success and take-up. Plus, how the pandemic is impacting school choice and shaping education provision.

What matters most to parents selecting an international school?

Opening the discussion, Ashwin Assomull, whose organisation L.E.K. Consulting advises schools and governments and carries out regular surveys of thousands of parents, highlighted what is top of mind for parents when it comes to international school selection.Reputation and location remain important, but today parents are looking for more than exam results. “Parents tend to choose the curriculum of their home country, but academic quality is typically what parents look for,” said Ashwin Assomull.Academic quality is something many parents find hard to articulate. L.E.K. Consulting’s research suggests it covers a range of points, including teaching standards as well as academic outcomes.
The Great Education & Schools' Fair leaderboard
For parents making education choices in the UK, information on academic quality is readily available through a range of official state and independent school inspection reports, league tables, resources like Relocate Global’s Guide to International Schools and Education and Education Experts Directory, and The Good Schools Guide.Yet in some markets, getting that information is harder for relocating families, said Ashwin Assomull. “There are word-of-mouth recommendations and visits, but often nothing tangible to see how one school compares to another.” Here, the services of international education and schools consultants, alongside online events like the Great International Education & Schools’ Fair, come into their own for relocating families.

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

While issues like approaches to pastoral care, location and a school’s financial resilience remain important for parents – and link into academic quality – parents in a post-Covid-19 world are assessing other aspects of international schools.“Parents are increasingly interested in our approach to managing health and safety,” said Jonathan Taylor. “It is now very much around operational safety and nimble planning,” as well as managing uncertainty.Parents are 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 when schools are open and how learning can continue during lockdowns.Many of the 3,000 parents surveyed by L.E.K. Consulting in summer 2020 are also evaluating the quality of online and remote learning in international schools; increasingly critical competencies for schools and teaching staff because of the pandemic.

Managing uncertainty

“When coronavirus first arrived, it was the uncertainty about how it was going to play out,” said Jonathan Taylor. “The challenge in February and March was not knowing what came next. From my school’s perspective, we have been making digital literacy key since I started 18 months ago in post. Stage 1 was about getting students learning in some capacity, remaining connected and a focus on wellbeing and physical exercise. This is an area Cognita excels. The Cognita Home Games brought children around the world together.“Stage 2 was refining that and continuing to manage wellbeing and connectivity. Now Stage 3 is this, as well as equity. If schools demand all students use devices to access learning, how do we ensure all students have equity in this – not just those in our school community – and access to that sort of learning, the right devices and Wi-Fi?”When it comes to uncertainty, it is usually possible to look to the past for how to respond, said David Willows. However, until now there has been no playbook for school leadership in a pandemic. “There were no historical trends for us to model and reassure us. This was one of the challenges we were facing in those early days.“We are now back in this situation in a second lockdown and a second period of distance learning. We have something to fall back on and it feels very different to that first experience of lockdown. Students have adapted and immediately, but there is a general sense that the challenges moving forward are going to be more challenging than that first adjustment. On the horizon are some of those future challenges where we see seismic changes in international education.”

Facing the future – the importance of resilience

To manage this uncertainty and the challenges ahead, many international school leaders are working with agility and collaborating in new and innovative ways to build resilience. “Traditionally, big schools have supported smaller, more niche schools, but now we are seeing that in reverse,” 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 respects to adapt, but they have their own pressures.”For David Willows, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility is relevant for international schools. “There are some organisations and physical structures that get stronger through stress. Some schools are coming out of this stronger. It’ll be curious to see what are the conditions that make some schools antifragile and able to flex those muscles and come out with a stronger community and a greater sense of positioning for the next era of education.”“Absolutely some schools have become stronger,” agreed Jitin Sethi. “If schools are able to do that, then they are demonstrating their offering is robust.”
The Great Education & Schools' Fair leaderboard
This idea of building strength through change is relevant when it comes to successfully adapting to emerging technology for classroom-based and remote learning – one of the future challenges. “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,” said 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 the more social and emotional aspects of school and how we can continue that.”

Facing the challenges and sharing success

School leaders have faced massive and unprecedented challenges over the past 12 months, but there are many successes 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 wellbeing and physical exercise,” said Jonathan Taylor.“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.”All the content from the Great International Education & Schools’ Fair held in November, including webinar replays, editorial, video and virtual school tours are available on the Schools’ Fair section.The Fair was so successful that we will be running a virtual Spring Schools’ Fair during February and March with more webinars and great content. Contact Annabel or Alessandra to get involved education@relocatemagazine.com or call the office on +44 (0)1892 891334.

The next Great International Education & Schools' Fair is coming in spring 2021

<<Visit the Great International Education & Schools' homepage for more information

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