East and East: Comparing schools across the regions

I have just returned from a whirlwind trip to the Far East and SE Asia where I did some presentations at conferences, spoke to Principals, visited schools and met with Edvectus' Hong Kong based staff. Then today, across my desk came this articleabout the growth of schools in the Middle East. It got me thinking about the differences and similarities between international schools in the East and West.

As a reminder the kind of international schools I am discussing are those that provide a comprehensive private education to children aged between 3 and 18. They teach all /most subjects in English. They are not schools for the teaching of English as a foreign language, though many children attending international schools do not have English as their mother tongue.

So how do schools in the Middle East stack up against those in the Far East and Southeast Asia?

Similarity: Most international schools serve host nationals rather than expatriates. This is true in the East and West, the largest exception being (for the moment but not for long) China. This surprises most teachers who enter the international school circuit for the first time, as they think that a British/American school will teach British/American children but that's rarely the case. In China, at the moment, most Chinese parents are not allowed to send their children to international schools so you will find a broad mix of non-Chinese nationalities at most schools. Watch this space, however, because we are seeing a number of schools create international streams to offer IB, AP or A levels to Chinese children after they finish their Chinese exams.

Difference: In the Far East and Southeast Asia there are more Early Years schools than there are in the Middle East. This is because many local ASEAN and Chinese parents want their children to learn English at an early age, and because compulsory education starts later (aged 7 or 8), parents have the opportunity to put their children into English pre-schools first to give them an early boost. In the Middle East, by contrast, because many families have nannies and schools typically start at younger ages (4-5), there are fewer English speaking stand-alone preschools.

Similarity: Both regions are growing quickly, though differently. In the UAE for example, where the governments have set ambitious targets for population growth and thus school growth, it's mainly an influx of expatriates that will be fueling the fire. In APac, however, the growth will be mainly due to host nationals accessing international streams or bilingual schools, such as in Malaysia and, in the near future, China.

Difference: As a general rule, I find Far East/Southeast Asian schools are very academically focused, no matter what the fee level of the school. I believe this has its roots culturally - educational attainment is a cultural focal point in many countries across the Far East and Southeast Asia and it shows in the expectations of the teachers working there. Longer hours, parental pressure and very high student motivation are the norm.

There are lots of similarities (like nice weather, low cost of living, cultural emphasis on family, lovely and welcoming schools, etc) but here are some notable differences:

  • We have lots of opportunities for less experienced (0-2 years) teachers in the Middle East. Very few if any, however, exist in the Far East and Southeast Asia where most countries have minimum post-qualification experience requirements of between 2 to 5 years.
  • On the whole, I find Far East/SEA schools have more 'family friendly' employment packages (flexible accommodation, free schooling, etc), whereas the Middle East schools more frequently offer the tax-free employment package.
  • The Middle East (MENA) region is physically smaller and more culturally and religiously homogeneous than countries stretching across the huge expanse of the Far East and Southeast Asia.

Now I hasten to add that there are exceptions to every rule and the international school market is incredibly variable and changeable. But I hope my reflections will help the soon-to-be international teacher decide where to start.

Both regions are booming with international schools looking for British, American, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and Australian teachers and the trick is finding the right school that matches your needs, education and experience.

Best regards

Diane Jacoutot 

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