The Top 5 Myths about International Schools
We work with families from all over the world, helping them to make fully informed schooling decisions. Along the way, we've encountered a few popular 'myths', or misconceptions, about international schools here in Malaysia. In this blogpost, Helen tackles the five most common ones we hear.
Myth #1: International schools are expensive because of the facilities.
Many international schools have fantastic facilities: athletics tracks, olympic-sized swimming pools and flashy auditoriums. If you've had the pleasure of visiting ISKL's new campus in Ampang Hilir, or checked out Alice Smith's expansive Secondary Campus....you'll know what I mean. Of course, these facilities cost a lot to build and maintain - but is that the real reason international schools are expensive?
Well, not really. The simple truth is that most schools spend well over 80% of their budgets on their teachers. Facilities cost a fraction in comparison.
Hiring qualified and experienced teachers from abroad costs a lot. Salaries aside, international schools also need to cover each expatriate teacher’s medical insurance, shipping costs, EPF contributions, school fees for any children...and so on.
So that’s the myth busted: it’s not really the facilities that hike those fees up - it’s that good, qualified, experienced expat teachers are expensive to hire and retain.
Myth #2: International school students are spoilt, and bullying is a huge problem.
I hear this concern a lot, so wanted to share a few thoughts.
Every international school I worked in during my 12-year teaching career - in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Dubai and New Zealand - has had a zero bullying policy. In every case, this policy has been coupled with clear procedures that ensure bullying is dealt with swiftly, fairly and consistently. Most importantly, these schools have all spent considerable time and care developing children's 'emotional toolkits': teaching them emotional resilience, how to deal with conflict, how to be a good friend, the difference between meanness, rudeness and bullying - and so on. This teaching of emotional & social skills usually begins in the Early Years (with children aged 3-5) and continues right up until the Sixth Form. Peer-buddy systems, full-time school counsellors, and caring teachers also ensure children are supported and safe.
My experiences are not unusual - they really are the norm in international schools.
See, although most international schools in Malaysia don't publicly state that they are a 'zero bullying' or 'anti bullying' school on their websites or marketing materials (Kingsley International is an exception, and proudly declare that they are a 'zero bully school') that doesn't mean they're not doing all of the great things I've mentioned above. They almost always are doing all of that work (if not more) to support their children, have strict behaviour and bullying policies, and work incredibly hard to ensure their students feel safe and happy at school. In fact, student wellbeing and safety is usually the number one priority - by a long shot.
Finally, I would add that I’ve never taught such polite, well-mannered, humble and hard-working students as I have in international schools in Asia! Honestly, I’ve seen far less bullying here in Malaysia than I did when teaching in Hong Kong, Dubai or New Zealand. 'A huge problem'? Definitely not.
Myth #3: Most expat teachers are just backpackers looking for a chance to work overseas and travel a lot, and leave as soon as their contracts are done.
I’ve heard this one a few times and it can be true - but it's really not common. Let me explain.
To work in the best international schools here in Malaysia, expat teachers are up against some stiff competition. Tier 1 schools can get hundreds of applications for each vacancy they advertise, and therefore they can choose the very best. Usually, at minimum they look for at least five years’ teaching experience, postgraduate qualifications, evidence of leadership experience and/or potential - plus genuine passion and commitment.
Once hired, the best schools then look after their teachers really well - and I'm talking good salary packages as well as ongoing professional development, great training opportunities, and a supportive work environment. As a result, in the best international schools retention rates are as high as 90% - meaning 90% of their teachers stay for more than one contract (so usually at least four years). In many good international schools here in Kuala Lumpur, the average length of a teacher's tenure is around 7 years. That's fantastic.
By contrast, lower tier (cheaper) schools have to offer teachers skimpier pay packages and benefits in order to keep their fees low. This means that the type of teachers they attract can be different. The most qualified and experienced teachers usually won’t apply for these sorts of jobs - or if they did, they would probably turn the jobs down when they saw the package being offered. As a result, these schools do tend to get younger, less experienced expat teachers - who often do leave at the end of their two-year contracts, for a variety of reasons. But that isn't always the case.
Proper 'backpacker teachers' - and I have encountered a few in my time! - are more common in tuition centres and English Language schools, rather than international schools. In these sorts of places, the salaries aren't so good, contracts aren't as secure and expat teachers come and go far more more often.
Myth #4: Students can only join an international school at the beginning of the academic year.
Most international schools here in Malaysia begin in September; a few follow the local academic calendar and begin in January.
At any rate, all of the international schools here are very used to families joining part or mid-way through an academic year, and sometimes leaving part-way too. They understand that expat contracts often don’t align with the school year! Most schools have very flexible enrolment periods and you can join at any point, as long as your child isn’t in an examination year (ie partway through their IGCSE or A Level studies).
They usually offer fantastic transition support - welcome coffee mornings, new family buddy systems, parent works, transition events and so on.
So, please don’t worry if you are arriving to Malaysia at an unusual time: schools will work hard to make the transition as smooth as possible for you!
Myth #5. It’s very difficult moving from one curriculum to another, and best not to change.
There are certainly times when you can’t move a child. The two-year IGCSE programme, which culminates in a series of rigorous examinations, can’t be interrupted or joined halfway through: Year 10 and Year 11 students therefore need to ‘stay put’ until that qualification is complete. The same goes for A Levels - and for other university entrance qualifications including the IB Diploma and Australian HSC. So, you do need to be extremely careful about moving children in their final four years of Secondary school. If you are unsure about this, or have to move a child in their senior years, please get in touch for advice.
But for Primary aged children, choosing a school that is the best fit in terms of school culture, approach to teaching and learning and school values is actually much more important than its curriculum. Children are remarkably flexible and moving from, say, a British curriculum to the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), or from an Australian curriculum to a British one, shouldn’t pose any major issues.
International schools are very used to children arriving from different types of educational backgrounds, and generally have plenty of support systems in place to ensure smooth academic transitions for these students.
Got a question about international schooling in Malaysia? Let us know!
And do join our growing community of international school parents to either share your own advice & experiences, or ask other parents for theirs.