Diversity in International Schools


Diversity is one of the greatest attractions of international schools across the world. These schools expose children to different nationalities, cultures, religions, and languages. They appeal to parents who want to make their children ‘more worldly’: international in their outlook, ‘colour-blind’, socially adaptable, and cosmopolitan.

A collection of nationalities

International schools often promote their diversity credentials. They publicise the number of nationalities on roll. And some even have quotas to make sure they have a wide representation.

42% of parents in our recent International Schools Survey in Singapore said they would be more likely to consider a school which had nationality quotas. 17% rejected the idea and the remainder felt this would not make a difference to their choice.

Diversity is more diverse than it first seems

The attraction of diversity in schooling goes well beyond the number of nationalities enrolled.

While single-gender schools are still found among private /independent schools in the West (particularly in the UK and the US), very few parents would consider a single-gender international school (11%), and more than half (53%) rejected them (the remainder felt it would make no difference).

Likewise, most parents reject the idea of religious international schools. 47% said they would be less likely to consider a faith school, and only 14% felt more likely to consider one. Apart from some parents being atheist/agnostic, the desire for diversity and the fact that Singapore is so multi-ethnic and multi-religious would counter the idea of a school aligning itself to a specific religion.

Divided opinions

Indeed, to continue with the theme of accepting diversity of views, many parents welcome the idea of international schools teaching more controversial subjects. For them, transgender issues, politics, and even atheism are acceptable topics to discuss in the classroom, in order to reflect the ‘real world’. These parents are looking for their children to better understand topics that they are likely to encounter in the future.

But an equal number of parents reject the teaching of controversial subjects. These parents fear propaganda or political correctness could be at work. Besides, some feel that teaching controversial subjects is a diversion from the main purpose of the school. Instead, they feel it is a parent’s job to educate their child according to their family values and what they think their child will be comfortable hearing about, according to their emotional maturity.

Another area of divided opinion is whether academically selective schools are more or less likely to be considered by parents than inclusive schools (taking children from a range of abilities). 28% of parents are more likely to consider a selective school, and the same number (28%) are less likely to. The remainder said it would make no difference or would depend on the individual child.

Those wanting selective schools would like to see their child among others with similar academic capabilities so that they can excel. But those rejecting selective schools voiced a much wider range of views and tended to have stronger opinions on this matter, particularly coming from Western expats.

This again related to how some parents view the meaning of diversity in international schools, not only through nationalities, but through the range of a child’s abilities. One parent quoted in our survey commented, “International schools should be about being inclusive… if they segregate according to academic abilities or religion and culture, it defeats the purpose.”

When diversity isn’t the be-all and end-all

Almost all parents seek a level of diversity in international schooling. But some seek less diversity when they want a cultural connection with their home country. This can be particularly important for ‘roving expats’, who move to many different countries and whose children might never have lived in their home country. Being around pupils and teachers of their own nationality helps children develop a bond to their home country, preparing them for an eventual return home.

Conversely, other parents want a greater connection with Singapore itself. Asian expats can be more conservative and have concerns about Western cultural influences that might conflict with their values. The age that children start dating and the consumption of alcohol are hot topics. For this reason, some of the ‘international local schools’, characterised by having a large contingent of Singaporeans, having more discipline, and some being faith schools, can be popular with particular expats.

By Piers Lee LinkedIn, Managing Director, BVA BDRC Asia

Further articles on the international schools market from BVA BDRC can be found at: