Third Culture Kids and International Schooling

‘Third Culture Kids’ are a growing segment of the Asian market – so how does this impact the choice of schooling?


Firstly, how are we defining Third Culture Kids (TCKs)? There are several definitions, but TCKs are generally assumed to be children raised in a culture other than their parents’, or in a different country to that named on their passport. This usually happens during the formative period of their childhood, thus exempting parents from this definition. That said, there are also ‘adult’ TCKs, i.e. people settling in countries different to that of their own upbringing, or adopting new national identities later in their adult life.

Within the BDRC International School Survey, we defined TCKs as children holding passports different to the country of closest identity to the family – a type of blend of the two groups which we will call ‘Third Culture Families’ (TCFs).

Within the BDRC annual Brand Equity Study and the New Parent Survey, we found exactly the same figure – 22% of international schools in Singapore have TCKs or TCFs.

Two key factors are driving growth in TCFs – firstly, we see more mixed marriages as a byproduct of a more global economy and more open-minded societies. Secondly, and specific to Singapore, is the desire for expats to settle in the country. This can range from adopting Singaporean citizenship (helpful for visa-free travel and avoiding taxes in home countries) to expats staying in Singapore far longer than they intended. Political and economic uncertainty in home countries (e.g. the UK/Europe) can discourage a return home, whereas lifestyle and financial benefits encourage people to stay in Singapore. Some might choose to set up their own business if their corporate contract ends.

But how does this impact the choice of schooling? Some parents might adopt the local Singaporean school system, which can have impressive academic results and good discipline. But Singapore is also very well served by a range of international schools. Within our surveys we looked at how the 22% of TCFs in our sample differ from other families.

Firstly, they are more digital. Across the spectrum, parents will talk to others to get recommendations on international schools. TCFs rely less on word of mouth and do more research into schools online, e.g. through digital search and news media. They also have a higher recall of school advertising through digital channels, making them easier to reach – 47% of TCFs found out about their chosen school through internet searching vs 29% for all other parents.

How are TCFs different?

TCFs tend to come from within Asia itself, with 39% of fathers being Asian expats vs 23% of the overall school population, and 36% being Asian mothers vs 20% overall.

Fewer parents have their international school fees paid for by their employers (8% vs the 17% school average). Maybe for this reason they are more likely to send their children to lower-cost international schools, or are more open to considering the ‘budget international school’ option.

However, their expectations of schools are still high – they are more likely to choose schools for their STEM provision, schools with a wider range of CCAs, and schools with multi-language provision. But they are less likely to choose schools for having a national cultural identity, probably because as a family they are less aligned to any one specific culture anyway.

While TCKs have many advantages in life, often growing up in a wealthier, more cosmopolitan environment than most children, their lack of national identity and sometimes an inability to sustain long-term relationships can lead to a sense of insecurity. While parents are less likely to choose schools because of cultural affinity, those schools more closely aligned with specific nations can bring a sense of stability to the child, and a connection to the country of their ultimate chosen identity.

The question is, which country?