There is undoubtedly more to what makes a school international than simply having the word “international” in its name.
An international school is a particular kind of school that educates pupils from various nations and ethnic backgrounds.. It provides a multicultural and globally-oriented education that prepares students for success in a diverse and interconnected world.
According to the International School Consultancy (ISC) research, international schools account for 18% of all schools in Europe. And when we look specifically at data for Spain, as of 2021 there are around 220 international schools in Spain. This data does tend to fluctuate as schools pop up all of the time (in Madrid anyway).
Based on the sheer number of international schools in Spain, we can see how popular they are. But are all of these school truly international or is it simply a marketing ploy to attract a mainly wealthy local clientele?
The criteria to be considered an international school can vary depending on different organizations and countries. However, some common criteria that are often used to define an international school include:
Diversity of students
An international school should have a diverse student body from different countries and cultures, with a mix of local and international students. It is the % mix that often surprises expat families who instead of finding a balanced mix of local and expat kids, it can indeed by much lower. Having visited almost all international schools in Madrid I can say that the proportion of international students can vary from about 35% to as little as about 4%.
British schools in particular are very popular with local, Spanish families seeking a bilingual education or looking for an English-language education with a global focus. According to the National Association of British Schools in Spain (NABSS), there are currently 57 British schools in Spain and aprox. 17 in Madrid. These schools follow the British national curriculum and often offer qualifications such as the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and A-Levels / and IB Diploma.
Many international schools offer bilingual or multilingual programs, where students learn in multiple languages.
However, the Spanish education system requires that all students receive a minimum of 225 hours of Spanish language instruction per academic year, this can be particularly difficult for international students who have had no prior experience with the Spanish language. And in a bilingual school, all students Must study math in Spanish, and of course Spanish language class (Lengua).
Whilst many of the international schools do provide additional language support to students who are not native English / Spanish speakers, many do not. Instead, they cater to Spanish families seeking a bilingual education and falsely market their school as ‘international’ (Grrrr – it’s a pet peeve).
Always get in writing what level of support will be offered kids who do not speak the local language:
- How often will they receive additional language lessons?
- Support material in what format (I read recently that a Very prestigious international school offered a child a Duolingo login and told them to head to the library to learn Spanish…)?
- Is the language teacher a trained SSL teacher?
- Individual / group lessons?
- Is there a clear timeline and how often will parents be updated on progress?
An international school should have a curriculum that includes a global perspective and prepares students for a diverse and interconnected world – common curricula include International Baccalaureate (IB), British, American, and other national curricula.
Accreditation by international organizations such as the IB, the Council of International Schools (CIS) or NEASC (is a mark of quality and ensures that the school meets international standards of education. In Spain, NABSS represents the majority of British schools and
International schools often have a global focus, with programmes and activities (The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Model United Nations etc.) designed to promote cross-cultural understanding and prepare students for a global future.
An international school should have staff that is diverse and includes teachers from different countries and cultures.
It makes sense that a school that markets itself as international would have a staff body that mirrors this. American schools tend to have a higher percentage of American teachers, likewise in British schools although they have been hit by Brexit which has certiany complicated recruitment.
Another important point is that the SEN team at the school Must be able to communiciate easily with all of students. A school’s psychologist, mentor, nurse, guidance counsellor must at least be proficient in two languages (Spanish and English).
Any school that describes itself as an international school must understand that this is more than a catchy, buzz word. They must be prepared to properly support international students and their families. And if they do not do so, then they should Not market themselves as an international school. As parents we must be proactive and demand better from these private entities.
Sinéad Galvin is an educational consultant and founded Steps into Spain (a boutique educational and relocation consultancy located in Madrid) to help families find the right school for their child in Madrid. She uses her professional and personal experience of Spanish schools, the Spanish education system and the Spanish way of life to ensure that parents are knowledgeable and informed about what to expect and can secure the best school for their child.
Steps into Spain will take stock of your children’s educational needs and overall family requirements (housing, paperwork and general settling in). A happy child is a happy parent, which is the central ethos of Steps into Spain, and one less challenge.