Why international schools must embrace their local communities

International schools can play a big role in solving global problems – but to wield this power they must embed themselves in their local culture, says the director general of the International Baccalaureate
25th January 2023, 6:00am

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Why international schools must embrace their local communities

https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/specialist-sector/how-international-schools-embrace-local-communities-baccalaureate
How international schools can embrace their local-global dichotomy

The rise of international education is an incredible phenomenon around the world.

Everywhere you go, in just about every country or city, you will find international schools opening, offering qualifications and pedagogy to increasingly multi-national families.

You might expect me to say this, but, as the director general of the International Baccalaureate (IB), I think it is fantastic.

International education, in its many forms, breaks down barriers and builds links between people and cultures that might hitherto have been deeply suspicious of one another.

A brief look at the history of the IB would tell you that it was this mission, at its most simplistic, that drove the creation of the organisation that I now lead.

International schools building local links

And yet it’s not that simple. There is also a growing trend of emphasising local, regional or national values. For international education, it is important to recognise this tendency, and this is why IB programmes are always implemented by embedding them in the local context.

This is important. Because just as I believe it’s quite possible that international education can play a significant role in saving humanity from itself, it’s also increasingly clear to me that schooling at its best must be anchored in its locality and its community.

This split - between international schools breaking down barriers and at the same time ensuring that they are a part of the culture they exist in - may sound paradoxical. But I don’t believe it is.

Firstly, when we categorise things, we often see them contradicting each other. There is enough polarisation in the world, and education should strive to show another way, to see local and global as integrated.

We humans have two separate eyes, but together they create a better and more accurate vision. That is the way for international schools. They have their own character, but they support local, regional or national education. 

A connected world

Secondly, if climate science has taught us anything, it’s that the world is one community. We are knitted together intrinsically in one ecosystem, one that is totally interdependent. And how one person or one community responds to events in their locality can have profound implications for how a village, town or city experiences life on the other side of the planet.

Coming from a small country, Finland, I have learned how important it is to first understand your own language and culture.

Only after that can you then learn and value other cultures and world views. Be proud of your heritage and respect the pride that others have in theirs. Learn to resolve and live peacefully with contradicting views. Learn the richness of different views in making better decisions.

Find the common in what at first sight looks like a difference.

Acknowledge the value of each individual, and respect that we are all equal in our uniqueness. Learn that we only have one globe, which belongs to us all. Personal wellbeing and planetary wellbeing are inseparable. The individual, local and global are strongly interconnected.

The wonderful educationist Gert Biesta explores this in depth in his books, which I recommend readers delve into.

He argues convincingly that the best schools in the world are those embedded in their communities: those that respond to the interests, cultures and needs of those who live around them, while at the same time seeing the world as one indivisible whole.

Students engaging in their communities

But how should international schools respond to this? Whether we like it or not, most schools of this kind are independent and most educate, to a lesser or greater extent, a transient international middle class.

And this is also their cultural inheritance; it’s what they celebrate, often rightly, as their mission and their origin story.

After all, these school communities are the most wonderful manifestation of diversity and an excellent example to the world of how barriers can be brought down.

They must also, however, be incredibly careful not to be somehow “other”. Students must be of service to the communities around them, volunteering to work with local people, in local charities, bringing about change for the better. This is why the IB remains so committed to the Creativity, Action and Service element of our diploma programme.

But schools must go further even than this: they must respond to the rising sense around the globe that the world is made up of “haves” and “have nots”, of those who are somehow “global citizens” and those who remain, by choice or otherwise, in their locale.

So they must throw open their school gates and ensure that the young people in their charge live a participatory life in the communities in which they live.

Our role to play

International schools have the potential to play a huge role in solving the many complex crises that we face as a world - from warfare to the climate emergency to pandemics - by building empathy and respect between nations and networks between millions of young people.

But this will only happen if they are as local as they are global, and only if they perceive themselves as anchor institutions in the communities in which they exist. In a world with constant change and surprises, it is no use closing the other eye.

Instead, we need to enable the best possible vision for the new generations to flourish.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen is the director-general of the International Baccalaureate. He will be speaking at the World Education Summit, a virtual conference taking place between 20-23 March

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