International schooling is a global phenomenon that shows no sign of abating; in the past five years, international schools have grown by 65 per cent in South East Asia and 21 per cent in the Middle East alone.
In China, the number of international schools doubled between 2010 and 2019. Over 40 of these international schools are British brands, too: Harrow, Dulwich, King's, Wycombe Abbey, all claiming close ties to their UK counterparts to sell themselves.
It’s easy to see why: Britain is a brand – especially in education. Open the website of one of the private school giants listed above and you will be greeted with nostalgic images of halcyon times for Britain; bowler hats and games of cricket, gentlemanly values and grandiloquent school halls. Think Hogwarts, but in Shenzhen or Sharjah.
International schools: Wouldn't it be better if they had local teachers?
For me, as I end another year abroad in such a setting, I can’t help but reflect with wry bewilderment on what it is that makes our muddy, windy little isle jutting out from the side of Western Europe so attractive to the world’s fastest developing nations. Whatever it is, British education and its associated "values" seem to hold as much value – if not more – as ever.
But this lust for all things Western comes at a cost – that cost being the lack of local teachers in international schools.
Indeed, as an international educator, I often think about my continued employment and cringe. Well remunerated and living in a country that I have grown to love, I think how odd it is that my 60-odd British, American and Australian colleagues and I live in Malaysia and teach mainly Malaysians because globalisation means my Britishness make me an employable asset – and, in turn, removes a Malaysian teacher from the workplace.
Yet one of the uncomfortable realities of my existence is that I am aware that if I were replaced by a Malaysian teacher, my students and their parents may feel shortchanged.
Always an outsider
And herein lies the complexity. My skillset and training are seen as favourable, my nationality a reminder of the old world order and somehow aspirational, yet I can see the value of the local teacher in international schooling.
Firstly, no amount of Time Out guides or nasi lemak with locals from the nearest street hawker can allow me to understand a Malaysian the way a Malaysian can.
It was TE Lawrence who sharply put a fawning interviewer in his place when he asked him if he understood the Bedouin as fully as the Bedouin understood one another: "That is impossible, and insulting to imagine," the great man replied.
For there are certain nuances and looks, in-jokes and shared history that means if I stayed here 50 years, I would never "get it" in the same way. Blood is thicker than Lonely Planet guides, and what is in our DNA matters when it comes to understanding the "other".
Next, aspiration. It is the 21st century’s fastest-growing nations where international schools are booming. Following on from the colossus, China, comes the oil wealth of the UAE and Qatar, Kazakhstan and Kuwait, as well as the Asian tigers of Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
Since breaking the shackles of colonisation (Japan aside), these countries have experienced rapid growth and are now as developed, if not more than, their former imperial masters.
For young Singaporeans or Emiratis then, what could be more aspirational than being taught by one of your countrymen or women who has strived and learned in order to replace a Brit like myself?
Surely being taught by one of your own people in a fee-paying school is the perfect emblem of the New World replacing the old.
Seeking our own demise
Finally, the future. Economic downturns, general cost-cutting and rapidly improving teacher training have led to more international schools beginning to see the value in local staff supplementing expatriates. Yet it may be decades before the embers of the British Empire cease to smoulder and the New World does not want the old.
However, with the impact of Covid and the complexities of expats obtaining visas and surviving quarantines, a sea change may be approaching.
Part of me feels that there would be a sense of equilibrium restored should my position one day be taken by a Malaysian. Perhaps in some ways the goals of international teachers should be to work with local educators to develop them, grow them and eventually become replaced by them.
Andy Bayfield is the teaching and learning leader at an international school in Malaysia