It is early afternoon and the class pull out their textbooks for history; flipping through the pages to find the section on the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials. Outside, as the children discuss the darkening mood in 17th century Massachusetts, the midday heat is giving way to a tropical storm.
This classroom is not in the United States or even the West, but part of an international school in Malaysia, and the class a mixture of nationalities and ethnicities. Around a third of them aren’t even the children of expatriates. They are Malaysians.
Latest research data by the International School Consultancy (ISC) have shown that there are 7,017 international schools in the world (56 per cent of which in Asia) meeting the learning needs of more than 3.5 million students, all using English as the language for learning.
No longer are they simply the domain of expatriate children. Today, of the 3.5 million, more than 2.5 million international school students are local children seeking a quality, English-speaking education.
In Malaysia, the number has surged in the past five years with more than 74,000 local children attending international schools when five years ago, there were only 33,688.
Having noticed significant changes in the profile of students attending international schools, the Garden International School (GIS) recently conducted a case study on the potential social impact of this trend. The case study focuses on parents, teachers and staff expectation and challenges; and students feedback on the outcome of attending an international school.
GREAT LOCATION AND BETTER SYSTEM
Families considering the international system have considerations far beyond academics. They see the benefit of their children being taught in English — a key motivation for parents in this globalised world — the bonus of being exposed to new learning pedagogies and the opportunity to learn alongside children from other countries.
For most parents, it is about giving their children the best chance of success in an increasingly competitive world, and that means an ability to speak English and think critically. For many, the understanding of local culture and history is secondary. “As a kid, I was sent abroad to be given exposure to that holistic approach to learning,” recalls Sharifah, 49, who prefers to use only her first name and has been a parent at GIS for more than 10 years.
“But, I don’t have to do that with my kids because the education system has been brought over here. My children have the best of both worlds. They get the international school or British curriculum, but they also get to be close to their family.”
But there are also downsides, whether from the potential impact on a child’s sense of identity or how they are seen by those beyond the international school network.
Veena Pillai, 35, now works as a medical doctor in Malaysia’s government health system.
An international school student at GIS, she remembers vividly how challenging it was starting her first job in a local environment.
“I was very surprised at how much having gone to an international school set me apart from my local circle even though I also embrace being Malaysian,” she recalls.
“It was really challenging to have no credibility, to have most of my opinions questioned; to everything I said they replied, ‘You only think that because you are from overseas’.”
Veena almost came to resent her international school experience. But then she thought: “No, this is just ridiculous. I do think that going to an international school is a large part of what made me successful.”
Finding a place in the world is a challenge for every child, but it is complicated for local kids in an international school environment because of the difference between the culture within the school — often a reflection of the kind of curriculum that is being offered — and that outside.
WEARING TWO HATS
Nik Kalif Nik Kamaruddin, 15, is studying for his iGCSEs. His wider family hails from Kelantan, a part of Malaysia where allegiances to tradition are strong and most people speak a dialect of the Malay language.
He recalls how family members remarked on how he had changed when he visited his relatives two years after he started international school in Kuala Lumpur: “It wasn’t like I felt completely alienated, but I felt I was partly a foreigner rather than being part of Malay culture.”
And Nik isn’t the only international school student who has found it necessary to moderate their behaviour according to the setting. Some say they wear “two hats” in order to be accepted and understood.
“In an international school, you are exposed to a lot,” explains Shaun Gan, 18, who is in Year 13. “I don’t like to admit it, but I do wear two hats. There are two parts to my personality that interchange.”
Like some of his peers, Gan also changes his accent and the way he expresses himself when he is with Malaysian friends compared with when he is speaking to a teacher who might be a native speaker of English.
CLASH OF CULTURES
Still, as children get older and become teenagers, navigating differences can become more difficult, according to Mariella Vittetoe-Castillo, who heads the counselling department at GIS. Vittetoe-Castillo said the impact of negotiating the minefield of culture and identity experienced by local students is most likely to manifest itself in secondary school.
Confrontations during adolescence as students test boundaries are hardly unusual, but local children at international schools may feel even more of a distance between their life and their home, while parents might think children who are more questioning are “answering them back” rather than showing the respect that is so valued within Asian society. Most teenagers push boundaries, such as defying home rules, isolating themselves or wanting to spend more time with friends rather than family.
Vittetoe-Castillo said: “There is a point where it can become a clash of cultures between students and their parents. Parents need to accept that their children are growing up in a culturally diverse environment. They need to have their own process of loss; of understanding that their children’s cultural values may be different to theirs.
On the other hand, local children who have studied at an international school may find they have less of a grasp of the local language less knowledge of local history, and are labelled as arrogant or elitist simply for having studied at an international school.
Children also need to learn to deal with the constant cycle of change they experience at school as students come and go. While Facebook, Skype and the Internet have given people new ways to stay in touch, saying goodbye remains a bittersweet experience for many.
For the local students, however, getting a place at an overseas university remains central to their decision to attend an international school, and one for which they’re willing to endure the heartache of lost friends and the challenge of being “different”. For many, getting a place at a university in the United Kingdom, the United States or Australia is a sign that their “investment” has paid off, giving them the academic, social and soft skills to succeed in their chosen career.
Even after so many years in an international school and overseas studying, many young Malaysians retain a strong connection to the land of their birth and a powerful sense of national identity. Many are determined to return home.
“This is our country,” says Brian Tan, 29, who finished at GIS in 2007 and is the co-founder of FutureLab.my, an online social learning platform that connects students to working professionals in companies around the world.
“It comes down to us, it comes down to everyone. So, if you are smart, capable and you can do something about it, then you should.”
Even with their sometimes limited knowledge of Malay, and a more globally-minded understanding of culture, the flexibility these young people learned during their school years is what is helping them carve out a niche for themselves back home, a place which retains a permanent place in their hearts even after learning in English and sitting through lessons on a history and culture that may not, in the first instance, seem like they have much relevance to their lives at all.
“I think it really allows us to have the best of both worlds,” says Nixon Chung, 14, who has been studying at GIS for nine years.
“Outside the school you are a Malaysian, but inside you are kind of everyone, I guess. Kind of international.”