International schools | Independent schools

International school or independent school: which is better for your child?

By Sara Snelling

25 Jan 2023

Students learning in the classroom.

International schools fall within the independent school umbrella, yet there are some distinct differences between the two. In this article, we discuss the features and benefits of each of these educational options.

If you’re planning on sending your child to an independent school in the UK, you may be considering international schools as an option. International schools fall within the independent school category and work to the same statutory standards, yet there are some distinct differences between the two.

Following is a summary of what both have to offer as a possible choice for an independent school for children in the UK.

What is an independent school?

An independent school is a school that charges fees for learners to attend, instead of being funded by the government. Independent schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum; however, the schools are monitored and work to the Independent School Standards set by the Department for Education, meaning the standard of the curriculum is just as high as the NC.

All schools operating as independent schools in England must be registered with the government and inspected by Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).

What are the benefits of attending an independent school?

One of the widely discussed potential benefits of attending independent schooling is the opportunity for higher educational attainment.

The ‘Academic Value Added’ study, carried out by Durham University in 2016, found that independently-educated students gained a significant educational advantage over their peers in state schools across all subjects. The advantage was estimated to equate to almost two-thirds of a GCSE grade higher (0.64), or the equivalent of two years of extra schooling by the age of 16.

The research, which took into account the bias effects of income, gender and prior attainment, didn’t explain why independent schooling achieved such higher results compared to state schooling. The researchers felt it was unlikely to be purely the result of better teaching, but were unable to define the reasons.

More recent research from Dr Sol Gamsu in 2021 found that pupils in private schools received significantly more investment than those in state schools. This inequality was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when independent schools were able to adapt to online learning more quickly than their state-funded counterparts. This is an example of how additional access to funding can translate into benefits for pupils of independent schools. At the same time, it is worth noting that this clear difference is widely regarded as a contributing factor to the growing attainment gap.

Smaller class sizes and access to higher-quality resources and equipment are often cited as advantages of attending an independent school. The Scottish Council of Independent Schools lists the following 10 benefits of an independent education:

  1. Unparalleled quality, with freedom for schools to tap into children’s passions and help them reach their potential.
  2. Individual approach, as teachers have time and resources to get to know each pupil.
  3. Variety of academic choice, due to independent schools having the freedom to choose a broad range of subjects and exam qualifications.
  4. Top-quality teaching, with independent schools attracting talented, passionate teachers.
  5. Celebration of diversity, bringing together children from different backgrounds, cultures and countries.
  6. Extra-curricular opportunities, due to placing as much emphasis on activities outside the classroom as those in class.
  7. Learning for the 21st century, investing considerable resources in technology to prepare students for the workforce of the future.
  8. Engaged parents, as schools recognise the vital role that parents play in their children’s education.
  9. Post-school success, with over 90% of independent school students going on to university.
  10. Happy students due to the extent of mental well-being support for students and a strong community spirit.

However, while these benefits are proven, they come with a price - literally. Not every caregiver has the option to consider privately funded education for their children.

As well as this, not every benefit is exclusive to independent schooling - state schools also recognise the importance of parental involvement, for example, and also teach to the best of their ability.

While these are the listed benefits, it's important not to take them at face value, as the best destination for your child's education will depend both on the individual school and your child.

What is an international school?

International schools in England fall within the same category as independent schools, as they are privately funded learning institutions. They tend to cater for children of expatriates, with many learners coming from families who have relocated to England and are living outside of their native country.

The International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) came up with a set of eight criteria to define international schools. While all international schools may not meet all the criteria, they should meet the majority of the benchmarks. They are:

  1. Students’ education can be transferred across international schools.
  2. There is a mobile student population, more so than in state schools.
  3. They have a multinational and multilingual student body.
  4. Learners follow an international curriculum, such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE).
  5. The schools have international accreditation, for example, with the Council of International Schools (CIS).
  6. The teacher population is transient and multinational.
  7. They have non-selective student enrolment.
  8. English is the main or bi-lingual language of instruction.

What are the benefits of attending an international school?

The benefits of attending an independent school also apply to international schools, with international schools offering the following additional advantages:

  • Cultural diversity - Learners in international schools are educated in an environment that actively engages with different cultures, languages, perspectives, beliefs and histories. They are part of a culturally diverse community of students and teachers that reflects the world in which they will live as adults, gives them an international network of peers, and opens their minds to diversity, new experiences and global opportunities.
  • Experience with mobile populations - International schools are experienced in understanding the specific needs of students that move countries at different stages of their education. They understand how to help make the transition go smoothly and that international moves can happen at any time during the term.
  • Internationally transferable curricula - This is good for students that frequently move, as they are able to continue their education across international schools in different countries. The continuity helps limit educational disruption.
  • Internationally transferable qualifications - Gaining an international qualification opens up continued education and career opportunities in other countries.

While not as results-focused as the benefits of independent schools, it's important to consider how these benefits will show themselves not only in a child's exam results but also in their cultural knowledge and prospects.

How do independent and international schools differ?

If you are comparing independent and international schooling options for your child, consider the following areas where they are likely to differ:

  • Curriculum and exams - International schools are more likely to follow an international curriculum with an international qualification. This makes them a viable choice for learners looking to continue the curriculum they were following in the school they attended prior to transferring to England.
  • English language skills - International schools are likely to be a better option for children who have low English language skills.
  • Location - Most international schools are located around the London area, with some also in the South of England and the Midlands. There are independent schools throughout England, giving a wider choice of location.
  • Student turnover - There is likely to be a higher turnover of students in international schools because they cater for children from expatriate families, some of which may frequently move to different countries and schools.

Which is the better choice for your child?

There are many options for schooling children in England, including but not limited to independent and international schools.

All children between the ages of 5 and 16 years of age are entitled to a free place at a state school. There are eight types of state school, including specialist educational environments. State schools include those run by the local authority; academies and free schools run by not-for-profit trusts; faith schools; special schools that specialise in particular special education needs; and grammar schools, which select learners based on academic ability. There’s also the option to homeschool, either fully or part-time.

Finding the right school for your child depends on your circumstances and priorities, and those of your child. It’s important to be clear about your child’s needs as well as the financial and logistical resources available to you. This will help narrow down the options and give you a range of schools to research, through school visits, inspection reports and talking to other families with children in similar situations.

For more detailed advice, read our guide: how to choose the right school for your child.

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