Diversity at International Schools

05/02/2020 By Piers Lee

Our 2019 survey of parents provides insights on how they evaluate which international school to send their children to.


Diversity is one of the greatest attractions of international schools across the world. They expose children to different nationalities, cultures, religions and languages.  They appeal to parents who want to make their children ‘more worldly’; international in their outlook, ‘colour-blind’, socially adaptable and cosmopolitan.

A collection of nationalities
International schools often promote their diversity credentials. They publicise the number of nationalities on roll. And some even have quotas to make sure they have a wide representation.

42% of parents in our recent international schools survey in Singapore said they would be more likely to consider a school which had nationality quotas. 17% rejected the idea and the remainder felt this would not make a difference to their choice.

Diversity is more diverse than it first seems
The attraction of diversity in schooling goes well beyond the number of nationalities enrolled.

While single gender schools are still found among private / independent schools in the West (particularly in the UK and the US), very few parents would consider a single gender international school (11%), and more than half (53%) rejected them (the remainder felt it would make no difference).

Likewise, most parents reject the idea of religious international schools. 47% said they would be less likely to consider a faith school, and only 14% felt more likely to consider one.  Apart from some parents being atheist/agnostic, the desire for diversity and the fact that Singapore is so multi-ethnic and multi-religious would counter the idea of a school aligning itself to a specific religion.

Divided opinions
Indeed, to continue with the theme of accepting diversity of views: many parents welcome the idea of international schools teaching more controversial subjects. For them, transgender issues, politics and even atheism are acceptable topics to discuss in the classroom in order to reflect the ‘real world’.  These parents are looking for their children to understand better topics that they are likely to encounter in the future.

But an equal number of parents reject the teaching of controversial subjects. These parents fear propaganda could be at work, or political correctness.  Besides, some feel that teaching controversial subjects is a diversion of the main purpose of the school. Instead, they feel it is a parent’s job to educate their child according to their family values and what they think their child will be comfortable hearing about, according to their emotional maturity.

Another area of divided opinion is whether academically selective schools are more or less likely to be considered by parents than inclusive schools (taking children from a range of abilities).  28% of parents are more likely to consider a selective school, and the same number (28%) are less likely to. The remainder said it made no difference or would depend on the individual child.

Those wanting selective schools would like to see their child among others with similar academic capability so that they can excel. But those rejecting selective schools voiced a much wider range of views and tend to have stronger opinions on this matter, particularly coming from Western expats.

This again related to how some parents view the meaning of diversity in international schools, not only through nationalities, but from the range of a child’s abilities. One parent quoted in our survey “International schools should be about being inclusive… if they segregate according to academic abilities or religion and culture it defeats the purpose.”

When diversity isn’t the be-all and end-all
Almost all parents seek a level of diversity in international schooling. But some seek less diversity when they want a cultural connection with their home country. This can be particularly important for ‘roving expats’ who move to many different countries and whose children might never have lived in their home country.  Being around pupils and teachers of their own nationality helps children develop a bond to their home country, preparing them for an eventual return home.

Conversely, other parents want a greater connection with Singapore itself.  Asian expats can be more conservative and have concerns about Western cultural influences that might conflict with their values. The age that children start dating and the consumption of alcohol are hot topics. For this reason, some of the ‘international local schools’, characterised by having a large contingent of Singaporeans, having more discipline, and some being faith schools can be popular with particular expats.

What’s next?
I hope you found these insights interesting and helpful. We are running further parent surveys on international schools in 2020. For more information on this study, and other BVA BDRC research into the international schools market, please contact Piers Lee or complete the form below.