The Hidden Internationalism of Elite English Schools

By Rachel Brooks

A cursory glance at the website or prospectus of most British universities will reveal the important place ‘international agendas’ occupy within contemporary higher education. Universities are typically keen to demonstrate: their close links with overseas institutions; the international composition of their student body; opportunities for overseas study and work placements; and, sometimes, the international flavour of the curriculum on offer. The international activities of higher education institutions have also become an important focus of academic enquiry across the disciplines of sociology, geography and education. Scholars have, for example, explored the patterns of international student mobility across the globe, the experiences of international students, the function of qualifications offered on a transnational basis, and the growth in offshore campuses. In contrast, the schools sector has been the focus of relatively little attention, despite the claims of some that education generally has become ‘internationalised’ and, over the past decade, we have witnessed the rise of a global education policy.

In research recently published in the journal Sociology, Johanna Waters and I sought to explore, in a little more detail, the extent to which schools in the UK appear to be engaging with an ‘international agenda’, and whether parallels with the higher education sector are evident. Our work was based, primarily, on an analysis of the websites and other publicly-available material produced by thirty ‘elite’ schools in England (twenty private and ten state). Our decision to focus on this group of schools was informed by our belief that they were perhaps the most likely to be sending pupils overseas for higher education (based on findings of our previous research, and our observation that while multiculturalism has been discussed in relation to state schools, relatively little attention has been paid to their private and high-performing counterparts.

Overall, we found a relatively high degree of international activity across the thirty schools. Many of them had significant proportions of international pupils, and sent a considerable number of pupils overseas each year for higher education (typically to well-known institutions in the US). Some schools offered an international curriculum (the International Baccalaureate) either instead of or alongside A Levels, and five of the thirty schools had ‘sister schools’ abroad (offering a similar type of schooling to an overseas market).

Nevertheless, despite this evidence of a significant ‘international agenda’ in many of the schools, what was striking to us was the relatively ‘hidden’ nature of much of this activity. For example, data about numbers of international pupils were typically hidden away in the schools’ inspection report, while the overseas university destinations of students were often available only in a downloadable spreadsheet rather than celebrated in a prominent place on the website. Indeed, often, publicity was given only to prestigious UK HE destinations. Similarly, in the schools offering the International Baccalaureate, it was typically promoted, not as an international qualification recognised by universities worldwide, but as a rigorous alternative to A Levels, valued by Oxford, Cambridge and other members of the Russell Group, while information about the overseas ‘sister schools’ was often hard to find, and not always provided on the ‘international pages’ of the schools’ websites. In general, it seemed to us that the public face of these schools was predominantly ‘English’ rather than international.

The hidden nature of this international activity stands in stark contrast to the activities of British universities, which – as noted above – are often keen to give their international links as much prominence as possible. It also contrasts with the approaches taken by schools in many other countries, which tend to foreground ‘the international’ as part of their efforts to capture as large a segment of middle class markets as possible. In explaining such contrasts, we suggest that the schools’ promotion of an ‘English’ rather than ‘international’ identity is likely to be closely linked to the markets from which they recruit. ‘Englishness’ is likely to be strongly desired by those international pupils who cross national borders for their education, by virtue of its association with prestigious and traditional forms of education, access to elite social networks, the value of British educational credentials in the global marketplace, and the opportunity to become fluent in a dominant world language. We also argue that, given the spatial disparities in the global field of education and the persistence of neo-colonial influences, ‘Englishness’ is likely to be valued equally highly by British families seeking an elite schooling for their children – and deemed more desirable than ‘international’ alternatives. There are thus strong motives for schools to continue to expand their international activities (e.g. to increase their income through sister schools, and to ensure their pupil numbers stay buoyant, through recruiting those from abroad) but also to downplay their internationalism in their public face.

While such decisions may play an important role in schools’ marketing, by maximising their appeal to both families from abroad and within the UK seeking a traditionally ‘English’ education, we suggest that they can also be considered problematic – particularly in the way in which they render invisible pupils from other parts of the world, and those who go on to pursue higher education outside the UK.

Although no other study, to our knowledge, has identified the ‘hidden’ character of this activity, our findings do articulate with broader concerns about the nature and impact of internationalism. Researchers in Australia have argued that schools with a significant proportion of international students are often associated with particularly conservative ‘ethno-cultural affiliations’, while research amongst international schools in the Asia-Pacific region has suggested that such schools are often valued for the benefit they offer to the individual, rather than to the wider national or global community. Similarly, while our research offers no evidence about actual practices within schools, it does suggest that international diversity is only valued publicly in so far as it helps to further advantage – of pupils, their families and the schools themselves – rather than contributing to the development of ‘globally oriented citizens’.


This blogpost is based on our article, which was published in Sociology earlier this year: Brooks, R. and Waters, J. (2014) The Hidden Internationalism of Elite English Schools, Sociology (Advance online publication).


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