Building for the Future

There is a lack of consensus as to the identity of the first international school. Some would suggest that this honour should go to The International College (also known as Spring Grove School) in Hounslow, London, which was formally opened by the future King Edward VII in July 1867. The school, whose official name was: London College of the International Education Society, was the brainchild of the politician Richard Cobden, the scientist Thomas Huxley and the novelist Charles Dickens, among others. It had its origins in an essay competition associated with the London International Exhibition of 1862 entitled “The advantages of educating together children of different nationalities”. Cobden was a leading advocate of free trade and he regarded the new school, with its international mix of students, as a nursery for ‘ambassadors’ who would improve international understanding and thereby encourage the efficient flow of world trade.

The founders envisaged the International College as the springboard to the creation of a future network of schools, with similar institutions in France, Germany and Italy, all using the same curriculum so that students could move easily between countries, acquiring new experiences, especially new languages, on the way. Before such a plan could become a reality the school closed, in 1889, due mainly to the volatile political situation in Europe, especially the Franco–Prussian war. Although further, specifically denominated, international schools were not on the horizon at this time there was an increasing tendency for the wealthy and influential around the world to consider sending their children ‘abroad’, especially to Britain and France.

Birdsey Grant Northrop, a prominent American educator, writing in the USA in 1873, pointed out that: “ the practice of educating youth abroad has been steadily growing for a long period. But the present has witnessed an unprecedented exodus of our youth to Europe. The fancied superiority of European schools… and a vague ambition for ‘foreign culture’ have alike contributed to this result. More than all, fashion has given it sanction and created a furore in favour of European education….” Even in those days, representatives from European schools would travel to the USA, especially to the East coast states, to promote their schools. As today, they would engage local resident ‘Agents’ to market their schools. It is interesting to note how a ‘foreign’ education was even then perceived as a commodity.

Military action in Europe and beyond put a hold on international recruitment, especially to France, and on projects to found new international schools. This moratorium continued until shortly after the First World War when, in 1924, the International School of Geneva opened with 8 pupils and 3 teachers. Some six weeks later, on the other side of the world, the Yokohama International School opened, in a local YMCA building, with just 6 pupils and one teacher. Both schools were founded to meet the needs of growing expatriate communities and both continue to operate to this day with, currently, 4,000 and 650 students respectively. A small number of similar schools opened in the years between the world wars, reflecting growing international mobility, but it was only after World War II that international schools began to proliferate.

The significant growth in international education and international schools, post World War II, had, in part, its origins in the forward planning which was taking place from 1941 onwards, when the so-called London International Assembly provided a forum for displaced representatives of ‘like-minded’ nations to discuss common problems informally. R.A.Butler, President of the British Board of Education, who was greatly concerned with post-war reconstruction on the continent, formalised this gathering into the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME) in November 1942. Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and Britain were the first members. Membership gradually extended beyond Europe, with Washington seeing the elements, of what was to be a future UNESCO, in a resolution adopted in January 1943, that called for a “ United Nations Bureau for Educational Reconstruction” whose purpose would be to “meet urgent needs in the enemy-occupied countries”.

The U.SA.’s presence was initially low key with only a junior, London-based diplomat, Richard A Johnson, maintaining observer status. However, in 1944 the British Foreign Office requested a greater commitment from the U.S. leading to it being drawn into the CAME process. Washington had begun to grow uncomfortable with the ‘overly aggressive’ British leadership in the creation of the new educational and cultural organisation, and so, senior politicians of the stature of Congressman J. William Fulbright and the Assistant Secretary of State, Archibald MacLeish, who was one of that rare breed- a ‘poet statesman’, among others, were given instructions to participate ‘fully’ in CAME’s efforts to sketch out a constitution for the new organisation. In 1945 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established with its headquarters in Paris. Archibald MacLeish contributed the following to the introduction of its charter: “Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

UNESCO’s first education seminar, in 1947, was on the theme of: Education for International Understanding”. In 1948, UNESCO published a radical pamphlet, written by Marie-Therese Maurette, the then Director of the International School of Geneva, promoting the need for “International- mindedness”. This publication posited the idea that this was a concept which needed to be ‘taught rather than caught’. Among her proposals, which were then being implemented in her own school, were: more prominence in atlases to ‘the world’ as a ‘concept’ rather over focusing on individual countries; a new ‘World History’ course; insistence on pupils learning a second language and participation in some form of community service.

By 1951 a small group of head teachers volunteered to form the Conference of Internationally Minded Schools, which came together with other similarly interested bodies and enlisted UNESCO backing, combined with the support of staff, parents and governors of the International School of Geneva and the United Nations International School in New York. This initiative was formalised with the founding of the International Schools Association (ISA). ISA was the very first educational, non-governmental organisation (NGO) to have, and to continue to have, consultative status at UNESCO. ISA became one of the earliest examples of supranational educative bodies operating on the stage of global education. By the early 1960’s there were some 50 self-declared international schools, more than half of which were ISA members.

Schools affiliated to ISA shared the aim of ‘educating young people to be at home in the world anywhere’ (Leach, 1969) with no one government, national grouping religious body or ideological point of view controlling the school or being accorded any special privilege. Leach believed the school where he taught, the International School of Geneva, to be the ‘only’ true international school at that time, and even that school had, in his perception, ‘too much Swiss influence, too many British staff and too many American students’. Some consider Leach’s vision to be unrealistic, with many researchers and practitioners in the field of international education taking a more pragmatic view, accepting the ‘inevitability’ that the local composition of the expatriate community, which continues to be top-heavy with anglophone members and teachers, will determine a major part of the make up of any school’s student body.

ISA’s original remit was to develop ways to foster international understanding and world peace, but focus soon expanded to include, what was then seen as, the pressing need to standardise curricula in schools around the world, partly as a means to facilitate entry into world class universities. This shift was catalysed by an extensive ISA-led survey of international schools conducted in 1962: the collected data suggested a picture of, what Desmond Cole- Baker classified as ‘vastly different academic experiences due to the complexity of curricula being offered’ (Baker, 1965). Based on the results of this survey, active ISA teachers from the International School of Geneva drafted a well-received History syllabus that could be modified for use in ‘any’ international school.

One of the syllabus’s writers was Bob Leach, an American Quaker, whose world travels had left him with the belief that education needed to promote a more international perspective in the hopes of cultivating a sense of global responsibility among its students. Also party to such a view was Desmond Cole-Baker, a prominent ISA member and Second World War veteran. His experiences of the atrocities of war convinced him that an international perspective in education could help to mitigate the nationalistic patriotism he came to see as a root cause of militaristic interventions. It is for this reason that, after the war, he became a teacher and in later years stated that he wanted the nascent IB to push ‘quarrelling humanity into the path of peace’.

There is a clear commonality in the vision espoused by Marie- Therese Maurette, Rob Leach and Desmond Cole- Baker, as well as numerous others, that History was and still is the key subject in promoting an ideologically humanistic, non-militaristic, international viewpoint. The success of the History syllabus brought with it a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund and prompted ISA to create the International Schools Examination Syndicate (ISES) in 1965. Headed by John Goormaghtigh, the Belgian Director of the European Office of the Carnegie Endowment of World Peace, this group was given the task of developing an international university entrance examination and course syllabi that would accompany it, making ISES, and by implication, ISA, the precursor of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO): a name it would acquire in 1968. It is interesting to note that, as far back as 1964, Harvard and Princeton universities had expressed interest in the first ISA authored History syllabus. These two universities were later to be among the first to offer sophomore standing to those students who scored well on the, later to be created, IB Diploma.

Goormaghtigh had been a prisoner of war in the Dachau concentration camp. He held the belief in the potential of education to foster world peace and to “...demonstrate tangibly that rejection of “the other” (“le rejet del ’autre”) is not inherent in human nature, that races can work and play together without losing their identity” (Goormaghtigh, 1989). Goormaghtigh would go on to become the longest serving president of the IBO’s Council of Foundation, deeply influencing the organisation’s promotion of peace.

When the idea of an international university entrance exam was first proposed, the members of ISA and ISES realised that the project would not materialise without the support of world-class universities. National ministeries of Education and a number of ‘prestigious’ universities were courted as a means to lend credibility to the initiative and to answer the question of whether this type of exam would indeed solve the problem posed by international student mobility. Acceptance of such a proposal has been hard won, but the commitment and belief of the early pioneers has led to wide acceptance of such internationally benchmarked exams. ISA and ISES’s original syllabi together with their later curricula, which developed into the IB Middle Years and the IGCSE Programmes, have led to examinations accepted as entrance qualifications by the majority of the world’s most prestigious universities.

The partnership between universities and the IB Diploma, for example, has been crucial to the development and implementation of these programmes around the world, with the IB’s marketing campaigns often referring to the Diploma as “a passport to higher education” (IBO, 2009). Many universities, such as MIT and Harvard, herald the IBDP as the “best high school prep curriculum an American school can offer”. But, this partnership raises important questions about the true motivations behind the growth of these exam programmes, and, by implication, the increase in the number of international schools today: are they being embraced as superior quality programmes that foster peace-minded action within an international perspective, or are they being implemented and promoted, partly as a marketing tool, simply to gain competitive advantage over other schools and their students?

The International School market has flourished, almost imperceptibly, hidden from the view of the general populace. The sector’s influence is greater than it has ever been, with the academic programmes originally designed to meet ‘its’ needs now being rolled out as the potential default elite benchmark syllabi for many state schools around the world. One does have to ask whether the vision of Archibald MacLeish, Marie-Therese Maurette, Rob Leach, Desmond Cole- Baker and their co- visionaries, continues to be the driving force in the life of today’s international schools? Is the IB Organisation actively seeking to- ‘push quarrelling humanity into the path of peace’?

I will be looking at the development of International Schools from 1967 onwards in a future edition of the magazine. Meanwhile I should note that the ISA, as an organisation, is determined to revisit its founding principles and objectives, which coincide with Archibald MacLeish’s call to UNESCO: ‘…it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be established’. It is conscious of the fact that there is more to the concept of international education than simply educating together children of different cultures and linguistic backgrounds, and more than a curriculum based in the cognitive domain. It is to be hoped that the thousands of international schools receiving this publication take the time to evaluate the extent to which ‘international-mindedness’ forms the foundation on which the curriculum and methodology is established.

By Andrew McEwen



In the 1960’s ISA was instrumental in the development of the International Baccalaureate Organization.

In the 1980’s ISA created an international program for middle schools (11 to 16 year old students), which with further development by the IBO became the IBMYP (International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program).

The establishment of a curriculum framework for Peace Education and Sustainable Development, designed as an instrument for schools to become more internationally minded.

The publication of “Internationalism in Schools – a Self-Study Guide” a document designed to help schools understand the extent to which they are international or internationally-minded.

Every year the ISA sponsors a “Youth Encounter” for students from member and non-member schools. Its purpose is to promote leadership within global and cultural themes. Further details: edgardo.manzitti@isaschools.org

Every two years a World Conference is organized around a theme dealing with International Education – its characteristics, development and promotion.

The ISA sponsors Oral English Examinations. These cover the Elementary, Primary, Intermediate and Secondary Stages. It combines oral communication skills, comprehension, and oral reading in English as a foreign language. Further details: edgardo.manzitti@isaschools.org

The annual nomination of both the ISA International Humanism Award and the ISA Distinguished Service Award

A current project is the development of an accreditation system based on self-study. Schools who complete successfully the self-study process will be certificated by the International Schools Association.

logo ISA

Education is the best instrument to build a better world. Living in peace is achieved by working together and celebrating our cultural diversity and similarity.