Fair balance?

Unconscious bias in international schools

In the light of  questions  being asked about racism in 2020, Gwen Byrom thinks we all need to take a hard look at the cultural climate in which international learning is taking place.


Against the background of global concern about the management and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is, as we all know, another debate taking place.  In the light of both national protests and the quieter conversations taking place following the death of George Floyd, schools and other organisations are being encouraged more than ever to scrutinise their practices and policies, and to make significant changes to both which will ensure that they are truly reflective of, and advocates for all students, families and employees, regardless of cultural and ethnic background.


This absolutely appropriate action could lead us to reflect more widely upon how our international schools across the world operate.  Perhaps it is time for us to take a hard look at ourselves and ask whether we are providing the truly egalitarian, global education we lay claim to.  I do not intend to reference the taught curriculum here: this most visible aspect of school activity is one which is dictated in part by examination boards and is the area where schools should be most effective in providing a global outlook.  Indeed, some awarding bodies such as the IBO see it as their mission to promote and develop intercultural understanding amongst students, in order to build a better future for everyone.  Many of our international schools claim the same global outlook.

Which international ‘flavour’?

International schools often reference their home country, parent school, or a particular curriculum model, be it British, American, or otherwise.  This informs us as to which qualifications the school may offer.  This is not to suggest that these schools are bastions of, for example, ‘Britishness’ in other parts of the globe, celebrating a past history of Empire or colonialism.  We may, however, be guilty of promoting in our schools a particular ‘flavour’ of internationalism which prizes certain perspectives, positioning them as superior to others.

Hidden curriculum

I want to provide, then, some food for thought about the ‘hidden curriculum’ in our schools. The hidden curriculum, the set of values and beliefs which are passed onto students either deliberately or inadvertently through a school’s culture and ethos, can be far more powerful than the explicit teaching of a global curriculum.  It therefore requires as much, if not more, attention to ensure that schools truly reflect the values which they espouse.


Extra-curricular activities and status

Let’s begin with extra-curricular activities, and how a school values the skills and experiences of its students (and staff). Is there an unspoken hierarchy of skills and achievements?  To give an example,  does membership of the debating and rugby teams carry a higher social status than membership of the table tennis team and the K-pop dance group?  An unconscious valuing of western-style activities more highly than others can signal to students that the only worthwhile activities are those which encourage the development of a more western mindset.

The problem with English

Multilingual students can also find the concept of internationalism within schools fraught.  Of course, there needs to be a common language of instruction and for ease of communication across the many cultures we welcome into our schools.  But reflect upon some of the staffroom conversations you might have been privy to, in particular, those referring to students who are classified as ‘not integrating well’ because they struggle with English.  Yet these students are often very cosmopolitan in their outlook, speaking multiple languages at home and with their peers: it simply happens that English is lower on the list of priorities than, say, Mandarin, Malay and Korean.

These students may well be able to skilfully navigate differences in social norms across multiple cultures whilst seeming to be socially awkward when using English.  Students may also recognise in classroom interactions that those with stronger English language skills are unconsciously favoured in group work and presentations. Therefore, in these interactions the primacy of an English-speaking, western outlook is reinforced.

The place to hang out

Another interesting exercise can be to look at the spaces in school which students inhabit during free time.  We are all aware that physical spaces in a school are often linked with the status of a social group.  What are the areas which appear to convey higher status on the groups who occupy them and if so, what is the mix of students in these groups?  The association of high-status spaces with ‘cool’ kids can again reinforce a bias towards western values if the ‘cool’ kids all present as westernised through either their use of language or their appearance (dress, body language etc).

Cultural hierarchy

How too does the school reinforce a hierarchy of cultures within the staff body and the whole community through its appointment processes?  Who occupies the low-skill, low paid roles? In the support staff teams, are managers noticeably from different cultural backgrounds to their staff?   If this is the case, we could be accused of signalling to the community that some backgrounds are valued less highly than others.  Similarly, is there a differential in the pay of locally qualified teachers compared to those who are international hires?  If all teachers are on the same pay scale, but locally qualified staff do not accrue the same wider benefits package as international teachers, is the school implying that they are valued less?

Who do we listen to?

Finally, we all know that good schools keep a dialogue running with students about a variety of matters affecting school life from food, to sanctions policies and wellbeing activities.  Does your school ask students about their perceptions of bias in the organisation? Perhaps, more to the point, are the right students being asked?  The artist Grayson Perry writes of the ‘default white male’, describing an invisible group in society who are unable to recognise structural inequalities because of their ubiquity within those power structures.  Similarly, if westernised, fluent English speakers are questioned about perceived cultural biases in an international school, they may not recognise an issue: far better, perhaps, to quiz those on the fringes, the students who struggle to integrate, those who populate the obscure clubs and the tucked-away corners of the school. They may lead you to some enlightening conclusions.

Fresh eyes. Open mind.

None of these points have easy solutions, and some may say that an international school founded on western values will, by its very nature, hold a western bias. It is also easy to argue that there is a strong demand for the style of education offered in international schools and we ‘change the formula’ at our peril.  Both of these things may be true, but I would contend that looking at your school with fresh eyes and engaging in debate with all students about their experiences to understand what they would change about our schools, can only enrich and benefit everyone’s experience.


Gwen Byrom is the Director of International Education Strategy for North London Collegiate School International, overseeing the operation of NLCS schools in Dubai, Korea and Singapore. She is a former President of the Girls’ Schools Association.

For more about Gwen and NLCS International, please see www.nlcsinternational.co.uk

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gwen-b-673a4695/

Twitter: @onecoldtea


Images kindly provided by Gwen

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