Data share

How the pandemic is affecting practice in international schools

Sam Fraser, leader of the ISC Research field team reflects on how the pandemic has changed international education in ways of which we should all be aware.

Close-up view

As the leader of the ISC Research Field Team, I am in a very privileged position. Not only am I able to listen to school leaders, teachers, governors and support staff as they talk to us about what has been happening in their schools, but also to discuss trends, school-related data, aspirations and achievements with this wide range of people at the chalk-face. During this last, astonishing year, our job has given us a unique view of what has been happening.

To say that we all admire how international schools have responded to the extraordinary challenge of 2020 – 21 would be an understatement. We are genuinely in awe.

Sharing what we find

The data we collect and the conversations we conduct have allowed us to update our understanding of a rapidly changing situation, and during the course of the year we have published a free to download series of reports and whitepapers sharing our analysis about how the situation was evolving.

The series started in June 2020 when we issued three whitepapers, in which we placed Covid 19 in the context of previous major crises. This was followed in August 2020 when we looked at the impact of Covid-19 on Educational Technology This year we have published White Papers on the Criteria used by Parents when they are choosing international schools (February 2021) and a major study of the impact of Covid on Staff and Student wellbeing (March 2021).

What, exactly, do we think are the most significant findings emerging from our work?

Blended learning is here to stay

Firstly, we think the way young people learn will be profoundly changed. As a result of our June 2020 research into online learning, we have no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the path to a permanent blended learning model, which many international schools are now considering. Most school Heads are agreed that online learning will be offered in some form in the future, even if it is simply part of a crisis management strategy, or more focused within the secondary years.

The springboard effect

When schools initially moved to online provision, teachers and students had to adapt and develop a new mode of teaching and learning virtually overnight. Many international schools looking to the future now want to take advantage of the springboard this provided, having realised the benefits of asynchronous learning and the positive opportunities this brings, to move to a more blended learning model. Some say that the attributes of an IB (International Baccalaureate) learner, such as problem solving, risk taking, independence and pace change in learning, and time management, fit well within a blended learning model.

Nevertheless, all school leaders have collectively confirmed, almost without exception, that children need human interaction and the chance to collaborate and share their learning within a face-to-face environment.

More techies required

As a result of challenges faced during campus closures, most educators now believe that having immediate access to skilled technical staff within their school is very important, if not essential. Technology experts in senior leadership positions, particularly those with combined teaching and tech skills, have been emerging in some innovative international schools for some time but, as a result of COVID-19, more positions are being created, and the need for technical skills is being recognised.

Infrastructure investment

Schools now realise that suitable devices have to be accessible for all teachers, students and administrators. This is a big investment and infrastructure challenge for some schools – and an additional demand for many families if a school requires their contribution to the funding. For some schools impeded by bandwidth limitations, infrastructure challenges are fundamental. There is a realisation that change will only come from governments if enough collective voices demand it – and are heard.

Meanwhile for other international schools with reasonable access to good bandwidth, the priority now is the full implementation of a reliable, comprehensive virtual learning platform across the entire school. Several schools admitted they realised that ‘own-grown’ platforms simply did not function well enough under the pressure of high demand, and some ended up switching to reliable brands during the period of campus closures. Many schools have commented that the ability to tailor brand platforms to the specific needs of their school has been essential. Other schools are yet to introduce such platforms.

Virtual learning and ongoing CPD

There can be no doubting the massive change in technical skillsets of most teachers. However, as the pandemic has progressed this does not mean that online teaching has not been anything less than demanding, and staff have needed continuing support. The pedagogy of blended learning requires substantial research and development, but some schools are already pushing forward with this and many more are having in-depth conversations about how it can be best achieved.

A wellbeing revolution?

As we have learned  from our March 2021 report, the need for authentic wellbeing practice within schools has also been recognised during the COVID crisis in a new way. In the past, wellbeing provision has often focused on students alone. However, many international schools have now realised the need for wellbeing provision for all staff – if not the entire school. Expatriate staff can feel distanced from their wider family at the best of times, and many of them have felt extremely isolated during COVID-19, while local staff also have specific needs that need to be understood.

Authentic solidarity or toxic positivity?

Comparing results from the new wellbeing report with similar research conducted in 2018, it appears that the pandemic brought a stronger sense of solidarity to those international schools that actively addressed the wellbeing of whole communities.

However, several teachers who participated in the research, felt that although wellbeing was being discussed by some senior leaders, it was not being authentically addressed. Some staff referred to a ‘toxic positivity’ (defined as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of an optimistic state across all situations) being experienced in their schools.

Implications for admissions and recruitment

What emerges from this focus on wellbeing? Our research suggests that more parents are now enquiring about wellbeing provision during their admissions enquiries, and there is a likelihood that more teachers will evaluate staff wellbeing provision in their future workplace selection, so it is a factor all schools will have to address.

What next?

If there is one thing that we have learned, it is that the evolution of the pandemic is not predictable. As one country allows school campuses to reopen, another requires a more rigorous lockdown. We have never experienced such a disruptive period of change. There is one thing for sure, however – we will continue to share our insights as the situation continues to evolve.


Sam Fraser is Research Director at ISC Research and leads their field-based research team.

Schools who participate in ISC Research’s data collection programme are able to access a wide range of essential data of international data about the international schools market globally and in their region. For more information about how to participate, contact ISC Research here:


The ISC Online for Schools Portal is a free service for school leaders participating in the ISC Research Field research programme. Find out more:


Feature Image:  by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support Image: by mmi9 from Pixabay

Other images kindly provided by ISC Research


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