Posted on March 12, 2022

Elite International Schools Have a Racism Problem

Natalie Obiko Pearson, Bloomberg, March 4, 2022

The “placement gong” rings out in the offices of Teaching Nomad, a recruiter for international schools, every time the company places a teacher. The past few years it’s been ringing a lot.

International schools—private, expensive, the instruction almost always in English—were once the exclusive domain of the children of diplomats and expat executives. Today, parents everywhere want in, seeing a Western-style education as a child’s pathway to success. On average, two new international schools are opening a day, and the demand for teachers is insatiable. Teaching Nomad’s website features hundreds of job openings, from Panama to Vietnam.

Some applicants are novices looking for an overseas adventure. Others are veteran educators seeking to burnish their credentials. Few of them understand, however, that their chances of getting a job might come down to the photo they upload with their résumé. It’s been an open secret in the industry for decades that parents, and therefore schools, demand Caucasian teachers and administrators.

Teaching Nomad responds to that with a simple system: Candidates are categorized Level I for Whites, Level II for all others, according to four former employees who logged and classified applicants at the company’s offices in Denver and Shanghai. The agency also notes what kind of teachers each institution seeks, with a drop-down box that offers the option “White Only,” say the ex-employees, who asked not to be identified, citing concerns about legal retaliation for violating confidentiality.

Brett Isis, Teaching Nomad’s founder and president, says the ex-employees misunderstood. Teaching Nomad does separate candidates into tiers, he says, but the levels have nothing to do with race—they’re an assessment of a candidate’s “hireability,” based on many factors. He acknowledges that the system notes schools’ requests for only White candidates but says Teaching Nomad forwards all qualified applicants to those schools, regardless of their skin color. “The reality is that we’ve helped hundreds, if not thousands, of minorities to achieve their teach-abroad goals,” Isis says, pointing to the company’s reviews on and “Many, many of those are African American or Black candidates.”

Teaching Nomad isn’t an outlier. Teach Away, a competitor in Toronto, has worked with local recruiters and partner schools in China that categorize candidates by race: A 2019 spreadsheet seen by Bloomberg had a column labeled “skin color”—with A for Black, C for White, and B for the rest. Teach Away said in an email that since August 2018, it’s required all clients to accept a school diversity pledge and that schools which don’t follow best practices on diversity and inclusion risk having their contract canceled.

These are just two agencies, doing what’s expected in an insular system that’s only beginning to examine itself. The racial reckoning that swept schools across the U.S. in 2020, calling attention to the White privilege and systemic racism endemic in academia, initially went unheeded at international schools. It was an American problem, irrelevant in their enlightened halls. But as the Black Lives Matter movement rippled abroad, students, alumni, and teachers began to peel back that worldly patina. First-person testimonies about racial discrimination emerged from schools on six continents, inspiring a movement calling on international schools to expand beyond their Western-centric biases.

Interviews with dozens of teachers, administrators, and recruiters reveal hiring tactics unheard of in almost any other industry. International schools overtly prize White skin and calibrate salaries accordingly. Ads for teaching positions are blunt about what kind of candidates should apply: “White only,” reads a recent one for a school in China. Another, for a Saudi school, states, “Must—Native American (Fair and Blonde).” In the U.S. such practices would be illegal. But abroad, discrimination laws differ, enforcement can be negligible, and the schools are largely unregulated. There’s a rule of thumb in the trade: The more elite the school, the less diverse the staff.


International schools today guarantee children will emerge speaking fluent English, the language of aspiration and a prerequisite for a shot at the Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge. Power coheres early, and children establish lifelong ties with peers groomed for the global elite. The notables who’ve emerged from such schools include Rockefellers and Rothschilds, former chief executive officers of Nokia Corp. and Standard Chartered bank, the king of the Netherlands, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, attended the International School of Berne in Switzerland.


Since 2000 the number of schools has soared fivefold, to almost 13,000; the number of students enrolled has surged sixfold, to 6 million; and tuition revenue has soared tenfold, to $53 billion, according to figures from ISC Research, a British company that tracks the industry. Just about every country has at least one international school; the city of Dubai alone boasts 300. When Brexit prompted Deutsche Bank AG to begin returning staff to Germany, the company block-booked hundreds of spots at international schools in Frankfurt. By the end of the decade, the industry’s fee revenue is set to reach $112 billion, according to consultant DeBakey International.

Because there are only so many Western expats to cater to, that growth has had to come from a new market: local populations, especially in Asia and the Middle East. Two-thirds of international schools today are run as for-profit businesses. The biggest global chains, GEMS Education, Nord Anglia Education, and Cognita, jointly operate hundreds of schools. Venerable British private schools—Harrow, Repton, Dulwich, to name a few—are setting up franchises abroad so fast that teachers jokingly refer to them as “pop-up cafes.” The demographics have flipped: About 80% of students now enrolled in international schools are locals, ISC Research estimates.

A ranking system has emerged among parents and teachers, dividing schools into three tiers—unofficial yet explicit enough that relocation consultants refer to it, academic researchers study it, and schools reference it on their websites. These rankings have little to do with educational outcomes. Typically, Tier 1 schools have predominantly Western faculty, are accredited by a Western agency, and have only a small percentage of domestic students. They are the preferred choice of diplomats, bankers, and executives, whose employers usually pay the tuition fees, which rival those of top universities. Tier 2 are a little bit cheaper, a little more local, a little less choosy. Tier 3 are for-profit businesses catering almost exclusively to the domestic market.

Tier 1 schools are hardest for teachers of color to break into. Many stop applying. Parents want White teachers, and the schools are loath to challenge parents. The remit to educate goes only so far.


The Council of International Schools surveyed 265 heads of school in 2020. Almost 80% were White, and their average salary was $131,410, or 19% more than non-White heads and almost twice the average paid to Black heads. Expats earned 39% more than local hires.

International schools are, of course, a potent example of soft power. The U.K. government accredits those that “actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy.” The U.S. State Department Office of Overseas Schools has provided $50 million over the past three years to about 200 American schools abroad—institutions such as the American International School of Abuja in Nigeria. The school doesn’t provide health insurance to local staff, but subsidizes housing, insurance, and flights for expat hires, who live and teach walled off in an enclave. {snip}

In response to questions, the State Department said it doesn’t directly operate or manage schools but is committed to “equitable recruiting and compensation practices.” Greg Hughes, now the head of the Abuja school, acknowledged differences in the benefit packages of expats and local hires but said all staff are paid on the same “salary scale” and that locals receive “adequate health care and other benefits.”

In the rarefied world of Tier 1 schools, the International School of Geneva boasts an almost unmatched pedigree. The school has produced a stream of notable global citizens since its founding—former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and famed Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, to name a couple.

Ecolint, as it’s known—a contraction of its name in French, École Internationale de Genève—was founded in 1924 by officials of the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization as a repudiation of the destruction and death wrought by World War I. Early on, Albert Einstein inquired about a teaching position for a cousin. In the 1960s an experiment in its classrooms gave rise to the International Baccalaureate, or IB, a university-entrance qualification that’s become the surest pathway to an upper-crust education. Today, students from 140 nations versed in 80 languages attend Ecolint’s three campuses. “The celebration of diversity is part of the school’s DNA,” Conan de Wilde, one of the school’s vice principals, wrote in a chapter for a 2017 pedagogical anthology about international school curricula.

But that celebration of diversity hasn’t yet arrived in the faculty lounge: Ecolint’s teachers and leadership are overwhelmingly White. The school says that under Swiss law, it’s not allowed to determine the racial makeup of its staff. But a 2020 survey by a group of parents found that out of 352 teachers on two of the school’s three campuses, 95% were White. Of the 5% of color, only two faculty members were Black. Ecolint says, based on its observations, it has more Black staff than that. Former students say they can barely recall teachers of color.

That imbalance has had consequences. Five former students, whose enrollment spanned from 2014 to 2021, recount an environment in which faculty were often unwilling or unable to acknowledge racist behavior. The pattern was so egregious that five parents banded together in early 2019 to track incidents and push the school to confront the problem.

Within a year, their group had expanded to 150 and had documented more than 30 incidents compiled from students, staff, and families. Among the incidents was a couple that had to visit the school three times before the administration would discipline a boy who’d bullied their second-grade daughter over the color of her skin. In another case a Black student approached an administrator about peers frequently using the N-word. Was it said “in a racist way?” the administrator asked. “Maybe it was a joke?”


Where a Western-style, English-language education does excel is in securing access—to global business, international politics, scientific research, top academic journals, and more. Simply put, native English speakers hold an insuperable advantage. {snip}

“Education has perpetuated the continuation of the hierarchy between Western superiority and dependency of the colonized,” Jeong-eun Rhee, a professor at Long Island University, wrote in the Multicultural Education Review in 2009. The new imperialism, she noted, is also forging a new class: “a transnational class of professionals, who can live and travel globally while freely conversing with their colleagues in English, the lingua franca of the new imperialism.”


The international school industry finds itself in an odd state of reversal—a flag-bearer of 20th century liberalism under fire as an anachronistic and toxic legacy of colonialism. Teachers have come forward in open letters to call out schools, administrators, and recruiters for racist practices. A petition begun in 2020 by a teacher successfully drew commitments from four recruiting companies to drop photos from résumés and bar the “native speaker” requirement in job descriptions.

Teach Away said it began removing the term “native English speaker” from its postings last year. Teaching Nomad’s Isis says he supports the sector moving from nationality to the International English Language Testing System as a qualification. {snip}

There are other stirrings of a shift. The International School of Dakar in Senegal changed its recruitment practices in 2019. Traditionally it had favored candidates with IB teaching experience. “An unintended consequence of this was excluding excellent teachers of color” who’d never had the opportunity to teach the IB curriculum, Alan Knobloch, ISD’s director, explained in a post. So the school flipped its criteria to elevate diversity over IB experience. The following school year, 43% of new hires were people of color. At Ecolint, changes to the recruitment process have resulted in an 11% increase in diversity in its teaching staff, according to the school.