The history of international schools

International schools have been around for about 100 years*. The first school with ‘international school’ in its name was the International School of Geneva. It was founded in 1924 to serve diplomatic families and families from organizations tied to the United Nations. After World War II, the number of international schools steadily increased. Over the past 100 years several key events have taken place within the international school market. See some of the events on the timeline below.

The first international schools were mostly founded for ideological reasons. These schools are referred to as Type B ideological international schools (Bunnell et al., 2016). Ideological schools aim to contribute to international understanding, cooperation and peace (James & Sheppard, 2014; Schippling, 2018). Today, a well-known group of these ideological international schools are the United World Colleges consortium of schools. These schools seek to “unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future” (United World Colleges, 2020, para. 1). Type B international schools usually operate as not-for-profit organizations.

A pragmatic motive, migration, led to the founding of other international schools (Schippling, 2018). These market-driven international schools (Bittencourt & Willetts, 2018; James & Sheppard, 2014) are denoted as Type A traditional international schools (Bunnell et al., 2016). Type A international schools cater for internationally mobile, expatriate families (Bunnell et al., 2016). These schools usually operate as not-for-profit organizations.

A profit motive led to a new form of international schools (James & Sheppard, 2014). These international schools are denoted as Type C non-traditional international schools (Bunnell et al., 2016). Type C international schools are normally privately-owned and function as for-profit companies. They occupy space in two fields: the economic and educational (Khalil, 2019). Type C schools cater to wealthy local families. Today, local children occupy 80% of international school seats (Bunnell et al., 2016; Ting, 2019).

Khalil’s (2019) case study describes a Type C international school in the Middle East (Some of the features of this Type C international school can also be found in Type A and B international schools). The school is accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS) and is a member of other international education organizations. It delivers a British-style of education (Most international schools deliver a British-based curriculum (Bunnell, 2019b)). The school has both overseas hired staff and locally hired staff and has a high turnover of staff. The public relations and marketing department of the school fulfill a vital role. The school markets its ability to help graduating seniors secure admission to top ranking universities worldwide. The institutional legitimacy of many Type C international schools is questioned (Bunnell et al., 2016). A growing amount of Type C international schools pursue international accreditation through organizations such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), Middle States Association (MSA), and Council of International Schools (CIS) to help legitimize their schools. Bunnell (2019a) points to 15 characteristics that give legitimacy to a school that claims to be an international school. For example, foreign languages are offered, flags are displayed around the school, and annual overseas trips are conducted.

* It is sometimes argued that the first international school was founded in 1866. This school, the London College of the International Education Society, promoted cooperation between nations. These are other noteworthy schools that began before 1924 or around 1924:

- St Andrew’s Scots School, Buenos Aires, founded 1838

- Seoul Foreign School, founded 1912

- Yokohama International Schools, founded 1924


Bittencourt, T., & Willetts, A. (2018). Negotiating the tensions: A critical study of international schools’ mission statements. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 16(4), 515-525.

Bunnell, T. (2019b). Leadership of ‘messy, tense international schools’: The potential scope for a fresh, positive lens of inquiry. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1- 13. 

Bunnell, T., Fertig, M., & James, C. (2016). What is international about international schools? An institutional legitimacy perspective. Oxford Review of Education, 42(4), 408-423.

James, C., & Sheppard, P. (2014). The governing of international schools: The implications of ownership and profit motive. School Leadership & Management, 34(1), 2-20.

Khalil, L. (2019). International schooling: a sociocultural study (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southampton).

Schippling, A. (2018). Researching international schools: Challenges for comparative educational research. Revista LUsófona de Educação, (41), 193-204.

Ting, W. (2019). International school director tenure: An evaluation study (Order No. 27804809). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2403069630). Retrieved from

United World Colleges. (2020). What is UWC? UWC.