Leadership in international schools: The enduring paradox of discrimination

Tristan Bunnell, Alexander Gardner-McTaggart

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This paper reports on a study undertaken (and output in journal format) concerning the nature of senior leaders (Heads, and Directors) being sought in the growing arena of private K-12 English-speaking international schools. After several decades of slow growth, there are currently 12,000 of this type of school globally, teaching a curriculum in English outside an English-speaking nation. The existing period of globalisation has seen a huge demand for this kind of school, especially across Asia (where China is the largest market), and they are expected to double in size by 2030. They are still staffed, in the main, by leaders from Britain and North America. This is a fast growing yet still largely under-reported arena of schooling and we still know little about the type of leadership that it attracts or involves.
We show how the well-established, accredited schools authorised to offer the programmes of the Geneva-registered International Baccalaureate, which we term the ‘Elite Traditional International Schools’ (ETISs), deliberately seek and ultimately employ a distinct character as the senior leader. Using data collected from a major online job recruitment site about 20 ETISs in 18 nations, we apply Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological notion of cultural capital accumulation to show how a ‘field of power’ is being (re)enforced. Moreover, we can identify a distinct circuit of leadership nobility, where having a ‘sense of humour’ and being a ‘well-spoken communicator’ is of greater importance than credentials or educational experience. It emerges that a well-developed set of ‘unwritten rules’ can be identified yet are rarely questioned or discussed.
We see this important and original finding as a fundamental and enduring structural paradox, since the ETIS (Elite Traditional International School) involves an inclusive mission to educate and facilitate in practice the ideals and morals of global citizenship. The ETIS openly champions the ‘just and responsible global citizen’ committed to displaying respect, open-mindedness, and tolerance of diversity. Why then, does the ETIS practice discrimination in favour of a certain type of senior leader, with a similar accumulation of cultural capital?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jul 2022
EventAnnual Conference of the British Educational Leadership Management Administration Society (BELMAS) 2022 - Liverpool, UK United Kingdom
Duration: 8 Jul 20229 Jul 2022


ConferenceAnnual Conference of the British Educational Leadership Management Administration Society (BELMAS) 2022
Country/TerritoryUK United Kingdom


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