Making a world of difference: my experience of using evidence in international schools

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By Sue Holt, Vice Principal, New Cairo British International School

It would be an easy task to list the benefits of working in an international school.

Less easy would be finding ways to meet some of the unexpected and complex challenges that face senior leaders in an international education.

Sue Holt’s 30 years’ experience as a senior leader, in eight countries and across four continents, has taught her a thing or two about the diverse demands of supporting international students and staff while ensuring school performance remains a priority.

Travelling tales

‘I started working in international schools because I wanted a bit of excitement in my life and I wanted to travel. So I started working abroad to have that international experience, and 30 years on it’s safe to say I ended up getting a lot!

There are so many different kinds of international schools. Some offer an international curriculum but they are geared to the local market, while some cater mainly for ex-pats. Some, by statute, are only allowed to take expats or a small proportion of dual-national citizens, and some are really bi-lingual schools delivering the host country curriculum.  

A truly international education

The number of international schools worldwide is growing rapidly.

I’ve worked in different types of international schools and prefer schools which offer a truly international education that has many nationalities. The mix of cultures means that the people there become properly international; they meet others from different backgrounds, absorb different points of view and become more open-minded. It is schools like this that can have a positive influence on the world.

Some of the challenges for leaders in international schools can actually derive from what makes international education so exciting – the mix of cultures and backgrounds means that everybody’s different, and has different needs, so you can’t just use a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.

Using evidence to support improvement at every level

I have introduced CEM assessments in every school I have worked over the last 30 years, for the simple reason that the data is useful at every level; from classroom teachers to Heads of Department to the leadership team.

Supporting students

There is a combination of factors which creates interesting challenges with international students.

For example, it’s common in international schools to have a high turnover of students, and in some cases, you might only have 50% of students staying with you from Year 7 to Year 9.

When you have students coming in at any time of the year, with so many different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, you need a baseline test that gives you a snapshot of student ability when they are starting. The test should be, as far as possible, curriculum-free (so obviously not something that is dependent on the kind of education they’ve had beforehand) and something that gives you an idea of how well they might do in an English-medium curriculum.

Once you have the data that enables you to understand their starting cognitive ability you are in a better position to identify individual needs and put in extra support; be it a specific learning need, an ESL issue or perhaps they transitioned a very difficult time.

Supporting staff

Recruitment in international schools is becoming increasingly difficult, as there are so many schools opening up and the demand for good teachers is huge.

The variety of backgrounds and teaching experiences of the staff you recruit can sometimes mean that raising expectations and maintaining really high standards can be a challenge.

Of course, the quality of teaching has an impact on grades, so having the baseline, tracking and longitudinal data from CEM assessments really helps teachers to hit the ground running. The data gives them a picture of the classes they are going to be teaching and gives them an indication of the standards we are looking for.

Supporting school improvement

Each school is unique but they can face similar challenges in terms of embedding procedures.

Good schools invest heavily in CPD, but it’s more than simply having a big budget for staff training. Having a range of opportunities is better:

  • Creating an effective induction programme for new staff
  • Conducting a staff audit to identify areas of strength and expertise
  • Engaging with staff to understand what support is needed by them and their students
  • Giving staff access to data and routinely sharing good practice

Much of it is common sense, but it all really helps.

Staff turnover and ensuring new initiatives are truly embedded can be a real issue. Strategic development plans can be overturned very quickly if half the staff and the Principal decide to leave! Strong, consistent leadership and governance are needed, and constantly updating training and revisiting initiatives will help.

Making comparisons to other schools and measuring how effective we are is important too. The best measure we have is CEM’s long-term tracking of the average GCSE results and the trend in value-added over time. We can see if we are truly adding value each year and by how much.  It helps us have really positive conversations with staff about where things are going well, and what we can do to make improvements.

For me, CEM data provides vital evidence to support you at every stage of the school journey: CEM data is there at the beginning of the process measuring the baseline, helping you understand what students know and can do; it provides evidence to support you when you are designing the curriculum, and it is there at the end of the process to help you evaluate the outcomes and your success.’


Sue Holt is Vice Principal, New Cairo British International School and has extensive experience in international education. She spent most of her career at the British School of Brussels where she held various posts including Deputy Head (Curriculum), Head of Secondary and Vice Principal, and finally as Acting Principal before moving to Argentina where she became the CEM’s consultant for Latin America. Her work took her to Peru, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. She followed this by teaching and consultancy in Spain and China and returned to school leadership in Qatar and Jordan.

More Information

Discover how CEM data is used in other international schools

Watch Sue’s short video: Let’s talk about CEM data