Thinking Historically About a Generation of Canadian Offshore Schools

Photo courtesy of the author who is shown teaching Geography 12, an accredited British Columbia curriculum course, to Chinese students in China on the Pacific coast.

Ian Alexander

This is the fourth entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

In the 1990s a confluence of social, economic, and political conditions created a market for international education to expand in a multitude of ways around the globe. For those in communities across Canada, the internationalization of education has been most visible in the increase in international students in Canadian schools, colleges, and universities. Another, less visible form of internationalization was the spread of Canadian curriculum to other countries. Also on the move were textbooks, teachers, and administrators who set up offshore schools and programs abroad.The first few offshore schools opened in the mid-1990s as a novel form of transnational education, when curriculum and credentials were transported across borders to other countries. Unlike traditional international schools that taught children from expatriate families, Canadian offshore schools were mostly attended by local students seeking a foreign high school education to prepare for university abroad and sometimes to avoid aspects of their own national education system. Now that it is 2024, and offshore school students and teachers have been learning and teaching for nearly thirty years, the time is ripe to think historically about this era and gather stories of this cross-cultural education. These stories can inform the next generation of offshore schools and help identify continuity and change over time, especially when the presence and plight of international students has recently been thrust into the political spotlight.

While offshore schools began as novelties in the late 1990s, their growth exploded in the 2000s and continued growing through the 2010s. Over the course of this period, seven Canadian provinces engaged in some form of offshore education involving transporting curriculum, textbooks, and teachers abroad. British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario first established schools (or affiliations with foreign schools) in the 1990s. Alberta, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island have also operated some offshore schools in recent years. Currently there are 126 Canadian-accredited offshore schools around the world. These schools emerged among a global collection of international curriculum choices such as International Baccalaureate, UK private schools and programs like Cambridge International, and the US-based College Board exam programs embedded in private and public schools in multiple countries.

The histories of Canadian offshore schools have taken quite different pathways, likely because education is the purview of provinces and territories. British Columbia and New Brunswick were early adopters of offshore schools in China. Maple Leaf International School opened in 1995 in Dalian (People’s Republic of China) using the BC curriculum and the Beijing Concord College of Sino Canada established the New Brunswick curriculum program in 1997. Besides Maple Leaf, additional BC offshore schools began to open in 2003. These new openings began as a consequence of new regulations to support the injection private foreign options into Chinese private schools (Wang, 2017). Around the same time, the election of the BC Liberals in 2001 signaled openness to entrepreneurial activities by school districts and educational businesses in the province. Perhaps a crucial factor was the success of the first BC offshore school in Dalian, which expanded from 14 to 1300 secondary students within eight years of operation (Waters, 2008). A 1998 newspaper article in the Vancouver Sun about Maple Leaf International School anticipated that educational exchanges could blend Canadian and Chinese educational values, practices, and procedures, along with build business connections.

Any inquiry into Canadian offshore schools invites consideration of continuity and change over time – and the driving forces that shape these offshore school storylines. One emerging aspect is the continuity in the operation of offshore schools irrespective of the political party with power in provincial legislatures. BC offshore schools commenced during a New Democratic government and expanded under the BC Liberals concurrent with further authorization by China. When the NDP returned to power in 2017, BC offshore schools continued to open in additional countries such as Kazakhstan, Taiwan, and Bahrain.

Thinking historically about Canadian offshore schools, and piecing together sources to devise narratives, is a multilingual endeavour. While many of the primary sources from those who have experience teaching or administrating offshore schools are in English, substantial evidence about the actual experiences of these schools is in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Japanese, and multiple other languages. The policy and legal documents in the countries that hosted offshore schools are not in English, and the news media and website archives have substantial traces of offshore school sources. Students who have graduated from offshore schools would certainly have stories to share and so would the local teachers who taught alongside the Canadian teachers would be key collaborators in histories of Canadian offshore schools.

Call for Inquiry

Now that it is the mid 2020s, and a generation of students and teachers have passed through these schools, it is time to take stock and think historically about this period of Canada’s educational history. Key questions to ask are why and how this sudden wave of internationalization happened and what can the past generation of teachers and students who taught and learned in these schools tell us about their experiences there. An historical approach can assist in comparing and contrasting the offshore initiatives of the seven provinces. What individuals, groups, conditions, and circumstances were the driving forces behind these schools?

While there have been Canadians teaching abroad for over a century, the early 21st century saw a sudden expansion in Canadians living in other countries teaching students who often eventually became residents and sometimes citizens of Canada. Teaching a Canadian curriculum in international contexts has become more common in regular classes overseas as well as IB cohorts embedded within Canadian schools, but what has it been like when the curriculum has been transported abroad? As a history teacher who has taught social studies in China and Korea, I experienced navigating conflicting historical narratives and perspectives about events such as how and why the Second World War started and ended depending on nationality and generation. Canadian schools now often teach students (or their parents) from multiple countries, languages, and histories. Since schools are a sociocultural nexus of people, ideas, and credentials, the histories of Canadian offshore schools in the many countries where they are hosted are worthwhile ways to understand Canadian educational history beyond our nation’s borders.

Ian Alexander is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy. Before beginning graduate school in Canada, he worked as an international teacher in South Korea and China.


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Earle, G. (1998, September 28). Students in China take Canadian exams: Both business and humanitarian concerns spawned the unusual Maple Leaf International School. The Vancouver Sun

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Zhang, Z. & Heydon, R. (2016) The changing landscape of literacy curriculum in a Sino-Canada transnational education programme: An actor-network theory informed case study. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 48(4), 547-564.

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