A new report on international education has indicated that the number of international schools in many countries is rising rapidly. The number of English-language K-12 schools including British and American schools overseas and British independent schools abroad, has increased by 41.5 percent in the past five years, according to International School Consultancy research completed in 2016.

The number of students attending international schools is now over 4.3 million worldwide, a 45.9 percent growth in just five years. Asia, including the Middle East, has seen an even sharper growth of 55.7 percent. In fact, Asia now has 54 percent of all international schools and 60 percent of students at these schools.

Popular belief holds that international schools are meant to educate expatriate children of different nationalities. However, most of the students represented by the latest rise in numbers are in their home countries. This means that more families are selecting fee-paying international schools over local public or private schools. The main reasons parents have given for this choice are to enable their children to learn English, to have their children follow a Western style of learning, and to grant their children access to globally recognized qualifications, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, U.K. A levels, American SATs, or Advanced Placement credit.

Countries vary in how tolerant their government policies are with regard to local children attending international schools. What about Japan? Article 26 of Japan’s Constitution states, “All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law. All people shall be obligated to have all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary education as provided for by law. Such compulsory education shall be free.”

Compulsory education covers the nine years from grade 1 to grade 9 in elementary and junior high schools. Ordinary education means students must be educated in Article 1 schools as defined by Article 1 of the School Education Law. Article 1 schools must follow the national curriculum, with designated textbooks and a regulated time schedule, as decided by the government. And importantly, in public Article 1 schools, all tuition and, in private Article 1 schools, part of the tuition, is funded by taxpayers’ money.

Students younger than grade 1, or preschoolers, and students older than grade 9 have the freedom not to attend Article 1 schools. But it is the duty of parents to send their children to Article 1 schools during the compulsory period. There is no other choice.

According to the Education, Culture, Sport and Technology Ministry, the definition of an international school is an educational facility for non-Japanese children only. And 99 percent of international schools are not Article 1 schools. Instead, they hold a status such as miscellaneous school (kakushu gakko), a corporation, NPO or incorporated foundation. This means Japanese children from grade 1 to 9 are not legally allowed to attend such international schools.

The only exceptions from the government are to Japanese students who have dual or multiple nationalities and who are considered most likely not to choose to keep Japanese nationality in the future. Japanese students who reside in foreign countries or those who have returned from overseas and who are being acculturated into Japanese society are also eligible for this exemption. If this law is violated, there is theoretically a fine of up to ¥100,000 and a warning issued to both parents and the school.

But, in reality, more than half the students at the international schools in Japan are Japanese and, in some schools, especially new ones, almost a majority of the students are Japanese. Although the government knows about this, it does nothing about it.

So how is this possible on such a large scale? Well, for the compulsory period of education, the public school that children must attend is decided by the local government and depends on areas of residency. One can be excused from attendance only if one has proof of attending a private Article 1 school. So, those who go to international school resister themselves at those local designated public schools and then simply do not go there. Some of them might actually attend from mid-June, for a month, during their international school’s summer holiday, while their public Japanese school is still open.

But there is no guarantee that this loophole will help parents avoid the penalty every time. One of the students of my school was rejected by the principal of his local school, and so the disappointed parents changed the child’s address to his grandmother’s residence, 240 km away. The local school there promised to welcome him even though they knew he would not attend. Not only that, but at the end of grade 6, he received a graduation certificate without attending the school, even for a day, for six years. Another student was not accepted at the grade 1 level, but a year later, when a new principal was assigned to the school, she had no problem being accepted. Parents have repeatedly told me that the decision can depend on the personal views and character of a principal or person in charge of the local board of education. Surely this shouldn’t be the case. Conditions must always be the same regardless of who is in charge.

In fact, I feel that, in this country, there are just too many gray areas like this with many unwritten rules and unregulated decisions. It could be a part of our culture, with certain advantages depending on the situation, but educational choice should not be burdened by unregulated systems.

The government should not ignore the fact that many children of Japanese nationals are attending non-Article 1 schools. If the government wishes to institute policies, it should do so across the board and there should be no loopholes or workarounds. If the government allows some Japanese children to attend non-Article 1 schools, it should allow all children to do this. Isn’t it time to develop clear regulations for schools?

Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell is the founder and chair of Tokyo International School. She serves as the International Baccalaureate Japan ambassador and as adviser on revitalization of education commissioned by the education ministry.

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