One of the first challenges with moving abroad with children will be education – otherwise known as how to choose an international school. The good news is that there is tons of information available both at your fingertips, in expat parenting groups and in support services. So to help you tap into the combined wisdom of international parents around the globe, here’s my insider’s guide to choosing a school abroad.
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If you thought sending your child off to school for the first time was the hardest day of your parenting life, think again. Try taking them out of the first school, transporting them across town /state/country/continent (delete as applicable) and then asking them to go to a new one, where they know “NOBODY – ALL MY FRIENDS ARE BACK HOOOOME..”.
In reality, starting a new school is not the end of the world that our children would have us believe, but until they are settled, it is incredibly stressful for all concerned.
The bottom line is that you and your child are looking for completely different things in a school; for you, you need to be sure that the school provides a safe and nurturing environment and is academically stimulating, while your child wants friends, interesting teachers, fun play equipment and good snacks. Not necessarily in that order.
Ask yourself what is most important to you long term. For “Third Culture Kids”, they are unlikely to achieve long term academic success without first addressing their emotional well-being, so my advice is to look for a school that meets those needs first, and worry about the academics later. The same applies to a local move however – no matter what the reason for the move, until a child is comfortable and secure in their environment, they are unlikely to learn anything effectively.
My mother, a child development specialist, always maintained that children only developed in one area at a time, so when they were going through a physical growth spurt, their emotional development would slow down for a time, and if they were in a socially challenging situation, their academic performance would dip. Education is a journey, not a race, and so my preference is to go with a school that meets their social and emotional needs, rather than necessarily having the best academic record. However, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me, so whatever your parenting preferences, here are my top strategies for choosing schools.
Make a list of available local and international schools.
Ask your HR department, future work colleagues, destination service provider, relocation counselor, realtor or your Embassy. A simple Google search will give you tons of information, and there are some great support resources out there, including one of my favorites, School Choice International.
Contact schools in advance, requesting a prospectus or information. Private schools will usually have a printed prospectus available, public schools may have a website.
Information to look for includes:
- Numbers of children at the school, and demographic profile
- Numbers of children moving in and out of the school
- Academic curriculum followed – most commonly US, UK or International Baccalaureate
- Age range at school, and which schools children commonly progress to
- Class size / student:teacher ratio
- Range of classes offered
- Qualifications of teaching staff
- Test results
- Overall philosophy and values of the school
- Antisocial behavior policy.
- Fee schedule
- Transportation – public / school bus / car pools / sidewalks
- Accessibility – traffic, bell schedules, after school care
Bear in mind that school test scores can be affected by high numbers of ESL / EFL (English as a Second /Foreign Language) students, by having a higher number of students with differentiated learning needs, or by rigorous entry requirements. It is most important to find a school that reflects your values, whether they be academic rigor, cultural diversity, sporting excellence, alternative teaching methods or all the above, rather than looking simply for high test scores or a foreign language program. However, if you know you will be moving often but would like your child to attend college in a specific country, it’s a good idea to follow a single type of curriculum that is widely accepted once they reach high school years. While colleges are becoming more flexible about the range of entry qualifications they accept, there is no point in making it more difficult for your child than it needs to be.
Consider curriculum options.
Depending on if, when and where your child/ren will be attending college, choose a curriculum that will support those future choices, while meeting their wider learning needs. Consider the long term implications: should your assignment be extended, become permanent or your allowances change, will you be able to afford the fees yourself and will you be paying international student rates.
The International Baccalaureate is a great option for expat families and Third Culture Kids who don’t know where their next move will be. It provides a globally recognised program that is taught in international (and some local) schools across the world, with a less locally defined curriculum. Check out the excellent ACS International Schools website for their parent friendly, easy to understand overview of the program.
Khan Academy (free online via Youtube),
Times Tutorials (low cost, self directed tutoring, which kids will actually like enough to use),
Laurel Springs (accredited online private school)
ArborBridge (ACT and SAT test prep)
Visit shortlisted schools.
If possible, take the child attending the school with you, so that they can experience it, and you can see how school staff interact with your children. Visit during school hours to observe classes, watch how the children and teachers behave, and get an understanding of the school culture as a whole. Encourage questions from your children, and take time to visit the parts of the school that they want to see. Especially the bathrooms – you can learn a great deal about a school from their bathrooms..
I have found it useful, in the US, to get to know the Vice President of the PTA. You can leave your number for them if you can’t directly get their number. Ask the VP for more parents you can talk to. And any school Principal will give you some time. I always ask to observe in a class so I can check out the teacher. Better for your child to stay home for a few days whilst you do the advance scouting.
Request a copy of the school transcript
Once you have selected a school, arrange for your child’s school transcript to be sent to them in advance and keep a copy for your own records. Request copies of the new school calendar, the name and email of your child’s teacher, and any immunization, uniform or school supply requirements, and the contact details for any parent organizations, both in the school and the community.
Introduce yourself (gently).
Write a brief note to your child’s teacher, introducing yourself, your child and anything you feel would it would help them to know, and invite questions from them. Make sure you attend at least a few PTA meetings, even if you are not a ‘joiner’. It not only models good practice for your children, you will usually find someone you like – even if they are hiding at the back of the room too.
Remember the names of the front office staff of the school you choose, and bid an appreciative farewell to the one you are leaving — these folks are the gateway to important details (including forgotten lunches, inside skivvy on schedules, quick record retrieval and more).
Ask if there are any supplies / resources / donations etc. that you can bring as part of your household shipment that are not on the official list. Teachers have home lives too, and are a wonderful source of information, recommendations and support in the early days, so any efforts you make now will be amply repaid when you land…
Finally – remember the big picture.
At the end of the day, your child’s happiness is the most important thing – everything else places by comparison. So keep talking, get help when you need to and don’t be afraid to take scary decisions. I know of numerous families whose children have switched schools mid term, returned to their former schools and stayed with family friends, headed off to school overseas – simply to find the fit that makes them happy. Don’t be hoodwinked into thinking success is defined by a piece of paper or conforming to the norm. The greatest lesson that they need to learn is that they have the right to be happy, to be surrounded by people who support their individual characteristics, and who don’t define education as a set of externally defined objectives. And at the end of the day, the person they learn that from is you…