If you’re moving abroad and you’re a parent, one of the first items at the top of your checklist will be finding a school for your children.
Quite frankly, it can be a daunting task.
Any large city with international schools will have glossy, highly curated websites promoting their awesomeness, but how do you know what it’s really like inside on a day-to-day basis? How do you know if your kids will thrive there, how will they be treated and what will they learn?
But you needn’t worry! Veteran expat mum Sarah Sandidge, who previously lived in Singapore, is ready to share her best advice on navigating this process with your sanity intact. Ready? Here goes!
Steps to take first
One of the best ways to get an insider’s view of a school is to actually get inside. If you’re able to visit and tour schools, do so! And the sooner the better. Try to narrow down your list based on what you can glean from each school’s website, and then go tour the schools. Most international schools will have a place where you can sign up for a tour or a person you can contact for more information.
Because expats rotate in and out of schools constantly, most schools are very welcoming to newcomers and will have a tour committee in place for your visit.
So let’s break down the process into steps:
Visit and read through websites.
Make a list of your top choices based on the factors discussed below. You’ll probably end up with 5 to 7 choices.
If possible, contact other parents living in your future city for advice, experience, and recommendations. (This greatly helped me make my final decision!) You can find these people in Facebook groups or possibly through the company you or your spouse work for.
Set up a trip to your future city mainly to tour schools and possibly housing.
Set up tours to all of your top choices during your trip in #4.
Tour the schools.
Narrow down further and find out what the application/admissions policies are and if your child(ren) actually has a chance of getting in.
Fill out applications asap.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Bite your nails. Wait some more!
- Congrats! You’ve gotten into one of your top choices and can now decide where to live.
10 factors to consider for choosing an international school
When you’re making your initial list of schools to tour, take in account these important aspects:
What is the culture and overall focus of the school? Read through each school’s mission statement and values. Does the school seem to focus more on excellence in sports, excellence in academics? Are the Arts important? Is it mathematics heavy or language arts heavy? Is it strict and demanding or more relaxed and free form? And which of these factors are important to you?
One school I toured required all of their students to learn how to play chess. It was part of the curriculum just like music or art class. While this was an awesome feature, I knew that what that said about the culture there would not be a good fit for my daughter. My son would’ve been fine, but not my girl!
My children are also not extremely athletic. They enjoy sports, but they definitely don’t have a strong athletic bent. So one of the schools I looked at seemed more focused on athletics than academics, and I knew that wasn’t the right school for us.
Another factor that is important is the teacher turnover rate. If teachers are in and out like flies, that might be a red flag that the overall culture of the school is stressful and difficult for the teachers, which will filter down to the students.
Each school will also have statistics about the countries their teachers and students are from. This may be important to you. Are you looking for a school that is more homogenous or one that is very culturally diverse?
Pay attention to these things that may seem small. They can be very telling as to how the school functions and operates and what kind of an environment is created for your child.
This is an obvious one. Most international schools are rather expensive. But if your company is footing the bill, then choose the school that is the best fit for you and your children. If they’re not, then of course you’ll have to consider your budget when choosing a school. Many international schools are similarly priced, but sometimes you can find cheaper ones if you look for smaller schools or religious schools. Every school should have their fees listed somewhere on their website.
When choosing an international school, also consider extra fees. Sometimes these are listed out individually and sometimes they are all inclusive in one price for tuition.
Many international schools boast having the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. This is useful, as it’s global and students who have been a part of the program will be able to adjust quickly to any other school in the world with the same program. Deciding on curriculum is definitely a key part of choosing an international school for your child.
If the school doesn’t use the IB program, it may follow a particular country’s curriculum. This is important to consider, as your child may end up in a different grade (year) than they would have in their home country, and it could affect the year in which they graduate.
Also, standardised tests will be part of the curriculum and certain ones may be necessary if you’re planning to return to your passport country before your child graduates from school. These considerations would be most important if your children are older and in their upper years of school.
Not only do you need to consider the core curriculum, but it’s also important to know what extracurricular options are available. Do they offer physical education, music, art, and language during the school day? And how often for each? How many times a day do they have recess if they’re in lower grades? What about after-school activities?
The extras and your preferences should be considered here as well.
As with the curriculum, it’s important to know and understand what languages the majority of classes will be taught in. Some schools follow their country’s language, such as the French and German schools. While these schools are open to anyone and have integration procedures, it may be difficult for your child to adjust to a new setting as well as a new language.
I have heard both positive and negative stories from parents who have sent their kids to schools of a different language than their child’s native language. Some students thrived while learning this second language, while others did not. So think about your child and what they can handle, and thoroughly research how the school handles integration of non-native speakers.
Luckily for us, we are in an English-speaking country. So most of the schools here, besides the specific country-named schools, are in English. If we moved to a non-English speaking country, like Spain for example, we would have to consider the options available there. Most first world countries will have English-speaking international schools in the larger cities. So just look around and see what’s available.
All international schools will also have second language programs that are usually a requirement for students from primary years. In Singapore, for example, all schools offer Mandarin plus one or two other options. This is another aspect of the curriculum to consider: What languages are offered and how much contact they have with that language during the week?
5. Private vs. corporate
This is a factor I was completely unaware of until I started touring schools and talking to other parents. Many international schools are run by a corporation, which means the school is run in a more business-like manner because they have many campuses all over the world and have to fit within the standards of the corporation. There are pros and cons to this. If the corporation is run by education-minded people who are interested in the well-being of the children, this can be positive, as they should strive to maintain high standards. If the corporation is more interested in having shiny facilities to draw in money from parents, this can be negative.
I toured schools here where you could almost sense the hand of the corporation… not in a good way, and others run by corporations that still felt like the student was the priority.
The other option is a private school that has a board. This type of school will typically allow more parent involvement and feel a bit more community-driven. The school my kids go to is private, and it has been a really great experience. Because it’s private, they’re also able to change the curriculum and experiment with educational practices. They do tons of research at SAS to implement the best practices. Most of the time this has been amazing. Obviously it’s not foolproof, but the great thing is that they listen heavily to parent feedback and make changes as necessary.
This is a factor, but may not be the most important. Of course, knowing whether you will have a car, what the school bus schedule is, how much the school bus costs, etc. will all play a role in how important the location of the school is.
My kids’ school is the furtherest away from almost any other school. But we chose to live with that because we love the school so much. They spend a lot of time on the school bus, which isn’t our favorite, but we’ve all adjusted and found ways to deal with that factor.
I think the priority should be finding a school first though, and then deciding where you will live. The two go hand in hand, but finding a school where your children will thrive every day is extremely important and should take precedence over where you live if possible. (I’ve tried not to be biased here, but clearly you know my thoughts on this one! :))
7. Admissions and application process
This is really important! It’s super important to start choosing an international school AS SOON AS YOU KNOW YOU’RE MOVING!!! And maybe even before! I can’t emphasize this enough! If you’re moving to an area with a large expat community, you will find that some of the better or more popular schools have waitlists. I have friends with children in different schools because they couldn’t get them all into their top choice. They will move over once there are spots, but that could actually be years depending on the school.
Some schools have hierarchies of applications. For instance, an American school will give priority to students who have an American passport. Other schools that are more global and not affiliated with one country might have different parameters. For example, they may require a certain mix of different ethnicities or passport countries represented. So if they have too many kids from one particular country, then you may be on the waitlist if you’re from that country even if they have spots available.
So! If at all possible, take time to go to the country and tour all of your top choices as soon as you can so you can start the admissions process as early as possible. All schools will explain their process on their website or an admissions officer can answer your questions.
There will also be fees for applying, which is something else to consider. You don’t want to apply to five schools all at once, as you’ll end up paying thousands of dollars to apply! Some schools have smaller fees, so you could possibly combine your top choice with another school on your list that doesn’t have as high of fees so you at least have applied to two schools at once.
This part of the journey can be quite stressful. Be proactive and don’t wait to get started! Consider this your job until it’s all settled and decided.
I think this is another minor factor. Many schools are going to be similar sizes in any given city. You might find smaller private schools or religious schools, but typically international schools are going to be rather large. The school my kids attend has over 5,000 students K-12. It’s enormous, and this scared me at first. But the school does a great job of making sure every student is known, and this goes back to the culture of the school. And so even if you do find a smaller school, the culture may not be student-focused. In this case, size doesn’t really matter! The two go hand in hand.
But it’s important to consider how a larger school handles the numbers and flow of the students. This would be a great question to ask on your school tour.
Touring a campus is the best way to get a feel for it. There’s really no other way. Photos on the school’s website will only get you so far because they will be curated. Some campuses are sprawling, others are more condensed. Some have great outdoor spaces and multiple playgrounds for the children, others don’t. Some have artwork and colorful murals everywhere, depicting the creativity of the school, while others are more sterile and business-like. Some having amazing athletic and arts facilities, while others focus on the classroom.
Decide what factors are important to you and your children when looking at the actual building(s) and facilities of the school.
It’s also a great idea to try to tour a campus during the school day. There’s no better way to see how the school functions on a day to day basis. You will quickly get a sense for how the school operates while seeing it in action.
10. Local vs. international
I know we’ve been talking about choosing an international school, but perhaps the most important question, and perhaps this should have been first, is do you want your children to go to a local or international school? Every country will have different parameters for admitting students to their local schools. In some places, like the United States, it’s not that big of a deal if you want to go to a local school. Basically you show up! In other places, like Singapore, it’s a really big deal and nearly impossible to get into the local schools.
So don’t assume that you can just pop into a local school with no issue. There may be applications, fees and entrance exams at local schools if you are not a citizen or permanent resident.
By Sarah Sandidge, Moovaz, 2019