Juliet Ryder shares her reflections on schools abroad and on what to consider when choosing one. She is also an expat and based on her experience became one of the founders of International School Advisor.
Whether you are an experienced Expat who has lived in many countries, or you are moving abroad for the first time, the experience can be both exhilarating and terrifying. These feelings are often hugely amplified when you have children, especially if you are moving to a country with a new language. We have moved our family to the other side of the globe and most of the way back again and, whilst it has been frustrating, nerve wracking, costly and exceptionally complicated at times, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. We feel like our three boys are International Citizens and are very proud of their outlook on the world. They have learnt about different cultures, acquired some new languages and an inner confidence that ‘the world is their oyster’.
What schools abroad?
One of our biggest concern for our boys was their education. We were really keen to ensure that, wherever we were living, we would enable them to have the best education that we could give them. For us that did not necessarily mean the best in terms of sending them to the highest achieving schools abroad. Schooling is a very personal subject and can depend on the learning. We wanted to find schools for our boys that they would thrive in, where they would love to learn and would become creative and innovative thinkers. Most importantly for us, the ethos of the school had to tie in with our family values.
There are some very good state run schools and home education options out there. However, we wanted our boys to feel truly international, to become friends with people from all over the world, to have the security of undertaking their main subjects in their native language and to be able to attain qualifications that would be recognised around the world, so we chose international schools and have been exceptionally happy with that decision.
What is an international school?
An international school is an educational facility, for children aged between 2 and 18, which operates outside of the normal state education system for the country in which it is located. Whilst they were originally set up for the children of expatriates, they also attract local families that are looking for something a little different for their children regarding education.
There are now more than 10,000 international schools abroad, teaching more than 5 million children. They teach in many languages, or are bi- or multi-lingual, and teach many different curricula. Some are based around religion or a specific ethos like Rudolf Steiner or Eco-Schools. Others have their own unique ethos and teaching methodology. The more you search, the more confusing it can become.
How do you decide which schools to add to your list for consideration?
The first consideration, of course, is location. Are you able to be flexible with the city or even the country that you will be moving to or do you need to be close to a particular city. Would you like be able to live close enough to the school to be able to walk or drive the children every day or for them to be able to safely walk, cycle or take public transport when they are ready? As children get older they often enjoy the option to travel to or from school independently or at least to be able to travel to see friends on their own.
The next consideration may be language. If your children are young and socially confident, they can often pick up a second or subsequent language relatively quickly and may even be able to speak it like a local after a few years. For older children or children who are less confident at that stage, it can be much more of a challenge and they can find it harder to make friends, fall behind at school or miss out important stages in the deeper learning of their own language. We also took into consideration keeping their options as open as possible in terms of further education opportunities. Our eldest two boys have always talked about going to University in the UK for example.
Another consideration is the curriculum. Many international schools follow the English National Curriculum or International Baccalaureate, both of which are highly regarded and recognised around the world. There are also many excellent American, French, German and hybrid international schools. Hybrid schools teach more than one curriculum like English / Malaysian /Islamic, American / IB, English / Arabic, English / Chinese.
Marketing or real deal?
Whilst the quality of the education provided was very important to us, it was essential that the schools abroad not only had an excellent ethos but actually practiced that ethos. The latest trend seems to be to claim that your school caters to individuals, has differentiated learning and truly cares about the whole child. This was by far the most difficult area to assess from a mass of online information. You can get a certain ‘feel’ from the school websites but how do you know that is not just their clever marketing? Are the schools truly international in their intake or have they filled up with local or other international children who are just beginning to learn the language of the school?
One of the main issues we found when looking for a school in a new city is that we did not have a network of people to call on. If you live somewhere, you probably already know the pros and cons of each school through conversations with other parents. The internet can help but it is a lot of work to find the information you need, although communities like Expatclic are truly helpful. This lead us to create International School Advisor, a site dedicated to reviews and feedback from people with real experiences at each school. Like every piece of information you discover about a school, it’s another part of the picture you form and we hope it will help make the process of finding the right school for you just that little bit easier.