Enrolling your son or daughter in an international school should be an exciting part of your relocation. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming! When choosing an international school, your investigation should begin from the starting point of what you want from a school, rather than relying on internet forums and Google search results. Our writer in Portugal, Amy Grace, investigates.
The search for an international school usually coincides with a relocation due to a change of jobs or a decision to change the family’s lifestyle. The school you settle on can be the defining decision in your whole plan. Find a good school in the location you want to live or invest in, with space for the academic year in question, and you feel able to move on to finding a property or accepting a job offer. It’s that big sigh of relief moment. You can read about the best international schools in Europe here.
It’s a complicated maze to navigate and an effective search should be led by you and your family’s priorities and values
However, it’s a complicated maze to navigate and an effective search should be led by you and your family’s priorities and values – including a realistic long-term budget. When it comes down to it, we want our children to be safe, happy, to make friends and to have the best possible childhood and future. Much of this will come from your own family’s input and planning.
Some parents approach the decision with children already in a fee-paying school in the UK or in another international school overseas. Or they could even be in an international school in the UK – which is becoming an increasingly popular choice. For some, paying fees is new.
One of the big differences between fee-paying UK and international schools is a lack of bursaries or scholarships in the latter. It is better to approach the decision expecting to pay full fees and to take into account that an annual increase in fees is common. There is nothing more unsettling for children to join a school, make new friends, and then find that mum and dad can’t afford the fees the year after.
There is nothing more unsettling for children to join a school, make new friends, and then find that mum and dad can’t afford the fees the year after.”
So, once a budget is agreed, sit down with your children and agree on what you would like to get out of their educational journey. If they are old enough, consider what their key interests are. One of the advantages of a fee-paying international education should be that the school educates the whole child. It should offers all-rounders the chance to excel at anything they set their sights on, whether sport, music, drama, public speaking or charity initiatives. There should be plenty of opportunities to take part in cultural and travel exchanges.
To board or not to board
Secondly, decide on whether or not it is important for the school to have boarding facilities. When families are living overseas, there may be times that require one or both parents to leave the country and this can be unsettling for the children. A boarding option, even weekends only, can offer an opportunity to gain some independence, mix with other young people, and to ensure that there is the option of wrap-around care if needed.
Most international boarding schools accept boarders from the age of 12, but some start at a minimum age of eight and many offer flexible options and will arrange guardianship, often with one of the senior teachers.
Click here to read about an Italian education, and here for a Portuguese education.
Curriculum and culture
Consider whether you want a school that delivers only one curriculum or two – for example English and the local country’s curriculum. Perhaps you would like a school that offers a choice between IGCSEs and A Levels or International Baccalaureate. How important is it to you that your children learn the local language?
Overseas, international schools can be like a bubble when it comes to integration with the local community, culture or language. This is one consideration for your initial discussions – some international schools offer a British curriculum pathway or a local curriculum pathway, and operate two schools in one. They can offer the possibility to move between sections, too.
Sol Muniain, an artist and mother of three children aged 7, 9 and 11, enrolled her children in an international school in the Algarve, Portugal. But after one year, and certain that the family would settle in the area, she made the decision to move the children to the national “Portuguese” section of the school. It shares the same facilities, reputation, resources and location, but her children will be attending lessons in Portuguese and taking Portuguese national examinations.
Sol explains: “We made the right decision for our children. Having grown up in Vejer de la Frontera, in southern Spain, they were already fluent Spanish speakers and we wanted to give them the opportunity to fully integrate with Portuguese society whilst retaining their friends from the international section – from England, India, South Africa, Holland. Despite our eldest being unsure at the start, all three quickly adapted and are happier for the move. They really are international children, speaking three languages now.”
What to ask
If you search the internet for advice on choosing an international school, you will find lists of questions. Don’t make the mistake of copying and pasting these and emailing them out to as many schools as possible.
Filipa Silva, Admissions Officer, says: “We run an extremely busy admissions office – the phone never stops ringing, the emails never stop coming in. Usually we send digital copies of brochures to potential families and then invite them to tour the school. A tour will usually involve me taking them around the grounds and showing them the facilities, but we always encourage a meeting with the Head Teacher so that they can pose any questions about academic provision.
“My advice to people searching for an international school would be not to send long lists of questions copied and pasted from articles on How to Choose an International School! Rather, to ask for copies of newsletters, look at the website and social media channels, and to arrange a Skype call or meeting in person with a senior teacher. You can tell a lot from the newsletters, I believe, and from any news articles written about the school.”
Getting the right school: Ten tips
1. Check the local media: If your search begins remotely, consider your chosen destination and look for the local English-speaking news channels there – their newspapers and associated social media. Look for stories.
2. Search social media: Look at the school’s website and social media channels to see what activity has been taking place recently and, if there is little to find, contact the school to ask for some copies of newsletters that have been sent to parents in the last 12 months. If the school doesn’t have newsletters, ask them how they share their students´ achievements.
3. Make a friend of the Admissions Officer! Contact the schools you are interested in but don’t bombard them with hundreds of questions on the first email. Get an Admissions Officer on your side and they will go miles for you. And be patient. Schools are busy places and usually, teachers are busy in the classroom and so may not respond within 24 hours.
4. Check the literature: Ask for their brochures and digital information, ask to arrange a Skype call with a senior academic member of staff. Don’t be put off if the administrative staff do not necessarily speak or write in perfect English – many international schools employ local admin staff.
5. Find the relevant head of department: If sport or music, or other parts of the curriculum are of particular importance to you, ask if it is possible to have a call with the head of department for that curriculum area – they should be able to give you a fuller picture.
6. Ask the expats: Find Expat Facebook groups in your destination and ask genuine questions about the schools you are interested. Remember that you may get biased views, and some parents may criticise schools because their own child was unhappy somewhere. Remember that all children are unique and the same school may suit one child but not another, even within the same family.
7. A holistic experience? Do ask about enrichment programmes available at the school to find out the breadth of experience available.
8. What are the kids like? Do ask local businesses and shops how they find the children who attend that school
9. Networks: Find out if the school is part of a big international school group, eg. NACE Schools, Nordanglia, A-Star Education, ESF, Cognita. This will mean that there is likely to be more chance of inter-school exchanges, staff development, investment and accountability for the staff and management.
10. Have the cash ready: Be prepared to pay a registration fee in advance to hold a place for your son or daughter.
What not to do!
- Do not judge a school by parent reviews on online Forums – only use these for information gathering, not to form your own opinion.
- Don’t just turn up at the school by surprise to have a tour. The chances are, the Admissions office at a good school will have a schedule and will need to make you an appointment.
- Don’t put too much weight on issues such as staff turnover. A lot of advice pieces suggest this as a question to ask but international schools often have a fairly high turnover of staff and it isn’t always a bad thing. New teachers bring new ideas and fresh energy!
- Don’t dismiss an international school because it isn’t a member of a body such as COBIS or ISC. Schools have to pay a lot of money to gain accreditation and whilst it is a good indication of external inspection and auditing, there are many good international schools that are not members.
- Don’t rely on Google searches. Schools that have good digital marketing offices will appear high on the Google rankings but this means nothing to you, the parent. Remember also that Expat websites often charge schools to appear and have a listing. Presence on the internet does not mean it is an objective review.
- Don’t be wowed by a school being full of computers or technology. Instead, ask the teachers how they integrate technology into their lessons.
- Don’t be put off by schools offering 3 to 18 education pathways. Although it might seem alarming putting your five year old in a school where they may mix with teenagers, phases of education are usually kept independent. You can always ask how the different age groups work together because sometimes senior students work with younger children as reading mentors or buddies.
Choosing an international school should be a careful process. Remember, this is a big industry and there are lots of people out there being paid to recommend schools, such as agents, financial advisors linked to investment banks. They may be working on commission.
The best person to speak to, if possible, is always a child currently attending the school you are interested in. Some schools ask children to lead tours for visitors but if they don’t, there is no harm in asking if you can meet a prefect or head girl or boy, or someone who can tell you about life at the school through a student’s eyes.
Amy Grace, 2019