Living Abroad: Choosing an International School
10 Factors to Consider when Choosing an International School Before Living Abroad
If you’re moving or living abroad, one of the first items at the top of your checklist will be finding an international school for your children, which 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 they’ll be treated and what they will learn? It’s a lot to worry about!
But you needn’t worry! Here we’ll walk you through all of the factors you need to consider and how to go about choosing an international school when moving abroad for the most precious people in your life.
STEPS TO TAKE
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 international 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 expat families 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 5-7 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 for expats in the city you are going to be living abroad in, or possibly through the company you or your spouse work for. (Real Singapore Expat Wives was and still is a huge resource for me here!)
Set up a trip to your future city mainly to tour schools and possibly house hunting.
Set up tours to all of your top school 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 international school choices and can now decide where to live!
TEN FACTORS TO CONSIDER FOR EACH SCHOOL
When you’re making your initial list of schools to tour (see #2 above), here are ten factors to consider to help you narrow down your choices:
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? Living abroad won’t change how you feel about these things!
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.
Teacher turnover and country statistics
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 and cost of living when choosing a school abroad.
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.
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. The IB program is 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. This makes it much easier to choose to live abroad initially.
If the school doesn’t use the IB program, it may follow a particular country’s curriculum. So for example, there are several British schools here in Singapore that follow the curriculum and age cutoffs of schools in the UK. Same for the French, German, and American schools. 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 standardized 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 upper years of school.
Not only do you need to consider the core curriculum, it’s also important to know what extra curricular 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. Most of the schools here, besides the specific country-named schools, teach 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. Take the time to 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, 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.
We loved that Singapore American School offered Spanish and that they have language class every day. This was important enough to be a deciding factor for us.
5. PRIVATE VS CORPORATE
This is a factor I was completely unaware of until I started touring schools and talking to other parents since this was our first time living abroad. 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 international 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 looking at schools 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 international schools have waitlists. I have friends with children in different international schools (and sometimes local 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.
Hierarchy of Applications
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. Such as, they may require a certain mix of different ethnicities or passport countries represented. 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.
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. This is typical when living abroad in areas heavily populated by expats.
The international 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. However, as I mentioned above, living abroad in expat areas will almost guarantee that the school knows how to deal with numbers and treating your child as an individual and not just one of those numbers.
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 do not. 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 international 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
And finally, and perhaps this should have been first, 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 (update: and France as we are currently finding out! 5/11/2020), 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. We didn’t even consider trying for a local school in Singapore once we realized how difficult and expensive it was for non-residents. We quickly realized that choosing an international school was our only and best option.
We know it’s A LOT to think about! Choosing an international school can be one of the more overwhelming aspects of living abroad… besides getting all your stuff wherever it is you’re going! We’ll have to talk about that in another article! But if you take it step by step, everything will turn out just fine. Many have gone before you, and no one has been lost yet! (I think!) Be proactive, but try not to stress too much. In the end, each international school is going to be pretty excellent. So even if your child doesn’t get into their top choice, don’t fret. These schools are geared towards parents who expect excellence for their children. They won’t disappoint. And if they do… there’s always next year! Just make sure you get your application in on time!
If you have ANY questions about this at all, I would really be happy to help you. Education is really important to me. It’s the thing that keeps me up at night the most! So please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions you have, or you can leave a comment below. It would be my pleasure to help you in any way I can.
Some other moms and I also put together a couple of videos about choosing an international school and living abroad so you could hear from more than one parent:
Moving Abroad? How to Choose an International School: Part 1
Moving Abroad? How to Choose an International School: Part 2
And my children were kind enough to contribute and give their opinions as well!