“International” education in Rio is very different from what is available in most of the rest of the world. From the outset, it is very important to understand this.
This situation has arisen primarily because the number of expatriates in Rio – particularly English-speaking expatriates – has fluctuated over the years. Currently, numbers are at an all-time low, following the economic downturn and the fall in oil and commodity prices, on which Rio's economy largely depends. Schools have relied for their survival on local families who are looking for something different and, above all, the chance to be educated in English.
Rio’s international schools are, in fact, Brazilian schools. The majority – in some cases, the vast majority – of pupils and staff are Brazilian; and the schools must abide by the provisions of Brazilian educational law, so that obligatory Brazilian school leaving certificates can be issued, whether they are needed or not by individual children. Regulations are stricter for children born in Brazil – regardless of the nationality of their parents – than they are for foreign children. International qualifications, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) or IGCSEs, are not recognised in Brazil.
The international schools must therefore adapt their timetables to include the legal requirements of the Brazilian curriculum. Certainly at primary level, this is an advantage. Children learn about the history and geography of the country and all children have Portuguese language lessons. The local culture comes alive with Brazilian festivals and folklore.
While adding another interesting dimension, at secondary level, the Brazilian requirements can become more problematic. From an expatriate perspective, they can become a diversion from the main goal of most pupils at this age: to achieve internationally recognised – and easily portable – qualifications. Both the British School and the Escola Americana (American School) offer specific programmes at secondary level to prepare students who are applying to Brazilian universities
The assimilation of new pupils and their parents into the life of Rio’s “international” schools can be hard. While English is the language of the classroom, Portuguese is the first language of most pupils – and the language of choice for the playground and the car park. After school activities are frequently conducted in Portuguese; some PTA meetings are conducted in Portuguese. Sometimes, a child will discover that he or she is the only non-Portuguese speaker in the class. For a newly arrived family, this can be very difficult.
It can be harder for new arrivals in the very early school years, as few of their classmates will have a good command of English and teachers will sometimes need to use Portuguese in the classroom. The advantage is that in this age group, newcomers will pick up Portuguese very quickly. Higher up the school, the general standard of pupils’ English improves, and so assimilation into classroom life becomes easier. Cultural differences can prove a challenge for teenagers – and their parents.
Brazilian law requires that the children of teachers be educated free of charge at the establishment where their parent works. If the school is a good school, the teacher therefore has a vested interest in holding on to his or her job for the duration of their children's schooldays. This has significant implications - both good and bad - for staff turnover. It also means that teachers with children in the same school are unlikely to rock the boat, question accepted practice or jeopardise their position for any reason, should any contentious issues arise.
When the schools speak of being bilingual, this is a little disingenuous – the overwhelming emphasis is on achieving an acceptable standard of English amongst Brazilian pupils. The Escola Americana (American School) offers English Academic Language Support (EALS) support for pupils who need it; the British School also offers support to children who need it. It is however generally assumed that Brazilian pupils will pick up English as they go along.
Expatriate children can and will pick up Portuguese very quickly. There are beginners' Portuguese classes for new arrivals, and the aim is to integrate foreign children into the classes for native speakers as quickly as possible. Portuguese teaching is generally of a very high standard, and generally more rigorous than English lessons for English-speaking children - in accordance with the Brazilian education system, there is a big emphasis on grammar.
To add to the language confusion, most non-English-speaking expatriate pupils at these schools are native Spanish speakers from other Latin American countries. Sometimes these children stick together and speak Spanish outside the classroom, which can leave English-speakers feeling doubly excluded. Spanish speakers also tend to make faster progress in Portuguese, too, than English-speaking children, as Portuguese and Spanish are such closely related languages.
The two main international schools are also broadly progressive in outlook. Parents looking for a traditional and rigorous approach may be disappointed. The education offered is primarily child-centred and aimed at producing caring, internationally-minded "global citizens". There is a lot of emphasis on personal development, and solving the world’s problems appears to take precedence over learning about the world per se, and how those problems have arisen. Teaching follows cross-curricular themes. Neither the British School nor the American School offers classics or religious education. Opportunities for competitive sport are very limited, particularly at primary level.
Rather than taking a lead from the best schools in the independent sector, much store is set by public education policy and continually evolving “best practice” in the countries where the schools are accredited. As a result, some expats feel that these schools are charging premium private school prices while offering a standard British or American state education. Not being well acquainted with systems elsewhere, the majority of parents accept this without question. Children moving back to British state schools usually have few problems; those moving to back to the private sector generally have some catching up to do.
Prospective parents also need to take a number of cultural considerations into account. The fees at both the American School (EARJ) and the British School (TBS) are exceedingly high in comparison with other very good Brazilian private schools. Therefore, the schools have become the preserve of the super-rich. The offspring of so many politicians and entrepreneurs, soap stars and sports heroes attend these schools that there have even been reports of autograph hunting in the playground. The names of most of these people will mean nothing to the average English-speaking expat, but will carry a lot of currency and kudos with the locals. Bilingual education is in fashion for those who can afford it, regardless of the families’ international ties or intentions.
Bullying has historically been a sensitive issue. Neither of the main interational school advertises a bullying policy on their website, although the issue seems to be taken much more seriously now. Parents and children are certainly given a hearing, and concrete steps are taken to address the issue. Where necessary, the bully's parents are called in (whatever their nationality).
Children are left in no doubt that bullying is wrong; there are people that you can turn to for help, whether you are being bullied or are, in fact, the bully; and that the school takes the issue seriously. Often, incoming expatriate children are seen as rather exotic and sophisticated, simply because they have lived in/come from the States or Europe. Things can turn nasty, but as outlined above, this seems to be dealt with fairly effectively.
There is an assumption – both by the schools and other parents – that all families have 24-hour child care on tap. This is the case for most Brazilian families attending the schools. On parent-teacher consultation days, parents are usually supposed to go to school to discuss the progress of their children, who in the meantime have the day off and are expected to stay at home.
Many children are ferried to and from school by a nanny (babá) and a driver (motorista). At pick-up time, an army of white-clad nannies descends on the school gates to fetch their charges – while the driver sits outside keeping the air-conditioning running. As a result it can be quite hard at times to meet other parents. Privately contracted school buses serve the schools, although this service can be expensive. Many expatriate parents do the school run themselves or use the services of a driver.
Birthday parties are worth a mention here. As mentioned in the Rio Expat Overview, they happen on a scale here that is quite unlike anything most of us have ever seen before. It is common for very young children to have large, loud and lavish parties, to which whole year-groups are invited, along with almost everyone else their parents know – or so it seems. These often take place in specialist casa de festas, or “party houses”, which will be decorated to a theme. A trunk is provided near the entrance, into which a mountain of presents is placed and then seemingly forgotten. It is usual for these events to go on way past the average expat child’s bedtime, regardless of whether or not tomorrow is a school day. Again the army of nannies is in evidence at these events – with young children, it is expected that someone will stay with them. And for expat parents, the attractions of staying at these events wanes very quickly.
Presents for teachers – for birthdays, “Teachers’ Day”, Christmas and Easter – can also leave a hole in the pocket. Parent representatives often aim to collect around £250 for a present from the class. You can opt out, but that can be seen as a bit eccentric at best.
Quite a few English-speaking expatriates who have been in Rio several years feel that their children, in these schools, are trapped in an environment which is neither international nor genuinely Brazilian. Some parents of primary-aged children wish in retrospect that they had put their children into an ordinary Brazilian private school instead. Yes, the total immersion in Portuguese would be hard for the children at the outset, but there would have be a much greater opportunity to meet ordinary Brazilians; fluency in Portuguese would be achieved much more quickly; and the curriculum – and expectations – would in many ways be more consistent and rigorous.
The situation if anything gets harder at secondary level. It is common for expatriates to leave Rio as their children approach their teens, so that they can go to “a normal school”. Parents talk of their children “outgrowing” the schools and “needing something more”. While the Brazilian pupils are already challenged, following a largely foreign curriculum in a second language, for the tiny minority of native English-speakers, means boredom and apathy can set in very easily.
All things to consider when pondering a posting to Rio!