Some privileged expatriates may get a “look-see” visit to their new location prior to accepting a posting - depending on a company's, or government's, generosity. If you are one of them, the time you have for your visit will never seem like enough, but a bit of judicious homework and planning can make you feel less like a well-spun hamster by the end of the day.
Diligently research the list of international schools in the city or country- via the GSGI list (including those not deemed eligible for a full write-up by the national editor) or any you discover we’ve inadvertently overlooked (let us know). Then contact all potential schools of interest on your list to make appointments to visit and preferably meet the heads/principals during your stay. Even if there is only one international school in your new location, it is vital that you pay that all-important visit: it is this which will either make you eagerly anticipate your new posting, or will send you scurrying off to check out boarding or home-schooling options.
A word of caution: many popular international schools have waiting lists, so as soon as you get a whisper of where your potential posting will be, make enquiries quickly. Some companies favour a certain school and will encourage their employees to utilise it, but as different schools meet the needs of different children and parents usually have their own educational priorities, check out as many feasible options as you can. If you are living in a large congested city and want to minimise travel time, the choice of school may well determine where you set up house.
Apart from getting the low-down on schools from expatriates you know within the company, also contact fellow countrymen within the community you are going to via local expatriate clubs, accompanying spouses groups and chambers of commerce. During or before your visit, ask the school admissions office for the names and phone numbers of other parents from your own country, then (ever so politely) grill those parents as to how their children have adjusted, what activities they are involved in and what the school’s strengths and weaknesses are from their perspective. Bear in mind that everyone has his own little biases - especially when it comes to education- so ultimately follow your own instincts and our tips.
Naturally, when sussing out a school, you will apply all the normal common sense criteria that you would use when seeking a school in your home country. Apart from scrutinising the physical facilities and educational resources, when it comes to international schools, savvy parents need to add a few extras to their checklist.
Accreditation and credibility
- Check that the school is accredited by a recognised overseas educational body such as the Council of British Independent Schools in the European Communities (COBISEC), the Federation of British International Schools in South and East Asia (FOBISSEA) or The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). If you are looking at schools based on a British curriculum, The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspects all COBISEC schools, which is part of the British National Inspection Service for independent schools. Ask for copies of any inspection reports.
- For American schools, see if they are accredited by such organisations as The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) or The Council of International Schools (CIS). IB schools should be overseen by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), and a French Ecole by the French Ministry of National Education. NB If an American school is not accredited, a student’s credits may not be recognised by the next institution he attends. If the alleged accrediting body sounds a bit dodgy, check with this Guide, and if we can’t find it or don’t have it listed, run like the wind.
- Look at teaching staff and ascertain their experience and credentials. Sweetly enquire as to how those credentials have been checked – one distinguished school in Bangkok found after six years that they had actually hired a Dutch sailor who had jumped ship and faked his teaching credentials – discovered only when he was under investigation for something else.
- What is the ratio of local-to-overseas hires? This will indicate whether the school is cutting costs by hiring young inexperienced graduates (or non-graduates) who see teaching as a means of financing their travels, or whether they are spending money on recruiting the best. Do they hold teaching certificates and have several years experience at the appropriate age level? Are they native speakers of the language in which the school teaches? What is the turnover and how are they appraised? A good school should have teachers experienced in teaching the school’s curriculum in a multicultural classroom, not to mention dealing with the fluid comings and goings of the student population.
- Look at the rate of teacher turnover. Contracts for overseas teachers are usually for 2-3 years. If a school is good and staff is happy, they often elect to stay for longer periods. Too many short-term contracts indicate a lack of commitment.
- If you can, meet the principal and interrogate him on how long he has been in his current posting, his experience in international education and whether he has any plans to move on in the near future. Be very wary of schools that have had a high turnover of senior staff in a short time as this usually indicates serious problems with the owner or the school board, and morale may be low. This is something that can be determined by chats with a teacher or two, or other parents.
- Although of course you plan on being an extremely positive parent, do enquire about grievance procedures and ask how complaints are handled. Does the school have an ombudsperson, in the event that parents feel grievances have not been handled professionally? Ask how complaints about individual teachers are dealt with. Some head teachers automatically support their staff and dismiss parental complaints, when in fact they should be objectively dealt with.
- Verify the school’s academic track record for university entrance. If it is still new, don’t be fobbed off but ask to see the assessment marks for IB, IGCSE or AP exams, and average SAT scores. Ask how and when testing is carried out.
- Obtain a copy of the curriculum handbook for each sector of the school and study attainment targets for each year group. Compare these to your own national curriculum. Find how motivation, reward and discipline are all delivered. Is there a guideline for teachers or does each one follow his or her own whims?
- Although you may think this won’t be relevant to your little English native speaker, ask the school about its emphasis on fluency in its teaching language medium. Are English as Second Language (ESL) students haplessly thrown into the classroom and expected to learn through immersion, or do they have to reach a certain standard of fluency first taught through a structured programme? If a teacher is spending a lot of time trying to communicate with ESL students, this will be at the expense of your own little star. Sneak a peek at class sizes and ask how many ESL learners will be in your child’s class.
- If your child has special needs, ascertain if and how these can be met. Very few international schools cater for even moderately dyslexic or dyspraxic students, as they tend to focus on ESL. If children can get learning support outside the classroom, ask if a “whole school approach” will be taken towards helping them (“whole school approach” is a buzz phrase no doubt recognizable to many parents, but basically it means that decision-making at a classroom level cannot be effective without a whole-school commitment where each teacher uses the same strategy and is aware of and supports a student’s SENs -- something that is given a lot of verbal recognition but not always put into practice). Make sure you bring an educational psychological evaluation with you so that a new school can determine the extent of any difficulties. If your child is a prodigy in - or just keeps his sanity through - a particular sport or musical instrument, can this talent be fostered?
- Ask if students are streamed according to ability, or taught in mixed groups based on age. If mixed-ability teaching is the case, what teaching methods are used to bring out the best in each child? Are more advanced students used to assist less able ones? Is extension work an option for those who are galloping ahead of their peers? Are teaching methods traditional and highly structured, or are they child-centred and less formalised? Would this system suit your child and his/her learning style?
- Do your homework. Ask how much homework is given and how often. Children in some international schools might be loaded down with more homework than they would be in their home country, merely to meet parental expectations of some dominant nationality group. If they also have lengthy travelling times, children may feel very pressured. Ask if the school has a homework policy or whether it is left to the individual teacher.
Ownership and monetary matters
- Financial status and ownership: Ask about the school’s financial status and check to see who the owner or license holder is. Is this individual merely a figure head who leaves the running of the school to a professional principal and manager, or does he/she interfere in the running of the school by determining key appointments and dictating which students are given priority? Ask who formulates educational and financial policies and how parents are kept informed.
- If the school has an active board of directors, determining how it is appointed will reveal some useful insights. Enquire whether board members are democratically elected by parents or appointed by the owner or whether they are self perpetuating. Ask for a list of their names and qualifications along with their mandate. Some boards of non-educators end up running entire schools with policies based on their own aspirations. Ascertain their nationality mix and professional skills- ideally they should be representative of the whole school community- and whether their terms of office are fixed to avoid self-interest, especially in developing countries. Ask around to see if the chairperson is respected and how the community perceives the board.
- Try to determine whether a school is trying to make money by cramming in as many students as possible or is genuinely striving for a quality education. Ask if the school generates much corporate support. It is important that a school is financially sound or parents may be hit with massive fee increases or “bond” deposits at a later date, or even show up one morning to find the doors locked and chained. If in doubt, ask to see copies of the school’s audited accounts and enquire about the policy on fee increases.
- Schools in developing countries often demand a large enrolment fee or “bond” that is non-refundable. Negotiate with your company to pay this cost and ask what happens in the event that you change schools.
- Note the nationality mix of the student body and how they socialise (observations in the playground can be very revealing. If English isn’t a significant language, your child might feel somewhat left out). Many international education experts agree that for a healthy balance, there should be no more than 50% of one nationality in an international school. You are not only buying into an academic system but a whole new cultural experience.
- As the first few days at a new school in an unfamiliar country can be very confusing, determine what sort of induction or transition programme is offered for new arrivals. Is another student or a “buddy” appointed to look after them for the first week? Is there an induction programme or welcome evening for new parents? Are teachers and staff trained and encouraged to be alert for the isolated creature hovering in the corner? In some schools, even the lunch ladies are known to be very sharp-eyed over the steaming potatoes, ever on the lookout for the perpetually solitary diner.
- Determine what counselling services are available. In an international school with a high turnover of students and teachers, children often experience adjustment difficulties. Qualified and experienced school counsellors are invaluable in helping support children who have emotional behaviour, transition or academic problems.
- If the school has a PTA, look at its mandate. Is it merely for fund-raising and gaining clout within the school community, or is it a real community support group that runs social events and supports school policy while addressing any genuine problems?
- If the school provides a bus service, check that they also provide seat belts, a mobile phone and competent staff to supervise students during travel time, plus regular safety inspections. In large cities prone to flooding, it is not unknown for the children to spend several hours stuck in traffic jams trying to make it home.
Making it work with your chosen school
It has to be said that it is impossible to find the perfect international school in the perfect location. However, after selecting a school that fulfils your most important requirements, do become an involved and active parent. Monitor what your child is doing; offer support and supplemental materials in consultation with the homeroom teacher. There is no need to overdo it by accosting the teacher every day but communicate frequently, get to know the principal, grit your teeth and volunteer in the classroom, go to PTA meetings and find out what is going on. Get yourself known as an active parent: then you will be in a position to be taken seriously if you have a complaint. Avoid the school gate “gripers” who complain about everything, and don’t discuss the school’s shortcomings with your children- they will have enough to deal with, and need to feel positive.
Of course an international school won’t be the same as the one back home, but doing things differently isn’t necessarily wrong …it is just different. So don’t expect to go in and start changing the system, but do go in with patience, open eyes, a sense of humour and the sense of adventure that brought you here... and then expect to enjoy it as much as your child.