On the face of it, there seems to be plenty of choice for ex-pats arriving in Tokyo with children of school age, and for younger children that is certainly the case. The quality of education on offer can be at least up to par with good state schools in the UK and the USA. Of course, it depends what your needs are.
The main problem for parents wanting the English National Curriculum is availability of places at the British School, especially in Years One and Two: it is essential to register as soon as you know you are coming here.
But if you are not bound to the English National Curriculum, the choice of American and IB schools is very good. Several have excellent facilities and pupil/staff ratios, and because there are more of them, it is somewhat easier for transferring students to obtain a place…. sometimes even in mid-term. In a recent example, a newly arriving family was able to get an older child into the British School straight away, but the other (Year One) child had to wait about half a term. The British school only goes up to Year 8 at the moment; after that, it’s boarding school back in the UK (or Australia), or moving to an IB school in Tokyo, or transferring to one of the schools in Yokohama.
Probably the best selection for British parents is amongst the pre-schools; there are a good many, and people generally seem happy with the ones they have chosen. By contrast, the British School is the only option for primary-aged children who want to be in the British system.
The main problem is for parents with children of secondary school age. If you are prepared for your child to travel to Yokohama, then there are two very good co-ed schools offering many choices of British, American and IB curricula and exams. If you have been living in London, then the journey by train is no longer than many children are used to making anyway, but it is about 40 minutes on the fastest express train from Shibuya plus the time from home to Shibuya and then the walk from the station to school. However, Japan is very safe for children travelling alone and even small children of six or seven can be seen by themselves on the Tokyo subway.
Except for the one British school, the schools in central Tokyo which take secondary pupils are based on the American system (although some do also offer IB) – no help at all to the older child already doing GCSEs or A levels. One embassy family tried one of the girls’ schools here for a year but found the system too American after the Scottish system they had come from (despite the seeming similarities between the two) and their daughter has now returned to Scotland. Another British family have withdrawn their application to come to Tokyo as they weren’t happy with the choices in Tokyo proper for their sixteen year old.
If your child has significant learning difficulties, it could be a real problem finding a school which will accept him or her. Most of the schools do have learning support staff, but they are usually unwilling to take on anyone who has been diagnosed already. This understandably leads to parents being economical with the truth if they are anxious to get children into a certain school, but children with mild dyslexia or dyspraxia do seem to manage here. It should be mentioned that Tokyo International Learning Community takes such children, but it might be wise to cast an eye over their plans for ensuring future financial stability.
Something to be aware of is the new phenomenon of so-called “international” schools which have glossy brochures showing smiling children of different nationalities, when in reality the majority of students are Japanese and there are only a handful from any other country. The English in these schools is less than perfect, and teachers in the secondary schools have commented on the need to give students coming out of them extra English tuition. The Japanese government is aware that there is a growing number of Japanese who would like their children to go to international schools so that they can learn proper English (the English teaching in most Japanese schools is still very poor) and so the genuine international schools have a policy of only taking Japanese children who have lived abroad for three years and who are comfortable speaking English.
If you are committed to the English National Curriculum, then the British School in Tokyo is the obvious and only option. It offers a good all round education up to age 13. Then students usually go on to one of the international schools or boarding school back in the UK. The British School has many strong points, but if you have a really sporty child who has been used to wide open spaces, then at the moment the school is in a central location without any proper sports facilities of its own. Nonetheless, it does have access to outdoor playing fields and takes part in international athletic competitions annually. It is also on two sites. That said, the search is on for a new location which would accommodate the whole school and with proper gym and sports facilities on site.
If you want IB (and Primary Years IB) then the choices in Tokyo are Seisen for girls (with co-ed Kindergarten), St Mary’s for boys and Tokyo International School (up to year 9).
There is more choice for the American Curriculum with the International School of the Sacred Heart, Seisen, St Mary’s, the American School in Japan (with its Early Learning Years School in central Roppongi) and Nishimachi (up to Grade 9). The main ASIJ campus is rather a way out of the centre but it was the school’s conscious decision to go for open spaces, good sized buildings and playing fields. Most of the schools bus the children in anyway.
There are excellent schools in Yokohama which go right from Kindergarten to Year 12. St Maur’s and Yokohama International School both offer IGCSE, IB and American Curriculum. At the younger end, St Maur’s has a Montessori kindergarten and YIS follows the Reggio Emilia system. The new express line from Shibuya in Tokyo to Yokohama means that more pupils are now commuting from Tokyo for the Junior High and High School years. Or parents move to Yokohama and they commute to Tokyo for work. Several of the above schools offer a choice or combination of IB, IGCSE or American Diploma and Advanced Placement courses and exams.
Money Matters: Something called the Corporate Contribution Plan is mentioned in several of the school write-ups. Under an agreement with Japan's National Tax Administration Agency, scholarships funded under the CCP are not taxable as personal income in Japan. Contributions under this programme are deductible as "regular contributions" under Japanese corporate tax law. This programme can offer significant tax advantages to companies/organisations whose employees are parents at participating schools. The company/organisation agrees to make donations to the school which are used partly to fund special corporate scholarships
One final note: Something to be aware of is that Asian parents have very high expectations of their children, and Japanese parents are no exception. Japanese mothers push their children hard and are very competitive. Some British or American parents in particular may find this different to what they have been used to. It is difficult to resist getting caught up in race, but with some self-restraint and a sense of humour, most parents can help their children and themselves maintain a sense of proportion.