School choices, daily commutes, uniforms, hot summers, and the impact of newly arrived foreigners on local schools....all is revealed by expert expat and stalwart GSGI editor Maryn Elkan.
The Lisbon area has just three main international schools (plus one prep-school). That is because the expatriate community is small. However, numbers have been rising in recent years – thanks mainly to the arrival of the European Maritime Safety Agency and the expansion of the local Nato base. This means all of the schools are at, or even slightly over, capacity and there is considerable pressure on spaces.
Two offer the British curriculum (St. Julian's and IPS), one the American (CAISL) and one IB (St. Dominic's). None offers A levels: these have been discarded in favour of the IB Diploma. All are truly international, with students of many nationalities. The proportion of students who speak English at home varies and each school has a high proportion of Portuguese students (from about a third to a half of the class). All are co-ed and non-denominational.
While none is a selective school as such, or offers the academic rigours associated with those institutions, all are accredited (mostly ECIS and NEASC) and have stood the test of time; the youngest, IPS, is 25. All four schools are located close together (IPS and St. Julian's are practically next door), and all will require a commute from the main expat enclave of Cascais.
British Schools (and IB)
St Julian's is the most popular school with British expatriates, for ages 3 to 18. It is the only school in the area to offer the British national curriculum leading up to (I)GCSE's. Rather than A levels, the IB Diploma course is offered for the final two years. It has an image as a neo- (or should that be retro-)-colonial, highly competitive school for those that can't quite afford to send their children to boarding school in England, thanks in no small part to its lovely old main building. In fact, it has a nurturing side and a great drama department, as well as the best sports facilities in town. Management is under pressure from some sections of the British parents who feel paying fees should mean oodles of homework and academic pressure.
St Dominic's is less glamorous than St Julian's - it's missing the sea view for one - slightly frumpy, slightly shabby, slightly disorganised, but it is a school with heart. Revelling in the many nationalities on campus, it nurtures a caring spirit in its students - for one and other, and for the planet. Its dedicated staff has helped keep many a troubled soul from going off the rails. Academics are improving, though there is still a high turnover of overseas-hired teachers. Sports are a bit wobbly. It has 660 pupils from 3 -18 who follow the IB curriculum throughout. High reregistration fee (10% of the annual amount) payable in March.
For ages 2-11, International Preparatory School follows the British national curriculum and achieves respectable scores at SAT's (particularly at level 2), especially noteworthy as there are children of 20 different nationalities at the school. This is a feeder for St Julian's (see above), and currently located round the corner from it in a quiet cul-de-sac, though a move to a purpose-built new campus a few miles away is planned. With just 250 children, IPS specialises in providing a homely, safe atmosphere, making it popular with British (and other) parents of the very young.
American (but also IB)
Carlucci American School of Lisbon (CAISL)has a mixed reputation locally. It suffered a period of bad management which ended about 12 years ago. It then moved to a new purpose-built campus (rather unfriendly, windswept concrete outdoors, but good, large classrooms inside and a fine library and computer suite). Still under-funded, recent efforts to raise private capital should mean it will soon have the gym and/or auditorium it desperately needs. Numbers have been climbing (now at 420 students aged 3 to 18). Current director Blannie Curtis was an English teacher at the school in the 1980s and returned to run it in 1998. Katy Kane, has been head of the elementary school since 2003. Nathan Chapman, appointed head of the high school in September 2006, has the respect of the students.
Lessons are based on the American model, with the IB Diploma taught in the last two years. At high school level, different science subjects are taught per term. Classes last one and a half hours each and all subjects are taken every two days. Reports are minimalistic computer print-outs, handed out three times a year, but parent teacher communication is frequent and email based, and it is easy to make an appointment with any of the staff if something concerns you. It is the most expensive school locally: you pay fees for four quarters, not three terms, but the re-registration fee is low.
International Christian School of Cascais
ICSC started as part of a US-based Christian evangelical mission 25 years ago and still has the church meeting room downstairs. These days, fewer than half the students are practising Christians, though all the staff are. While the school welcomes children of all faiths, it happily admits to being orientated on Christian values and daily Bible class is part of the curriculum. Small (about 60 students), the school is housed in a large old villa on a busy road. Space for sports and outdoor play is particularly cramped, but the children appear cheerful enough. About half the student body speaks English at home.
While facilities are limited, tiny class sizes – in the higher grades they are as small as two or three per subject - mean truly individual attention. There are no discipline issues, reports go out four times a year, and parent-teacher meetings can be arranged at any time. It has a good reputation for helping SEN children, including Asperger's spectrum. Although the school does not currently have qualified SEN teachers as such, one-on-one attention is provided daily (even during the summer holidays) by people who are "really, really interested in children" in the words of the headmaster.
The school has had a series of remarkable people leading it, though always for short periods of time. Current head Murray James, who came out of retirement in Canada to run the school, is wonderfully warm and friendly. His wife teaches piano and ESL. Most of the staff of five full time teachers have been teaching at ICSC for over ten years. The church's pastor, Carlos Freitas, is keen to move to larger premises and open a Portuguese-language sister school.
International Non-English Speaking Schools
There are also thriving German, French and Spanish schools (all with over 1,000 pupils each and waiting lists; subsidies from the home-country government means fees are kept relatively low) and a small Swedish school.
Portuguese state and private schools
are open to foreign residents and have a smattering of international pupils these days (often the children of migrant workers from eastern Europe). The state schools share the problems of urban schools anywhere, but are reputed to set very high academic standards which only a minority meet. Private schools are often run by (Catholic) religious orders and teach to the same standards, but have smaller class sizes and place more emphasis on old fashioned discipline and pastoral care. (The latter can border on the obsessive/smothering.)
The recent influx of expat families means pressure on spaces at all the international schools is very high. This has not yet had an impact on fees, but parents may have to resort to having their children at several different schools. While a place for a British student will usually be found at St Julian's or IPS, getting on to waiting lists early is the best way to avoid anxiety.
All this is a fairly new phenomenon in Portugal. A decade or more during which numbers of English-speaking customers were limited has had an impact on local international schools in several ways: in order to make ends meet, none is selective, all have to accept students whose first language is not necessarily English, and although most are now at or over-capacity, none has been able to invest huge amounts in fantastic drama, music or sports facilities. And while the four larger schools all appear committed to keeping ahead of the IT revolution, none is exactly handing out a laptop to each student.
Teachers and Portuguese Labour Laws
All the international schools have mainly foreign-hire teachers, many of them young and enthusiastic. The great majority are fully qualified; there is even a sprinkling of PhD's. Current contracts encourage teachers to leave after four years, which usually means dynamic young talent is lost and there is no continuity. At the same time, those that do go onto "local conditions" tend to stay on and on, and labour laws make it very difficult to cut out dead wood. Finding good supply teachers to cover teachers off sick is a problem for all the schools (do contact the schools if you are a teacher and have time on your hands). Other staff members, and even heads, will fill in where needed: because teachers in tightly-staffed schools tend to 'wear a lot of hats', absences are also caused by teachers attending school sports tournaments, IMUN, educational visits or training sessions. In an emergency, there is always the DVD player.
St. Julian's has the strongest community feel of the English language medium schools. At over 1,000 students, it is the largest, and also hosts events for voluntary groups and other parts of the expat community. It all has a definite 'English' flavour, though people of many nationalities may be involved. The St. Dominic's PTA also ensures its events are part of the local calendar.
The School Commute
While the expat community is concentrated in Cascais, none of the larger international schools is situated here (though there are local pre-schools). Attendance at any is likely to mean a drive of 20 to 30 minutes at least. All the schools (except St Julian's) are served by school buses, and there are a dozen or so independent mini-bus companies who compete on price with the schools' own services.
There are also enough parents driving their kids to and from school – including a few car pools if you are lucky – to make parking at peak hours a messy business. At St Dominic's, lots of children stay after 15.40 for sports team practice and other activities. They will need to be picked up separately. At St Julian's some stay, but this school is a stone's throw from the commuter train line. Enlightened CAISL has a dedicated service to ferry their late-stayers to Cascais at 17.30 (if you have paid for the school bus).
CAISL and ICSC are the only schools without a uniform, and CAISL in particular is tolerant of expressions of personality like radical haircuts or piercings. In fact, sartorial elegance is not exactly a byword at any of the schools. Uniform items are frequently emblazoned with the school's name etc and are expensive new, difficult to find second hand (except at St. Julian's), and not available from the local supermarket. The St. Dominic's PTA has hit on a clever idea to kill several birds with one stone: items from the mountain of lost and found are sold periodically to raise money for a good cause.
Portugal has a long, hot summer. That must be why none of the main schools stays open for more than about 180 days in the calendar year. The summer holidays start at the end of June or beginning of July and the schools don't reopen till September. All these schools offer summer activities (at an extra cost), but these are aimed at children with English as a second language – boring if your kids are already fluent. Teenagers may discover a passion for surfing – or sunbathing – and spend their summers at the beach. Be warned: Cascais also has an active night life, with bars and clubs open till 6 or 7 in the morning. Serving alcohol to under-18s is not generally frowned upon and drugs are available to those looking for them.