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There comes a time in the life of most expatriate families when a crucial decision needs to be taken regarding children’s education – do we stay or do we go now? Will our children complete their education and take all their public exams at an international school abroad, or would they be better served at a school in the UK? 

Thoughts on this subject usually start to stir once the end of the oldest child’s primary years is in sight. The transition from primary to secondary schooling concentrates the mind of even the most committed expatriate.  In other families, the decision comes earlier as British prep schools prove an attractive option, particularly for those hoping to go on to an independent school with highly competitive entry standards. 

Other families hang on longer, waiting until serious public exams loom on the horizon before heading for home.  Sometimes the incentive is not so much the exams, but the need for a residence qualification so that the university student of the future qualifies for “home” rather than “foreign” student status. 

Academic Transitions

Whatever decision parents make, usually academic standards are the overriding consideration.  Many parents relish the idea of the great return home and the opportunity to send their child to a “proper” school.  Others are happy to stay abroad, very well aware that their children are receiving an education much better than anything they would receive at a local school in the UK, or that they could afford in the private sector without a generous corporate expatriate subsidy.

So how do these children fare, once back on home turf? Academically, much will depend on the standards of the international school and upon the type of school into which the children move in the UK. Even those moving from good schools abroad into the British private sector may find that they are behind in the basics, or that teaching methods are very different. Others moving into local schools in the state sector may find their children are ahead.  A year after returning to the UK with our two children, who were aged 12 and 10 at the time of the move, I wrote that “the children’s schooling alone has made the repatriation worthwhile.  They are receiving a much broader and better education than anything experienced in three international schools” across three continents.  And we loved our foreign life.

What Makes it Great

Born abroad into a globe-trotting existence, our children had moved into a traditional, provincial prep school in Dorset.  Within days, both were saying how much more interesting the lessons were and how much more they were learning.  While the wider world shrank, the educational world expanded to include sport, music, drama and art.  There were proper playing fields and activities weren’t cancelled at the first hint of rain.  In fact they found themselves playing outside in the kind of temperatures which would not support human life, as far as our neighbours in kinder climes were concerned. Plays were proper plays, rather than multi-cultural “arts evenings”, fun though those were.  There was an orchestra and a choir, both wonderful novelties.

Culture Shock

By far the biggest obstacles were outside the curriculum – and those were the stumbling blocks to which we, as parents, had given least consideration.  Many returning children are in fact hidden immigrants.  They may look the part and speak the language, they may have a romantic attachment to the country as “home”, but many expatriate children return with their parents to live in the UK for the first time.  

For them, the move is little different from any other foreign assignment, yet complicated by the fact that their parents are finding it all familiar (or at least they think they are) – and everyone expects them to settle quickly too.  “I remember the biggest thing I felt was that the girls’ school didn’t appreciate how foreign and new everything was for my girls”, says Hayley, a long term expatriate returning home with daughters aged 13 and 11. “There was no allowance for the culture shock they were actually going through”.   

These sentiments were echoed by our son, aged 12 and newly arrived from outdoor, tropical life in soccer-mad Brazil.  “All they talk about at school is rugby and the X-Factor.  What’s the X-Factor?” he added, enquiring about the compulsory Saturday night television viewing of his peers – but something of which he had never heard.  With the exception of a few outposts of empire, on their return children will find the sports stars are different, the music is different and what their friends do out of school is different too. “Our children needed to get used to the way things were done here”, adds Hayley, with just a hint of regret.

Exchanging an outdoor life of bare feet, barbecues and blistering sunshine for wall-to-wall carpets, reality television and wet weekends can have a very unsettling effect.  Our children still don’t wear shoes unless strictly instructed – even in the garden in the rain.  This cultural deficit does not apply only to those returning from warm-weather climes.  Rachel, an expatriate who has lived in several different northern European countries, explains that her 10-year-old daughter “loves the outdoors and sports, and the fit with girls and dresses and boyfriends was not a match”.  

What are They Talking About?

Almost all returning expatriate parents find British children more precocious and worldly-wise, in one sense, than their international counterparts.  At the same time, the “maturity” of children returning from foreign postings is often commented upon favourably.  It is just a different kind of maturity – they have seen and experienced so many different things, they know there is a great big world out there in all its infinite variety.  Now when my rapidly-assimilating daughter says she hopes she looks “hot”, her brother just tells her to “stop being so British”.

Finding friendship can be difficult.  Unless children join a school in one of the “watershed years”, when everyone is new, they can find themselves trying unsuccessfully to break into established friendship groups.  Rachel recalls how hard her son found it, as “all the boys had been together for a few years”.  International schools abroad are used to a constant turnover of pupils and usually have established mechanisms in place for welcoming and integrating new children from all over the world.  The average British school, particularly outside the larger cities, does not.

Children have to learn when and where to tell their stories or it can sound dangerously close to showing off.  Camels raiding camp sites, snakes in the wardrobe, maids’ marital disputes – and certainly business class air tickets – are well outside the range of average experience back at home.  “So you are the people who holiday in the Atacama Desert”, was the greeting we received from our son’s geography teacher on parents’ evening – and his tone of voice suggested that there was something more than vaguely indecent about it. 

And For the Parents?

Parents can also find this a barrier.  As Rachel goes on to explain, “being an overseas parent, it is much more difficult to integrate with other parents and so help the children forge their friendships, because you so rarely see other parents [here] and often they are happier to invite children out if they have met the parents”. While living abroad, there is usually a circle of other expatriates to provide an initial support network. 

In many places, the locals will also go out of their way to welcome foreigners too, enriching the whole experience of expatriation.  Even repatriates who return to a previous home tend to find that life is different.  Diana, who left her home town for only two years, discovered on her return that “nobody wants to know, nobody has time for a coffee – people are kind but they’ve moved on”.

Another former expatriate friend wisely observed that you make best friends with people with whom you share an experience in common – school and college friends, the mothers from the antenatal class or baby group, work colleagues, and likewise those who have shared your experiences abroad.  Arriving “home”, where most other people have lived all their lives, can make it hard to begin meaningful friendships without that common bond.  Add in the fact that many locals find living an expatriate life inherently odd – and can’t begin to understand why any normal person would want to live in Moscow, Mauritius or Mumbai – and the move back home can be lonely for parents as well as children. 

What about boarding school? 

Being a boarder who flies off to some exotic location each holiday has a certain cachet.  It also means that the child’s home remains unchanged (at least temporarily), but the upheaval will be just as great – for parents as well as children.  Apple Gidley, an expert in educational issues for international children, stresses the importance of parents having “a united front if boarding is the route chosen – kids will always find the crack and then use it”.  

She adds that boarding can also cause problems between siblings when one is at home and the other at school, with both children believing that the situation is unfair. Having a child at boarding school in the UK while still living abroad is also a guaranteed way to ensure that one parent at least will clock up a lifetime’s worth of air miles, so frequently will they see the inside of an aeroplane. 

Living Nearby

Unintended consequences can also arise if the family moves back to settle close to the boarding school already attended by their child.  Apple warns that a child who has previously flown home for the holidays may find having parents in the same town unexpectedly claustrophobic.  Children may resent a “perceived intrusion into a life led relatively independently”.  Apple believes that some “acting up can ensue and eating disorders – particularly with girls – can manifest as a protest, though they might not realise that is the reason.”

On the other hand, a newly repatriated child who is starting boarding school for the first time may find it hard to settle with mum and dad living just down the road, even if the family’s long-term plan is to move further afield again.  And then there is the former “global nomad” who sees friends flying off abroad in the holidays and wishes he had his old, exciting life back again. “Are you going to get another posting soon?” he asks anxiously, dreaming – however unrealistically – of southern hemisphere surf, as his trunk is loaded into the car for a fifteen minute car journey.

Yea or Nay?

As with all stories, in this home-or-abroad education debate there are clearly two sides. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  The best of British education will open all sorts of doors of discovery and opportunity – but then so, too, does living in another country and mixing with people from all over the world.  There is no one answer, no one-size-fits-all.  Had our children not lived abroad, they would not be bilingual.  Had they not returned to the UK, our son would not be camping with the army cadets while our daughter plays hockey.  

Ultimately, it is about the schools and what they offer a particular child. If the school abroad is good and the family is happy with the arrangement, there is no reason to return to the UK for educational reasons.  If the school is not so good and your child is at the age where the advantages of foreign living are starting to be outweighed by a lacklustre or unsuitable education, then perhaps it’s time to return to the roost, even if only temporarily.

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