Five Important Questions to ask Yourself when Choosing an International School
Posted by Dannielle Noonan
For families with children moving abroad, education is naturally a pressing concern. What sort of education options are available? How do you enroll? Will it be easy for your children to settle in, and would they be able to reintegrate back into their home education system? What is the overall quality of international education in your new country?
Choosing the right international school for your children overseas is just one of your list of things to do when you are planning a move overseas, along with finding accommodation and getting the best international health insurance plan for the whole family. To make the process easier and to help parents prepare for a big move abroad, we suggest five important questions that you should ask both yourself and any prospective international school.
It’s naturally tempting when you’re looking at international schools to choose an institution and an education system with which you and your children feel entirely comfortable. Whether that be in terms of curriculum, uniform, sports or any other area of school life, you might feel that the upheaval that moving abroad brings is significant enough, without adding to the pressure by placing them in a ‘foreign’ education system. This perspective is understandable, especially if your assignment overseas is only for a short period of time and you know you will be returning to your home country and its own education system in the future.
However, at the same time, don’t neglect the international element of what prospective schools might be offering. It is likely that your children are going to be growing up in a far more mobile world than we have even today, and as such the greater the exposure they can get to a wide range of life experiences, the better equipped they are likely to be for the future. Therefore, ask questions about what a prospective school does to foster an international outlook, and how your child might benefit from this. While you may feel more secure sending your children to a school that seeks only to replicate your home education experience—particularly in the years leading up to important public examinations—try to avoid making this your overriding concern. Ask yourself what else they can get out of the experience.
Do they look like the sort of students you want your children to be?
Although it’s far from scientific, and not very tangible, schools undoubtedly have a ‘feel’, and this can often be sensed immediately. When you are visiting a prospective school, look at the students and how they move around the place. Do they look happy? Do they treat adults, and each other, courteously? When you visit classrooms, look at how engaged the pupils appear to be. When you see them in the playground, is there broad integration, or are some kids left on their own? These are interesting indicators as to how a school functions.
However, don’t expect perfection. The school where every child is engaged all of the time, where every pupil is a model of civility, where all are achieving their potential just doesn’t exist. Instead, take a broad overview, and go with your instincts. As parents, you can recognise when children are happy, are fulfilled, and are using their time well, and even a brief visit to a school can undoubtedly allow you to get a sense of this.
What happens outside of the classroom?
As well as all of the above, it’s also important to consider how much emphasis a prospective school places on the education that takes place beyond the four walls of the classroom. Does the school have an active guest speaker programme, for instance, and what sort of excursions and expeditions do they undertake? These can be just as important as more structured, formal lessons, especially if they are programmed with a clear purpose.
How much does the school community interact with the wider community around it, and what form does this take? This will give you a very good idea as to the ethos of the school and the values it holds dear. Being in an international school gives pupils the chance to go to places that they would not normally experience, and meet people who would normally not come into their orbit, and so a creative and caring school will take advantage of the many opportunities its unique location provides.
How important are exam results?
This is unsurprisingly a vexed question, with somewhat entrenched views on all sides, not least because of the way data surrounding the issue can be used (and even manipulated). In a competitive market place such as that of international schools, it is undoubtedly true that examination results matter—the real question is, however, to what extent do they matter and what will a school do to achieve ‘good‘ exam results?
When discussing a school’s exam grades (at IGCSE, or IB, for instance) it is also important to discuss the school’s policy regarding entering pupils for examinations. Who makes the choice as to which students sit which exams, and if it’s the school, what is the rationale behind their decision making? In order to keep their A grade average high, does a school dissuade pupils from entering exams that the school thinks they may not score well in? This does happen, unfortunately, which means that some students might be deprived of the opportunity to study a subject that engages them and they enjoy because they may not ultimately be successful in an exam. This is a rare occurrence, but nevertheless, when you are reading background information about a school and they promote the success of their pupils in examinations, it can be worth your while just to drill a little deeper into the way the school runs this important part of school life.
Who will you get to meet?
On a school visit, who you get to meet can have a significant effect on your reaction and response to that institution. Whether or not you meet the principal, for instance, can be vitally important. As the member of staff ultimately responsible for establishing the tone and ethos of a school, you should ideally be given a chance to discuss your children and what the school can offer directly with them. This is important because you need to get a feeling for how well a principal really knows his or her school. It may be, of course, that the principal is away on the day of your visit, or other unavoidable circumstances prevent your meeting with them, but it is not an unreasonable expectation that you should have some direct contact with the school’s leader before you commit to sending your children there.
Mark Angus is a writer for Expat Essentials. Expat Essentials produce expatriate guides for families moving to Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, designed to provide comprehensive information on international schools and the education systems in these cities, as well as useful tips on healthcare, housing and getting connected in a new city.
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