Living Here

How to choose a school away from “home”

When you move to a new country once again, or leave your home country for the first time, and you bring along children, one of the most important tasks at hand is to find a school.

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By Christiane Louise Conradt Eberlin

Most expat parents will look for an “international school”. However, the term “international school” is not a well-defined term, so any school can, in principle, call themselves “international” if they offer an international mindset or even a single subject taught in a different language.

With over 11,000 English-language international schools in the world, educating over six million students, there are a lot of options when looking for a school away from home

This can create some concerns when looking into curricula, certification, accreditation, vision, mission, size, student population, results, and teacher qualifications.

One thing is certain, more than anything else, parents want a school that can demonstrate that it will offer their child the best education and the best experience possible when measured against the parents’ values and preferences.

Evidence shows that 80 percent of the inquiries made to international schools are based on network and word of mouth from other parents.

It is rare to find a parent with first-hand experience of several international schools in the same foreign country, making it imperative to remember that information collected from word of mouth and network is likely to be biased.

To choose the “right” school, it is therefore particularly important to get as much information and solid data as possible from the school’s website, as well as from the admissions professional representing the school.

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Expensive is not equal to being the best and low cost is not equal to being the worst
International schools can be divided into three groups: private profit or non-profit international schools, public state international schools, or municipally supported international schools.

Private profit schools are typically owned by mother organizations taking the overall strategic decisions regarding profit allocations between all its international schools, investors, employees, and management. Profit schools often see synergy effects of a large organization in some cases even synergies in different countries.

Non-profit schools will reinvest profits back into the school and most of the seats at the school board will be held by parents and management.

International schools supported by the state or municipality are often organised differently in terms of leadership and may be bi-lingual; with teaching in both the language of the host country and in English. The curriculum can be based on the local curriculum but may also be based on an international curriculum and with a specific purpose of offering a bi-cultural education.

Host country schools without a specific international focus may also be considered when moving to a new country, teaching will then be in the local language and the curriculum will follow that of the local country.

It may be wise to consider whether the school has the resources and know-how to accommodate and include foreign language students.

If you are planning to stay in the country for a longer time, even on a more permanent basis, there may be a good rationale in choosing a host country school in order to secure a better local integration; this is especially the case for families with younger children.

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Which road leads to the desired doors and will they all open?
Aspects worth further investigation are also the different schools’ approaches to, and balance, between, academic teaching and more social and creative subjects.

In the British system, for instance, pupils are introduced to academics at the age of four with less focus on play-centred activities. In comparison, international and American programs introduce the academics later and some not before first grade at the age of six.

If it becomes necessary to switch between these two systems in the early years, it is important to have this in mind, as a pupil coming from a British system reading fluently at the age of six may not be challenged enough academically when moving to an IB PYP program.

Other elements of the child’s development will be nurtured and challenged but parents need to be aware of what to expect and what the consequences may be when re-entering the British system years later.

Some pupils may have to follow their “home country” curriculum in addition to an international school curriculum or host country school to secure an easier home transition later in their school years.

Local and international schools have different “cut” exams at certain grade levels that are important to be aware of as the outcome of these exams may be essential for entry requirements to secondary school or high school.

Language proficiency and preparation will have an impact on the success of passing such an exam. If a child joins a school half way through a preparation process for an exam (e.g. the British IGCSE, Danish FP9 or French le Brevet), as a parent, it is important to be informed about this in order to prepare your child, maybe by finding additional tutoring or delaying the entry to the exam grade level in order to get more preparation time before the exam.

The most common international educational programs for children aged six to sixteen are the IPC, IMYC, Cambridge, PYP and MYP, the American curriculum and the European Curriculum.

The most common international college preparatory programs offered are the British A levels, the International IB DP, the American High School Diploma and Advanced Placement (AP) and the European EB. Each of them are built on different elements, have different requirements and acceptance issues at universities and can have different entry requirements depending on the educational system you are coming from.

An important factor to keep in mind when choosing a school and curriculum is whether enrolment in one system blocks admission to another system at a given time or even into a preferred university program in your home country or elsewhere. Make sure the admissions representatives can give you correct and clear answers to these questions.

Nothing is more important than making these decisions on behalf of your child’s future.

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Accreditation – a stamp is not just a stamp
While host country schools are inspected by the local authorities of the given country, the international schools operate with accrediting bodies. Schools can be accredited by several institutions depending on the program/s they offer.

Understanding what the accrediting bodies stand for can help guide you in your selection process. The accrediting bodies normally inspect the schools every five to ten years. You can always ask the schools when they had their last accreditation visit and in some cases the results of the report are publicised on the school’s website.

International schools will often highlight accreditations on their websites. The most common accrediting bodies are; CIS (Council of International Schools), NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges), IBO (International Baccalaureate Organization), and Fieldworks Education.

Other organisations such as ECIS (Educational Collaborative for International Schools), COBIS (Council and British International Schools), and Cambridge Assessment are membership organisations provide professional support to the international schools who, as members, can benefit from teacher development, management and governance training and other resources, and they also accredit schools offering the British Curriculum.

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Other key indicators to reflect upon in your decision-making process could be:

The school’s vision and mission statement
All international schools will have been through a process where they have defined their school’s vision and mission; this is the individual school’s value proposition and information to potential parents about which areas they prioritise. As every school has their own, parents can use this to compare schools.

It’s important to ascertain is whether the vision and mission filters down from the board to the administration and into the classroom instead of being just those “words on the wall.”

Teacher qualifications
A school is never better than its teachers. The teachers’ educational backgrounds and the credentials they present when hired are important. Are there regular assessments of the teachers in order to support them but also to ensure the quality of the teaching taking place in the classrooms?

If you are pursuing a 100 percent English medium school, it is important that the teachers are native English speakers and also that the foreign language teachers are native speakers of the language they teach.

Average teacher tenure and turnover can be of interest to you and can give an indication of the environment at the school. Tenure and turn-over should be balanced.

Exam results
These should be available on the school’s website, if not, do ask for them. These may “only” be the grades of the graduating classes but in an accredited curriculum, this will give you a good indication of the average grades obtained by the school students in comparison to the worldwide averages.

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Student numbers / Class size numbers
Take the size of the school into account in comparison with what your children have experienced before and in which environment they thrive the most. A school of 500 students is quite different to a school of 1,000 students.

A class size of 22 children is generally looked at as the maximum size to get a good size classroom and 12 is in the lower end in order to provide good social dynamics. However, you do see great achievement results in classes with fewer students but again the age of the child and what you are looking for will drive your decision on this.

English Language Support (EAL/ ELL)
If your child is not a native English speaker, you may want to know if English language support is offered, in what form and the duration in terms of time and length.

On the other hand, if your child is a native English language speaker, you will also want to look at the percentage of non-English language native speaking children per classroom to ensure that the level of professional teaching matches what you are looking for.

Diversity – Teachers and students
An international school should also be characterised by the diverse student body and teacher nationalities. If the student body is represented by over 25 percent of one nationality, the diversity can be discussed.

This applies also to the teacher’s nationality spread. In schools with a high percentage of host country teachers, it is important to get a sense of their prior international school experience if you are focused on a truly international school setting.

Learning Support/Inclusion
If your child has been observed for or diagnosed with a learning profile that requires support or special accommodations, it is important to know if the school can support this now and in the future.

Ensure that the school has complete information about tests and other observations at the time of your enquiry or application. If the school cannot support your child’s learning, either due to program limitations or available resources/capacity, it is important that you find another school as early in the process as possible.

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School Fees – Tuition
The international school fees have always been a subject of discussion. Depending on what country you come from and the size of the fees you are used to, the new school’s fee might seem exceedingly high or the same.

The cost of living of the country, the local taxes and price of leases might push you to the limit when school fees come on top. Make sure you have done your fee calculations correctly and that “hidden” costs are taken into account; such as language support, specialised teaching, laptops, calculators, trips, afterschool care, extracurricular activities, fundraisers or galas, or even if tuition fees increase on a yearly basis.

In some countries, school fees are subsidised by the government and you can find quality schooling fulfilling all your preferences at no or only a very low cost.

Staff and Faculty seats
In many international schools, teachers and administrators are offered places at the school for their children as part of their remuneration. This can serve as an indicator of the quality of the school: if those working at the school choose the school or if they prefer other schools.

Subject variety and breadth
The breadth of the subjects offered in the school are sometimes set by the curriculum model. However, the electives and the range of after-school activities and foreign language choices are a good indicator of the school’s interest in supporting the whole child focus.

For the IB, it is important that the DP subjects offer a variety within each of the subject groups. It is a good indicator if the school offers a broad range of subjects for the students to choose from and that the admissions representative can advise on good combinations and college preferences in terms of subjects.

Parent involvement
At some international schools, the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) is extremely important in addition to general parent involvement. Depending on your view on this, and the spare time you have to be involved, it is a very fair question to ask what the school PTA is like.

Find out what your opportunities are to join in and if parent involvement is small, what is the school’s point of view on this.

Administration and Teacher accessibility on feedback
Every school has its own system for communication and sharing information between the school and parents. Find out before you enrol your child how the management operates on parent feedback, complaints, and cooperation.

It can also be useful to understand what the teachers’ and administrations’ accessibility are outside of school hours or during vacation time.

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All about the looks – or maybe not
Don’t get excited or discouraged about the school building itself; looks can be deceiving. Schools come in many shapes and forms; the best schools can be in buildings of little glamour and appeal, just as less good schools can be in purpose built – state of the art facilities.

This goes for websites too and the information to be found on them. However, a general guideline should be that if “it” is not on the website – maybe the school does not want to talk about it.

In short, the school choice comes down to three prioritised factors:
1. Curriculum,
2. Tuition
3. Location

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About the writer
Christiane Louise Conradt Eberlin is a private educational consultant and works for larger school organizations establishing their presence in the market as well as companies and institutions.

She has worked at international schools in and outside of Denmark and is a cohort leader at the largest network of Admissions and Enrolment Professionals AISAP, having visited more than 50 international schools, she knows what to look for both a consultant – but also as a parent.  Christiane Louise Conradt  also works as a private consultant assisting parents on school selection moving in to Denmark or out of Denmark for their next post.

You can contact her at christianece@icloud.com