Moving to a new country and choosing the right school for your family can be a very confusing and stressful process especially if you have never been through it before. When looking at international schools, you can’t expect all American schools or all IB schools to be the same. Here are some questions to ask that should get you started and hopefully result in you getting the information you need to make an informed decision.
Questions to Ask International Schools
1. Does your employer or sponsor already have a relationship with a international school?
This means that, hopefully, your employer has already done research to identify a good international school and develop a relationship with them. Some companies pay a debenture to guarantee school places for employees’ children. The financial side is often seamless when the employer has an existing relationship with the school.
2. What is the school curriculum?
The names and labels that many schools use can be a confusing, and sometimes misleading mess and don’t always match the curriculum offered. Schools offer different curriculums including the International Baccalaureate, the IPC / IMYC, British, English, American, and curriculums that are linked to specific states in places like Canada, Australia and India. What curriculum you go with really depends on your future plans. The IB curriculum makes it easier to transfer from one international school to another and the IB Diploma is a well-respected qualification around the world. Some schools offer several IB programs while others offer only the IB Diploma. If you plan on moving back home after only a short period abroad, make sure you learn how the curriculum will align with your home country school. Regardless, make sure the school is accredited and recognized both internationally and locally.
3. What is the governance of the school?
Is the international school non-profit or for profit? Is there an owner or a board? How are decisions and changes communicated to parents? You are looking for a school that is financially solvent and has a clear and transparent way of communicating their decision making with parents.
4. What is the nationality make-up for the students?
Is there a dominant nationality? What is the language of the hallways and playground? Some schools can have a majority of local students. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it is important to consider how your child will adapt, and what challenges they will face socially.
5. Is the school accredited?
Schools often have a collection of letters on their website (NEASC, COBIS, CEESA) and it is important to know what these are and what they mean. Many schools are accredited by a United States accreditation agency. This means that your child’s high school diploma should be recognized in the US. The Council of British International Schools (COBIS) and British Schools Overseas voluntary inspection program are important organizations for schools that offer a more British Curriculum. The International Baccalaureate works to accredit any school offering any of their programs.
Better schools are often members of regional organizations that facilitate collaboration and professional development for teachers. Some major groups are the EARCOS in Asia, CEESA in Eastern Europe, NESA and BSME in the Middle East, and AISA in Africa.
6. How does the school communicate with parents?
Written reports, parent conferences, newsletters, blogs, online tools such as Seesaw, Tapestry and Class Dojo. Ask questions about how and when schools and teachers will communicate with you, both for news and updates, as well as reporting on your child’s learning. Are you freely allowed to contact the classroom teachers, counsellors and principal? You want a school that has a clear policy and practice for reporting on learning, and also one that engages and welcomes parents. Ask to see examples.
7. How are parents involved?
Is there a parent organization like a PTA or Parent volunteers? Try to visit any potential school at the beginning of the school day or the end so you can see how parents interact with each other, the teachers and the students. Ask the school admission office to put you in contact with parents who have a similar background and children of a similar age.
8. What is the turnover of teachers?
What are their nationalities, qualifications and experience? The experience and qualification of the teachers should match the curriculum of the school. If there is a high teacher turnover there will be reasons for that, and they usually are not good.
9. What is their college acceptance rate, and what support do students get in applying to university?
For families with older children, it will be a very complex process to go through, especially if your child is applying for universities in different countries. Don’t just look for the top universities, look for a diversity of acceptances from a school, both for geography and type of school. Ask what support students are given and look for schools with a strong college/career counsellor on staff.
10. How are students supported socially and emotionally?
Ask what transition program the school has for students entering and school, and for those students leaving. You want your children to have support when they are moving to a new school and country. Does the school have a counsellor? How many and at what level? What things are done at the school to support children.
11. What academic support is available for students?
What EAL support is available for students who need English language support? Are there support teachers for students who need extra help? How are these students identified? Is there support for students who are high achievers? What processes does the school have?
12. What are ALL the fees?
Aside from tuition, schools can charge multiple other fees, including application, registration, technology and building fees. Make sure it is clear everything you have to pay and if it is a one time fee or annual. There can also be other charges related to school activities. Also, ask about past and planned tuition increases. You want to get the total cost for the year.
13. What is the feel of the school?
If you aren’t able to visit the school to see students and parents, ask the school to put you in contact with a family similar to yours. Search on Facebook to see if there is an expat group for your new area and ask about the school. There could even be a Facebook group for just the community of the school. Try to find what the school really values (Friendly, Fun, Rigorous, Multicultural, Inclusive). Does what they say match what people actually feel? And does that match with what you want for your family?
Admissions offices at different schools can vary dramatically. Some are full with a waitlist and it feels like they are doing you a favour to meet with you, some feel like they are desperately trying to sell you, and some authentically feel like they are trying to do the best thing for your family. You will be trusting the school with your children so you should feel that you trust the admissions office.
Ultimately, you want to find a school where you are comfortable that your child is safe and happy, and you are confident that they are learning. You can do that by making sure you ask the right questions when choosing an international school.
Derek Nelson is a US expat who has worked in international education for 25 years. He has lived and worked in the Philippines, China, Indonesia, NZ, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar and Germany.