If your family is relocating to another country, you will need to learn how to navigate a foreign school system.
While this is an overwhelming responsibility to take on amidst the other changes that come with relocating, doing some research beforehand will ensure that you select a school where your child can thrive.
Understanding Your Options
There are three main schooling options that parents can explore when they relocate to another country:
American International Schools: General instruction is provided in English, and a significant portion — but not a majority — of the student body and teachers are from the United States. Often, the U.S. Department of State or a U.S. accrediting body endorses American schools. Most significantly, as stated in a piece from the International Educator Magazine, American Schools are “designed to provide a core curriculum that prepares students to enter schools, colleges, and universities in the United States.”
International Schools: While instruction is provided in English, the student body and faculty represent an array of countries. Curricular choices can vary from school to school and aren’t necessarily based on the methods of a single country (find more information about curricular choices below).
Local Public or Private Schools: These are the schools that the local population attends. Courses are taught in the language of the country and curricular choices depend on the standards created by the government.
Making Your Decision
The following are different factors that families should consider as they decide what school to send their children to:
Overwhelmingly, expats and experts agree that your primary consideration when you select a school should be choosing one that complements the requirements of the high school your child will attend. Bob Blanch, a teacher who has worked at international schools in the Netherlands and China for 28 years, stresses the intense struggle most students face when adapting to a new education system, culture, and circle of friends. He encourages parents not to underestimate the significance of this strain, particularly for students attending high school abroad.
Stephanie Rowlands supports that professional opinion with her own experience as a parent. “The older the children get,” she says, “the harder it is for them to move.” She and her husband are working to ensure that their children’s last three years of high school will be at the same school. “My son will already have attended six schools by that time and my daughter four schools. They have been so flexible and deserve a place at the ‘bidding table’ the next time.”
Younger children have greater flexibility because there’s more time to adapt to another curriculum and classroom culture. “A couple of families sent their children to French school when we lived in Paris,” parent Berenice Hernandez says. “The kids picked up the language. But their kids were really young, so the parents didn’t have a concern about the transition back.”
Living abroad can give parents an opportunity to enroll their children in schools that explore a wide variety of curricula. For instance, international schools may offer American, English (sometimes referred to as Cambridge), International Baccalaureate (IB), or Canadian curricula.
According to the CEO of the International American School Heads, the so-called American curriculum isn’t a monolithic pedagogy. Just like curricula vary from district to district in the U.S., American schools implement their own versions of the American schooling system. Likewise, the local schools abroad will also offer a lot of variety when it comes to the kind of curricula that they employ.
Second to the American curriculum, IB will likely provide the easiest transition for American students. In fact, a growing number of U.S. schools have adopted IB curriculum programs. The IB diploma is recognized at colleges worldwide, and while the Cambridge diploma is equally well recognized internationally, it does not offer students the opportunity to earn college credit in high school.
The local private and public schools will likely create the most difficult transition for expats for both cultural and academic reasons. For instance, Julia Coursey, a former language assistant in Palma de Mallorca, explains that schools in rural Spain require students in public schools to focus on up to three languages at a time, including local dialects. She’s seen older children who come from other countries struggle with the languages and other subjects. Younger children, however, often thrive with this kind of immersion.
Parents also may find that the classroom culture they encounter in local schools is quite different from that of classrooms in the United States. Rowlands notes that teaching methods like rote memorization may be more prevalent in many countries’ local schools. Parents may also encounter logistical differences. For example, in some countries, school does not start until a child is seven years old because there is no mandatory kindergarten.
Cultural and Social Integration
Whether students are just starting school or are more than halfway through when they arrive as expats, Blanch says, “the cultural transition … can been extremely disruptive to the family and the education of students.”
While American schools appeal to many parents who will return to the U.S. because they provide easier transitions for students, Pooja Makhijani, an educator in Singapore and a parent, describes them as “insular.” She asks a more fundamental question of the purpose of the expat experience: “Are you there just to recreate your American life?” Both Coursey and Makhijani refer to the disadvantage of “the expat bubble” of the American schools. And Makhijani delves a bit further, asking, “Is this classist?”
“Going to a local school, you definitely have to negotiate a lot of cultural things” says Makhijani. But there’s much to be gained, too. “You are exposed to so many more things, you meet so many more people.” Makhijani knows a young girl from an expat family who is thriving in a local school, learning the language and assimilating into the culture.
Now that Rowlands’ children have attended international schools for three years, she sees her children developing a more global perspective. The people they meet from other countries help them understand the world they live in.
Rowlands’ children have attended both local schools and an international school. “The number of children that enter [and] leave the school each year can affect how quickly your child will be accepted,” Rowlands says. “More culturally diverse schools make for an easier transition.”
American schools generally have more facilities, explains Makhijani, with extra perks like photography classes, a wide variety of sports, and field days. Hernandez compares American schools abroad to “posh” private schools in the U.S.
Despite the large budgets for academics in international schools, Suanne Forrester, a former instructor at international schools in Shanghai, explains, “Sports are an added bonus. Not all schools offer all programs.”
Often, you will encounter different attitudes about educating children with special needs in other countries, and these needs can be difficult to meet.
For example, in Singapore, the government does not require local schools to provide the accommodations each child may need to get an education. Thus, Makhijani explains, some children find themselves exempt from otherwise compulsory schooling because of special needs.
“While all U.S. public schools are required by law to provide services to all students, this is not the case with international schools,” says Forrester.
Cost and Logistics
Parents should also compare typical features of schools, like class size, distance, transportation options, and the ability to attend school with neighborhood friends.
“International schools can be extraordinarily expensive,” says Makhijani. A parent’s employer sometimes pays for tuition, but this happens less often since the recession. In Singapore and many other countries, the local schools remain practically free for expats.
Still, attending a local school brings its own set of challenges. “Parents not speaking the local language may also be a huge disadvantage,” Makijani says. “Sometimes, someone in the school can translate, but you won't be able to help with homework if you don't know the local language.”
Hernandez placed her children in a faith-based international school because they would be attending a Catholic school upon their return to the U.S.
Regarding teachers at international schools, Hernandez says, “The staff is young and turns over frequently because they are having their own international experiences, so you never know who you are going to get.”
But Forrester, an experienced teacher at various international schools, says large budgets create access to more professional development. “There is a huge focus on best practices.” Forrester adds that without tenure in international schools, people have to work harder to keep their jobs.
Doing the Research
In this age of social media, the primary way expats find each other and other resources is through Facebook groups.
On the other hand, Forrester likes to conduct her own research. “In today’s world,” she says, “if the schools don’t have an informative website, they won’t be a good school.”
Rowlands also recommends the book Home Learning Year by Year: How to Design a Homeschool Curriculum from Preschool Through High School, by Rebecca Rupp. “Even though it's for homeschoolers, it is so helpful,” Rowlands says. “It gives national benchmarks for every subject and every grade, so you can be sure that your child is inline with her U.S. contemporaries.”
Makhijani recommends the local chapter of the American Association of Women.
During her large company’s move to Shanghai, Hernandez says, “A realtor was more than just a realtor. She was more of a transition specialist.” Her realtor would say, “This is the school that other expats chose.”
Finally, Hernandez observes, “All of the expats in the city have close-knit communities and are eager to help each other because someone helped them.”
Curious about the curricula your child may encounter abroad? Check out: IB and Cambridge Programs: A Universal Curriculum.
Blanch, B. (2015, July 13). Personal communication.
Coursey, J. (2015, July 20). Personal communication.
Forrester, S. (2015, July 17). Personal communication.
Hernandez, B. (2015, July 14). Personal communication.
Makijani, P. (2015, July 10). Personal communication.
Rowlands, S. (2015, July 13). Personal communication.