An essential part of starting a new life in a new city, a new country, or the beginning of a new phase in education is ensuring that the school you choose for your children is a good fit. In the course of an expat’s school life, they may attend a number of different schools, so ensuring a smooth transition is fundamental to the happiness of your precious sons and daughters and their future academic plans.
“There are various reasons as to why parents choose a particular type of school as opposed to others, however the baseline is that parents want to pursue what is best for their children and for their future.” David Gerone - École International Montgomery
Expats and internationals must rely on reputation, information and intuition when making the big choice. Instead of a list of top tips, let’s look at some important questions you can pose when contemplating a new school for your child(ren).
What accreditations does the school have?
Some schools are accredited by the Council of International Schools, some by the European Union, others are accredited by the Council of British International Schools. Whichever accreditation you rely on, these bodies have been set up to ensure the schools adhere to solid educational policies.
Where is the school located?
Sometimes we have the opportunity to choose the school first, then set up sticks based on that. The school run can be a thing of joy or a daily disaster depending on journey times, traffic, whether the school operates a bus service or is equipped for before or after school care. Take the time to research public transport links, travel time and the specifics of the bus services a school offers and incorporate those into your decision making process.
“Moving to a big city where spaces are limited and classes are overcrowded? Look for alternatives in the countryside: studying in a healthy environment might be more easily accessible than you think.”
Erica Di Maccio – European School MOL
How much will it cost?
For those parents who are paying the school fees out of their own purse, there are a few points to consider:
• What is included in the actual school fees?
• What application fees need to be paid?
• Are there annual administrative fees?
• What extracurricular activities are included in the school fees?
• If there are optional school trips, what are the costs of those?
• If the school has a cafeteria, how much does the food cost?
How does the school prepare my child for possible future transitions?
Yes, you have just moved, or are preparing to move and aren’t keen on the prospect of calling the movers again anytime soon, however this point is key for those families that move about quite a bit. This question refers to future schools they will attend on your next assignment, commission or project, or the next phase of their school lives, be it secondary or tertiary. These times of transition can be hard on children, and schools offering inclusion support can make a difference to how quickly your child adapts to their present school, and any schools, colleges or universities they may attend in the future. Some schools take a great interest in helping children cope with change. Ensure you cover this with the admissions team when sizing up a school, they are there to help answer your queries and address your concerns.
What curriculum does the school follow? And to what extent?
Schools differ greatly in the curricula that they offer. Some are broad-based and are adaptable to a number of educational possibilities in other countries. Others offer a curriculum set by a specific country that enables your child to continue their education or transition back to their home land more easily. Others yet again follow a curriculum set out by a country however they do not follow it to the letter. This is more particularly a consideration for parents of secondary school children, each year the children progress the more important it becomes to be aware of the subjects on offer and the public examinations that the school can prepare the students for.
“The curriculum will be key, as is the choice of subjects for example. Does the school offer A Levels, IB, vocational BTEC courses or a mix of all three?”
Kim Burgess – British School of Brussels
What are the class sizes?
This one can be a deal breaker, depending on the personality of your child. Large class sizes are great for children who excel in situations where the learning environment is lively, fast paced, independent and utilise group-work due to less one-on-one time from teachers. Other students prefer a quieter, more structured and more supportive classroom experience. This is often a more productive environment for those students attending a new school in a new language. Large and small class sizes have both advantages and disadvantages, knowing what best suits your child’s approach to learning goes a long way in helping to decide on the right school, and nurturing their learning styles.
What assistance can the school provide in cases of special educational needs?
Parents of a child with special educational needs require extra support. Some schools have a comprehensive approach to ensuring your child progresses and enjoys their time at school. A few more questions for these parents could be:
• does the school have a special learning programme tailored to suit my child’s needs?
• will my child receive extra help from a teacher or teacher’s assistant?
• will there be possibilities to work in smaller groups?
• how much feedback can I expect from the school?
• and for those children with special physical needs, is there support with physical or personal care difficulties, e.g. eating, getting around school safely or using the toilet?
What if my child does not speak English yet, or doesn’t speak it well?
Especially in cases where you are moving your child from a non-English speaking school to an English speaking school, bilingual school or immersion school, the support that the school offers for English as an Additional Language (EAL), reading, spelling or writing support can be crucial to your child’s English language development. Schools promoting EAL extracurricular activities, learning support groups and specialised teaching expertise are open to fielding questions you have on this topic. Don’t be afraid to ask the specifics of what they offer and ensure you are aware how they not only can assist but also motivate and encourage your little learner.
What’s the difference between bilingual and immersion schools?
Most especially in a country like Belgium, where there are three official languages, the options available for bilingual learning and immersion learning are broad and it can be difficult to differentiate. Here’s a quick breakdown:
• Bilingual learning: a school offers academic content in two languages. The split between the time spent in each language can vary from school to school. 30%-70% or 50%-50%. The schools offering bilingual programmes will expect that your child is a native speaker of one of the languages offered and can speak the second language fluently.
• Immersion learning: these programs are designed to help native and non-native speakers become bilingual and biliterate. There are many support structures in place to help your child learn the second target language and develop their skills across all subjects.
Is there a parent support association or network?
Moving to a new city or country is a big step for the whole family. Some schools have vast communities and networks where parents can share information and give each other support. They can offer support via weekly catch-ups, through social media, or operating a buddy system. These big changes can often be quite daunting for spouses, who can only benefit from making a new network of friends. These school communities help families feel more quickly at ease in their new surroundings and enable parents to be a more stable source of support for their children.
What extracurricular activities are on offer?
Again, these vary greatly from school to school. These activities offer opportunities for your child to broaden their social networks, gain experience in sports, the arts and languages and generally enrich their international schooling experience.
Questions answered, what next?
Once you have collated the answers to these questions, the next step is to arrange a visit to the school to get a feel for the teaching styles, compare the proximity of the school to where you live, and generally soak up the atmosphere.
There are massive differences between schools regarding school visits. Some schools require a non-refundable payment of the administration fees before you can even set foot on the grounds – others may invite you to check out classes in action and even eat lunch in the cafeteria. Ensure you are clear about school visits and how these are carried out.
Some schools offer the option of “transition days” or “step-in days” where your child can experience what it will be like at their new school before the new academic year or term begins. This can be a great advantage to nervous students and take the edge off the sometimes overwhelming feeling on the first day.
“Meet the head teacher! You can tell a lot about a school from a quick chat with the head. After all, you are going to be leaving your precious children in their care every day. Ask them what they believe in, what they value and what their vision is for the school and then sit back and listen for 10 minutes.”
Brett Neilson – St Paul’s British Primary School
It’s also a great idea to take the time to speak to families already enrolled at the school. The school should be able to put you in contact with the established community networks. Families are usually open to discussing their views on the school and how their children respond to the teaching style and curriculum.
Choosing the right school is never an easy task, but we hope the above guide will help set you off on the right foot with this important decision.
A special thank you goes out to all our member schools who contributed to this article. You can find a full list of our members (and member schools) by visiting us online: