A guide to choosing international schools

Expat parents can feel overwhelmed when it comes to selecting the best school for their child. Here are a few useful tips on finding the right fit.

By David Willows The Telegraph 05 May 2009

When it comes down to it, most of us want the same basic things for our children.

We want them to be safe, happy, to have friends, to do the right thing, to learn something about themselves and the world around them, and to have the best possible future beyond childhood.

Of course, there is much more we might go on to say. We might expect our children to learn a new language, become proficient in the creative arts, grasp an understanding of complex scientific knowledge or lead a team on the sports field. In the end, however, many of us will settle for knowing that we, as parents, had made choices that ensured our children became happy, successful and ethical members of society.

Schools, as we well know, have a huge role to play in shaping our children and leading them towards this optimistic future. So, it is hardly surprising, when it comes to the question ‘which school?’ that parents can often feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of the decision.

And nowhere is this more keenly felt than by the growing numbers of globally mobile expatriate families who arrive in a new country, a long way from home, faced with a mind-boggling choice of international schools.

Stepping off the plane, I know that the first question that many parents ask themselves is: Have I just ruined my child’s life?

The answer, of course, is a resounding ‘no’. In fact, the experience of international education has proven to be transformative for many young people arriving from many different backgrounds and cultures; offering new ways of learning, access to exciting resources and bringing fresh opportunities to learn new stories and perspectives on complex global issues.

So how do you know you are making the right choice for your children? How do you know if a school is right for them? My advice is simple: visit each school; meet the people who work there; talk to them about the hopes, fears and expectations you have for your children; and ask lots of questions about the school’s core values and philosophy of learning.

And just to get you started, here are a few examples of questions we encourage our families to ask:

Your child

• Does the school have planned activities to assist your child in a positive start to school?

• Do the students seem happy at school?

• How big are the classes?

• What services are available for individual student counselling and university placement?

• How often will you receive information concerning your child’s progress?

• If you child has ‘special learning needs’, how will the school meet these?

The curriculum

• Is the approach child-centered and challenging enough to develop each child’s strengths and love of learning?

• Are the course offerings sufficiently extensive to meet your child’s needs?

• How many co-curricular activities (arts, sports, clubs, community service) are offered?

• What types of standardized tests are offered, and how do the students perform?

• In the last year, what universities accepted the school’s graduates?

The teachers

• What are the expectations for staff about students of high ability, special needs, ESL, other areas?

• Are all the teachers certified?

• Does the school support professional development, so teachers learn and apply ‘best practices’?

• What percentage of teachers has earned advanced degrees?

• During your visit, are the teachers available and friendly?

The school

• Is the school accredited?

• How many years has the school existed?

• Are all facilities such as libraries and IT state-of-the-art and well maintained?

• How long will it take for your child to get to school?

• What security precautions is the school taking?

• Were all questions answered in a straight-forward manner with documentation readily offered for claims?

Your involvement

• Does the school have a strong sense of community in which you and your family can play an active and happy role?

• To what extent can you be a partner in your child’s learning?

• Does the school offer opportunities for parent education?

• Are there opportunities for you to contribute to the school by sharing your own skills and knowledge?

The conversations that emerge from these questions will certainly get you started! In the end, however, schools are a bit like people. They all have ‘personalities’, generating a particular feeling or atmosphere, which goes way beyond a simple analysis of the curriculum offered, number and range of sports teams or success in getting kids into the best colleges. These factors are, of course, important, but there is often more to making the decision.

Many families, after they join the International School of Brussels (ISB), for example, explain how their eventual choice of school was based simply on a sense that ISB and the experience it offered was the right fit for their children and the family as a whole. For some people, the decision is easy. It is literally, love at first sight.

For others, it is a growing sense of trust in a particular school. In the end, however, the best schools are not out there giving you the ‘hard sell’ – even in times of global financial crisis. They are simply wanting to help you choose the best school for your child, even if it isn’t theirs!

Dr David Willows is the director of external relations at the International School of Brussels, Belgium

A guide to choosing an international school

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