Expat Guide To International Schools

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International schools offer expat children an educational lifeline even when they are living thousands of miles from home immersed in a different language and culture.

International schools are the most popular option for foreign national kids by a long way, with lessons taught in English and a gentler easing into the social norms of a new lifestyle.

You’ll find international schools in just about every country in the world. Some of the major cities have several competing schools, all with outstanding accreditations and sometimes eye-watering fees to match.

Other schools are smaller, perhaps more affordable, and might offer a blended curriculum.

There are so many questions to consider, such as:

  • How will my kids cope with lessons taught in a foreign language?
  • Will they still be able to take UK qualifications like GCSEs?
  • Can moving abroad damage a child’s attainment prospects?
  • How much do we need to budget for a decent international school?

The key takeaway is that education is a worldwide amenity. You’ll find a range of outstanding schools with dedicated teachers and brilliant student support in most countries.

This guide looks at how the international schooling system works, what to look for, and how to verify you’ve chosen the right school for your family.

Local Schools vs International Schools

One of the first questions most expats ask when planning their relocation is whether their kids will be best off in a local school or an international institution.

In short, an international school caters to foreign national children, often teaching lessons in English and following the British or American curriculum.

They do charge fees, which can be high in some cases. However, the best schools often have lengthy waiting lists but superb standards and achieve excellent outcomes for their students. 

Some countries also have requirements for international schools to reserve places for local kids, so they can be a considerable mixture of children from a range of nationalities, making them an opportunity to learn the local culture and meet friends from around the world.

There are pros and cons to both options.

Advantages to Opting for a Local Overseas School

  • Public schools make it easier to learn the language or improve their linguistic skills.
  • It’s more natural to become immersed in the local culture by mixing with local children.
  • Learning a new lifestyle can be challenging, but making friends with peer group-aged children can make things more manageable.
  • International schools can be extremely costly, whereas public schools in most countries are free of charge.
  • You’re likely to find local schools on your doorstep, but depending on where you’re moving, you might have a substantial commute to the nearest international school.

Now we’ve considered why a public or state school might be a good choice; flip the argument to understand why hundreds of thousands of expat children are enrolled in international schools across the globe.

The Benefits of Choosing an International School

  • International schools often teach primarily in English, so the transition is less challenging.
  • Some offer the British curriculum with familiar qualifications such as GCSEs and A-Levels so that the change won’t disrupt children’s pre-existing learning.
  • If you are not living overseas permanently, an international school allows your child to continue learning the same curriculum and then carry that on when returning to the UK. 
  • There are sometimes several high-quality international schools to choose from, with different specialities, but only one or two public schools.
  • Many international schools offer extremely high tuition standards, including lessons in the local language to help expat children learn the culture.

While there are many plus points to opting for an international school, a lot depends on the country you are moving to and what the local educational standards are like.

If you relocate somewhere where English is the primary language, for example, it might be less of a problem since the state schools will teach in English, so your child won’t be trying to learn academic subjects in a language they aren’t yet fluent in.

Likewise, a country with exceptional educational standards may offer world-class teaching at their local schools.

Choosing An International School to Suit Your Child

The best starting point is to think about your child. 

Suppose they need extra support with a specific learning area or have SENCO assistance to help with their education in the UK. In that case, you may well need an international school with smaller classes and more dedicated teacher support.

Academically gifted children will excel in alternative schools to kids who thrive on sports and creative subjects, so it’s wise to consider the ethos and aims of any short-listed school – not just the practicalities and costs.

Your intended relocation destination will also be a significant factor:

  • Moving to a densely populated city such as Bangkok, Mumbai, or Dubai can mean it’s essential you choose a school close to where you’ll be living to avoid hours spent every day in rush hour.
  • Some countries have religious schools where rules may be dramatically different from the UK. So, for example, if you move somewhere where corporal punishment is still legal, you’ll likely want to avoid a local school.
  • Many warmer climates will have a more significant proportion of the school day outdoors. As a result, you can find schools with fantastic sports facilities, stables, swimming lessons and educational day trips.

If you are moving to a country with a strong expat community, you can consult other parents on local forums to work out where most kids go to school, and therefore where your child will make friends most easily.

Verifying The Accreditations Of An International School

Even if you’ve visited your selected international school and feel that it’s the perfect place for your child to thrive, it’s also advisable to do some research.

Remember that the most prestigious international schools can have extensive waiting lists. However, while there may be pressure to reserve a spot quickly, parents should always do their due diligence first.

There are lots of ways to research a school:

  • Join forums and local groups to learn from the experiences of other expat parents in the area.
  • Make sure the school has appropriate accreditation from a recognised educational body – see the list below.
  • Ask about the teaching staff, their qualifications and credentials.
  • Look into class sizes and teacher turnover. Schools with a longstanding management team and teachers who are an integral part of the community are the best bet.
  • Meet the principal or headteacher, and have questions prepared to ask about the school day, whether there is a PTA, extracurricular activities and clubs your child might like to join.
  • Check the university entrance track record for secondary schools. 
  • Review exam testing reports, independent assessments (similar to Ofsted in the UK) and ask about average SAT scores.

Here are some of the educational bodies that hold registers of accredited overseas schools:

Curriculum or RoleEducational Body
British Council of British International Schools (COBIS)
BritishFederation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISIA)
AmericanThe Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
Inspects COBIS schoolsThe Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI)
AmericanThe National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)
AmericanThe Council of International Schools  (CIS)
Overseas schools teaching the International Baccalaureate curriculumInternational Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO)

It’s well worth checking the school is accredited with one of these bodies and enrolled in independent inspections.

There are many more national bodies that manage international schools within their jurisdiction. If you are relocating to a country not listed above, it’s essential to check that any short-listed schools are correctly registered.

Qualifications received through an unaccredited school may not be recognised by another institution, such as a college or university.

Scheduling International School Visits

The best way to get a feel for a school community is to visit it in person. But, of course, that depends on whether you can travel to the country in advance or attend a physical interview if you’re relocating for work.

Many countries don’t allow expats without permanent residency status to use the public education system. So it might be that you need to secure a place in an international school before you can move.

There are several things you should ask when visiting a school for the first time – and factors that signal the school will be a good fit for your child:

  • What is the nationality mix of the school?

This element can make a big difference. An excellent balance of local students and children from different expat origins is a fantastic opportunity for your children to benefit from a multicultural learning experience.

However, if 99% of the student body is from a country where the language is different, it can be challenging for English children to settle in and make friends.

  • How will the school help your child with the transition?

International schools catering primarily to expats will have transition programmes, usually with a buddy system, so new students have a friend assigned to ensure they know their way around, have access to clubs and resources, and don’t get stuck.

If you do get the opportunity to visit, watch how the teachers interact with your child. 

Asking them questions, engaging in conversation and avoiding directing all of the discussion to their parents is a positive sign that they’re a student-focused school.

  • What are the meal arrangements during the school day?

Most good schools will offer a lunch service – but some don’t, so you’ll need to check. It’s also wise to ask for a copy of the menu.

For younger children who might be more particular with their foods, it’s essential to check whether there are alternatives if the general meals are unfamiliar or ask about vegetarian, vegan, or specialist diet alternatives.

  • What is the school ethos?

Every school has an ethos or mission statement, and it’s best to review this carefully in advance. For example, they might be an academic school, a linguistics academy, a sports college, or a drama and art school.

It’s also worth looking into other policies, such as discipline and student support protocols, to ensure you’re comfortable the school environment is suitable.

  • Are there any transport provisions?

A school bus service can be a massive advantage for expat families juggling a house move, new job, country, and new language. If there is a bus service, ask if seat belts are used (the laws vary in other countries) and check whether the transport is supervised, or drivers are suitably qualified.

Budgeting for International School Fees

Now, one of the primary considerations when choosing an international school is always going to be money.

Costs of international schools vary considerably, depending on:

  • The affluence of the country.
  • Local currency and the exchange rate.
  • The age of your child.
  • The popularity of the school.

In 2020, the International Schools Database published a review of the worldwide costs of sending a child to an international school.

As a rough idea, the below table shows a range of costs: the lowest annual fees, the highest, and the median average in a range of popular expat destinations.

LocationLowest Annual FeeHighest Annual FeeMedian Annual FeeRankings
New York, USA£16,375£41,792£28,4061st
Singapore, Singapore£3,191£27,423£15,37012th
Bangkok, Thailand£1,816£22,102£10,72221st
Rome, Italy£4,382£15,128£9,01828th
Dubai, UAE£1,650£18,587£7,99636th
Prague, Czech Republic£4,553£17,488£6,10449th
Algarve, Portugal£3,840£8,344£5,41558th
Cape Town, South Africa£1,480£4,071£2,95573rd

In addition to term fees, most international schools will also charge additional costs, such as:

  • Uniforms
  • Books and resources
  • Transport
  • Meals
  • Extracurricular clubs
  • Deposits
  • Private tuition

Most will have a holding deposit requirement and usually demand a term’s fees upfront to reserve the spot. This practice is standard, but it’s advisable to opt for a school that is transparent about its fee structures, so you’re not in for any nasty surprises.

Enrolment fees can be high in countries with a large expat community and where school places are in demand.

This charge is usually non-refundable and cannot be recovered if you decide to change schools later.

It’s also a good idea to research the financial status and ownership of the school. License holders in some countries can be individuals, so you’ll want a school with a professional structure, management team, and comprehensive educational and financial policies.

Choosing an International School Curriculum

There is often a choice of curriculums. For example, international schools may teach the British curriculum, which follows the UK standards and is familiar to children already in education.

This option is usually the most preferable since children can pick up where they left off at their previous school. In contrast, in some countries, kids start learning at age seven or eight, compared to four in the UK, so a different curriculum is likely to be at a different learning stage.

Many UK private schools have launched their international schools in foreign locations, mainly towards the higher end of the price spectrum.

Options include Harrow, Repton, Oxford High, Wellington College, Dulwich and Shrewsbury.

There is also the International Primary Curriculum, covering age’s five to eleven, and used in over 90 countries.

A further alternative is an International Baccalaureate school. The IB education system covers ages from nursery (starting at three) right up to 19, the equivalent of A-Levels in the UK.

There are four IB programmes, and each offers a standardised curriculum used in over 158 countries and taught to 1.4 million students.

What are the most important practicalities when choosing an international school?

While you need to be confident your chosen school provides the correct tuition, support and community for your child to thrive, it’s vital to think about the practicalities.

Here are some of the key considerations:

  • When does the school day start and end? Some schools start lessons as early as 7 am, particularly in very hot countries. For example, schools in Pretoria and Berlin begin at 7.30 am, and the end time varies depending on the day of the week.
  • Do they offer wraparound care? That might be after school clubs, breakfast clubs or sports activities after school, which are a lifeline for working parents.
  • How far is the school from your home? Larger cities can have chaotic roads, so is there a safe public transport network, or does the school offer transport? 
  • What will the school do in an emergency? Can you get there quickly from your home or place of work if needs be?

The closer to your home, the better. It makes the transport more manageable, but also means your child is likely to meet friends who live nearby and they can socialise with after school and at the weekends.

How can i research the reputation of a foreign international school?

There are many resources out there for expat parents looking for a reputable school in their new country.

Some of the review services for international schools include:

  • The Good Schools Guide – provides information and reviews on schools and tutors throughout the world.
  • International School Community – a forum and news network for international schools, with a premium membership option and a range of support services.
  • International Schools Review – reviews from teachers working in international schools. The site also provides lists of schools, ratings and reports from teachers, principals and school directors.

While some of these services charge a fee, they are a gold mine of information and independent reviews from teachers and parents who have attended or worked at the school.

Choosing an International School FAQ

How does the international baccalaureate compare to the British curriculum?

The International Baccalaureate was created in 1968, aimed at children of business people and missionaries travelling for work. The idea is that wherever a child lives in the world, their school will teach the same curriculum.
 
There are alternatives, but IB is one of the most popular.
 
When choosing between a UK curriculum school and an IB school, it depends on your child’s age, how long they have been learning in Britain, and whether you are likely to move again during their academic years.

Can I Switch to a Different Overseas International School?

Yes. A private international school differs from a state school in that you pay for the place and can choose to move your child freely if something doesn’t work out.
 
Suppose you enrol a child in a public school. In that case, there may not be another facility in the area, or places might be limited, so it would be up to the local authorities whether they were happy to offer an alternative placement.
 
However, if you enrol a child in an international school and have problems, or you decide the school isn’t right for you, you can usually move them with notice given to the end of the term.
 
Another option would be to remove them from school immediately and use a private tutor until you find another place – although the school is unlikely to refund your fees for the term, and you will probably sacrifice your enrolment deposit.

Is an International School Better Than a Local School for Expat Children?

Again, it depends. If you are moving to a country permanently, your child speaks the language (or the national language is English), or they are at preschool age, they will be in an excellent position to manage the transition to a public school.
 
If you intend to return to the UK or move again, an international school teaching either the UK curriculum or International Baccalaureate would be least disruptive.
 
It’s also dependent on the education standards in your new country. Some state provisions offer world-class education for no, or very low costs. In other countries, educational standards are poor and an international school would be more beneficial.

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