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What to consider when looking for an international school

by | Mar 26, 2024

Finding the right school is one of the top concerns for families making an international move. Sally Robinson answers some of the most frequently asked questions.

Q: Do I need to use an education consultant?

It is not essential, but it can be helpful, especially for families moving internationally. Working out the educational landscape in a new city is overwhelming and an education consultant with local knowledge can be invaluable.

“Parents always talk about the names of schools, but that is irrelevant: they should be asking what does the right school for my child look like?,” says Catherine Stoker, founder of The Independent Education Consultants, which advises on schools in the UK.

A consultant can help families work through what is right for them and their child and might suggest schools they may not have thought of or known about. International moves also often take place in tight time frames. Having somebody who can jump in and help sort out a school place can therefore be crucial. Good education consultants have strong relationships with schools and can provide inside knowledge as well as guidance on preparation for interviews and entrance exams. They can also be helpful in knowing the landscape for children who are gifted and talented or have SEND requirements.

“The real benefit is an independent perspective,” says Stoker. “All parents come in with pre-conceived ideas. There is so much dinner-party banter around the subject and everybody has an opinion. An education consultant can help parents look at all the factors. We are a sounding board, here to listen and facilitate.”

Q: What should I look for when choosing a school?

Facilities, curriculum, location, academic results and teaching staff are all important, but gut feeling can often be the deciding factor in choosing a school. Parents can often sense which school feels right for their child.

Prepare a checklist of things to think about including curriculum, class sizes, nationality mix, extra-curricular activities, facilities and academics. Work out which of these are important and prepare a shortlist of schools that tick the boxes.

Most countries give a quality assurance rating to schools, but it is also worth looking for schools accredited by organisations such as the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) or the Council of International Schools (CIS).

When you look around the school be prepared to ask lots of questions. Often, a current pupil will conduct the visit, which is a great chance to chat informally about the school.

Requesting a meeting with the head is also a good idea. They set the school’s agenda and it is their approach to education you are buying.

“Schools have increasingly sophisticated glossy marketing, but you need to meet the people you are going to entrust with your child,” says Stoker.

Q: Which curriculum should I choose?

Most international schools offer three main choices: the British curriculum, (incorporating GCSE and A levels); the IB; and the American curriculum, which all allow for a seamless continuation of studies anywhere in the world.

There is no “best choice”, rather it depends on factors including what curriculum the student is already familiar with and their academic strengths.

“We recommend families choose a widely recognised, international curriculum which is offered in multiple regions and recognised worldwide,” says Amelia Buckworth, education manager at international education consultancy, Quintessentially. “Depending on age and stage, it is often preferable for the child to remain studying the same curriculum in their new country, especially for families who are required to relocate every couple of years.”

The British curriculum is the most popular in the world, offered at 30% of international schools globally. According to ISC data, 160 countries worldwide offer their students a British international curriculum. A levels are the most the popular qualification, offered by 34% of international schools compared with 26% offering the IB.

The US curriculum, leading to the High School Diploma, is an obvious choice for students who want to go to university in the US, but it is also increasingly recognised internationally. There is no US national curriculum, but students study a broad range of subjects to the end of high school.

IB is increasingly popular in international schools and offers four programmes to over 1.95 million students aged 3–19 globally. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of IB programmes worldwide has increased by over 30%. In many schools, the IB diploma is studied as an alternative to A levels. What’s the difference? A levels offer a deep dive into a narrow band of subjects where IB has a broader curriculum based on critical thinking and project-based learning.


Q: How can I prepare for school entrance exams?

Approach the whole entrance exam scenario with a relaxed, open attitude. Tests and interviews are stressful and it’s helpful to explain not everybody gets into every school: it’s not about success or failure – it’s about finding the right sort of school.

Many schools now use adaptive academic profiling tests where the better the child does, the harder the questions get, which determines where a child sits compared to their peers. The tests are usually a mix of verbal and non-verbal reasoning, plus maths and English. It’s not possible to revise as such, but there are plenty of online resources, which allow students to practice verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

Interviews are still important, particularly for boarding schools where students have to live and work together. The bottom line is schools look for hard-working, sociable students who can add something to the school community. Remember, it is always a good idea to have a few well-thought-out questions up your sleeve.

“We do a lot of work on interview preparation but we call it confidence building,” says Stoker. “We don’t practice answers for particular questions but we build conversation skills.”

Q: What happens if we need to relocate in the middle of the academic year?

International schools are used to taking children in throughout the year and while it is preferable to start at the beginning of the academic year, mid-year moves are common and easily accommodated.

For families considering an international move, it’s never too early to get in touch with potential schools and register your interest. International schools are used to fielding enquiries from potential families and many have fast-moving wait lists.

“International schools are typically much more receptive to mid-year starters as they often have a rolling admissions process,” says Amelia Buckworth, education manager at Quintessentially. “Apply to schools offering the student’s current curriculum to cause the least disruption to the child’s learning.”

It is also worth enquiring about cut-off dates for each year group. Some children benefit from repeating part of a year to allow for any break in learning due to the move.

Q: What should I look for when moving a child with SEND?

Although the situation is improving, moving a child with special educational needs internationally can be a challenge. Many schools simply do not have the correct level of expertise to support every child who needs help.

“The reality is that there is disparity in the quality of SEND provision wherever you are in the world; including the UK. You will need to do some serious research and in some countries there will not be much of a choice,” says Paul Bray, director of SEND International, which provides training to schools globally. “Ultimately, your intuition will tell you what you need to know.”

Think about what level of expertise your child needs, says Louise Dawson, a Dubai-based inclusion consultant. “Research the school’s inclusion department and student support services, but be aware many countries do not require a special needs coordinator, or they may hire one without experience and training.”

Dawson also suggests looking for a school that embraces vocational pathways and courses outside the norm, such as ASDAN or BTEC. It is also worth considering how the curriculum is assessed – by exams or coursework – and if the use of readers and scribes are supported. “If you child needs a specialism like augmented communication tools, hearing support, visual support, speech and language, occupational therapy or specialist tracking such as SCERTS, be sure to have those conversations up front,” says Dawson.

Q: How do I prepare my child for an international move?

Honesty and transparency are key in helping children prepare. Focus on the positives and emphasise the exciting things about moving to a new country and new school, but acknowledge that leaving friends and family behind is hard too and really listen to your child’s concerns.

Let your child know that you will be making regular visits back to see friends and family, but if they are upset, listen and explain feelings are valid too.

Look at pictures of the new destination online together and get the children involved in choosing accommodation and places you might visit together. It is also worth asking the new school if somebody in your child’s year group can buddy with them before their arrival. That way, at least there’s a familiar face on day one.

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