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Choosing an International School

By Kevin Bartlett

Summary: Choosing the right school for your child, on top of everything else, is one of the most important decisions you will make as parents. But what should you look for in a school?

Moving Abroad - Choosing an International School

The business of international education

The origin of international education was largely pragmatic. With the post-war growth of an expatriate workforce, the need arose for English-medium schools in cities around the world.

Today, the business of international education is booming. With increasing numbers of globally mobile families, there are currently over 1000 international schools worldwide, with numbers continuing to rise by about 6 percent a year. Make no mistake, international education is a growth industry with a global annual revenue of over 4 billion US dollars.

Balancing idealism and pragmatism

Business is booming, and that means international schools increasingly have to be business-like. That is to say, whilst the majority of international schools are non-profit organizations, governed by volunteer Boards, they still have to balance their books. Costs are often high and schools rely on tuition fees, rarely receiving subsidies from host country governments.

Increasing numbers of schools in many cities also means greater competition for students. Marketing plans and sales forecasts are therefore as commonplace in schools as in any other company. There is also competition to recruit top quality staff, from an increasingly savvy "pool" of teachers, used to shopping around for the most attractive locations and/or compensation and benefits packages.

At the same time, however, the business of international education is not centrally about making the books balance. International schools have, from the outset, been dedicated to the challenge of developing educated, ethical, empathetic individuals, capable of "making a difference" in future society. Many of us who have been involved in international education over the years, are deeply committed to the ideal that education does make a difference. In short, we believe that the experience we offer and the service we provide to globally mobile families can literally make a better future for our children.

Choosing the right school

The practical experience of being an expatriate family can often be daunting, particularly if this is a first international assignment. Despite the lure of a new lifestyle, settling into a new location is always stressful.

Choosing the right school for your child, on top of everything else, is one of the most important decisions you will make as parents. But what should you look for in a school?

Here are a few questions that might guide the decision-making process as your review school materials or, better yet, visit the school:

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?
  • What programmes are in place for drug and alcohol prevention?
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?
It is important to find the right fit for your child. Take time, therefore, to make the right decision - the quality of your child's education will impact his/her future. It is important to ask questions and to ask for documentation to back up claims. You will never regret the time you invested in making the right decision and providing the very best education for your child.

About the Author

Kevin Bartlett is currently Director at the International School of Brussels and Board Chair of the Council of International School.

Established in 1951, The International School of Brussels (ISB) is the oldest and largest international school in Belgium. Today, with 1500 students aged 2 to 19 from 70 nationalities, it offers a challenging, inclusive international education designed to give every student opportunities for success within and beyond our school.

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First Published: Jul 12, 2008

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