Choosing the right school: top tips for relocating parents

Relocating with your family – be it domestic or international – is an exciting adventure, but it can also be a daunting prospect. Georgina Probert offers some practical tips and advice for relocating parents on researching and applying for a new school.

For relocating parents with school-age children, finding the right institution that provides the perfect balance of education and quality pastoral care is a crucial part of the moving process, as well as making sure your child's education does not suffer any disruption.

Continuity in education is hugely important, with the consistency of curriculum, assessment and teaching approaches all important factors in ensuring students enjoy smooth progress through their studies, wherever they live. Other factors to consider include the school's primary language if you are relocating to a different country, the application process and waiting list, school fees, and whether it is situated in a convenient location.

Applications – be prepared

Ideally, you should start researching the different education options a year or more before you want your child to attend. Make sure you check whether the school will take children mid-way through the academic term or year, in case your assignment doesn’t coincide with the start of the school year.

The good news is that many international schools are used to accommodating new families joining the school throughout the year and will know how to support your application quickly and efficiently or refer you to another school. For private schools and State schools, the situation may be similar – it does very much depend on circumstances at the time.

The schools included in our Guide to International Education & Schools and Guide to Education & Schools in the UK are likely to be sympathetic to the needs of relocating families at all times of the year. Don’t forget that you can also call on the assistance of an Education Consultant to help you track down available places.

Many international schools do have waiting lists, but this may only be certain year groups, as families are moving all the time. Some will require documentation about your child's grades and others will ask for your child to sit an entrance exam. Another consideration is school fees; each company’s relocation benefits package will vary, so it is important to ascertain whether the school fees will be paid in full, a contribution or if you will have to pay for them yourself.

Curriculum choices

Once you have narrowed down your school search to those that are in a convenient location and are within your budget, you should look at the curriculum on offer. In most cases, globally mobile families need to make sure their children’s education is internationally recognised and can move easily between countries.

Many schools offer the International Baccalaureate or the national English or American curricula, as well as other national ones. Some schools may only offer one curriculum, whereas larger establishments may offer two or three. Think about your future plans and how long your assignment is for; will your child be changing schools in the next few years? Can you keep them on the same curriculum that may have begun at their home-based school? Will the curriculum be suitable for applications to UK-based or US universities, for example?

Switching to a new school can be daunting for any child, especially older children with exams pending. The student might worry that it will be hard to catch up or that other students will be more familiar with the education approach. These are all issues that you should be able to discuss with confidence with your chosen school or you can work through in advance with an experienced education consultant. Even if they have to change curriculum, there are always options – from tutoring to online studying. Don’t panic, as other children will have been through this before and there are experts on hand to help.

Andrew Coombes, director of the International Network at Cambridge Assessment International Education explains the benefits of the Cambridge International curriculum, "The flexibility and international nature of the Cambridge International curriculum means schools have the freedom to tailor the course content to suit their students’ local needs and contexts but the syllabus aims and assessment objectives are the same worldwide, so students can begin their studies in one country and complete them in another."

Language acquisition

If you are relocating to a country where the main language is not your native language, then you must consider language acquisition for your child. Many international schools will be predominantly English speaking and learning a second or third language may also be compulsory. There are, of course, Dutch, German, French and Japanese schools around the world.

You may wish for your child to learn a second language while you are on assignment or enrol them in a local school that only speaks the country's native tongue. If this is the case, language acquisition goals should be a topic for discussion. Deciding as to whether they will attain beginner, intermediate or native level should be strongly aligned to your choice of school. There are many international schools that teach a wide range of native languages to support the large number of nationalities joining their school.

Joanne O’Connor, community liaison officer at 3e International School, Beijing, explains, “When children learn the language of their host country, it has immense benefits, way above academic achievements. It increases their confidence in daily life with their interactions and helps them forge stronger connections and understanding with their new country and subsequent inclusive association as their new home.”

Also, there are lots of ways to broaden your child's language skills outside of the classroom, such as play dates with classmates, books, games, films, daily life excursions (such as to the market), and cultural trips.

Pastoral care

While academic success is an important factor to consider, the ‘right’ school for your child should also be able to develop and support their social and emotional skills. This will help to ease the transition to their new school (and potentially new country) making it as smooth and positive as possible.

Joanne adds, “At 3e International School we understand that learning both English and Chinese can be a daunting task and that children can exhibit different social reactions in each separated learning environment. For example, a native, English-speaking child may be confident and open in English class, but shy and reserved in Chinese class. We help support families through many open communication channels and support systems including email, face-to-face, social skills checklist reports, daily and weekly updates via the parent app ChildFolio, and a reassuring Learning Support professional on staff should the family need additional care.”

Arrange a visit

Once you have decided upon a school, it is recommended to make more than one visit – if this is possible. While your first impression will be gleaned through a school tour, experiencing the school from different perspectives – such as visiting during a public community event – can help you to gauge a greater feel for the community and consistency of the school philosophy in action. Usually, the energy, culture and values of a school are difficult to experience solely via a school tour.

Linda Belonje, marketing and admissions manager at the KIS International School Bangkok suggests making a shortlist of three to six schools and visiting each one. She says, "Try to visit during term time, as schools usually do maintenance during the holidays and you won’t be able to see learning in action. Make a list of questions of characteristics that are most important to you and bring this to each of your visits." Linda also advises parents to ask to be connected to other families at the school so you can also ask them questions.

If you do not have the opportunity to visit the school before making the decision (owing to it being in a different country, for example), you could arrange phone or email discussions with key admissions, academic, community and management staff, following them on Facebook or WeChat (in China), and viewing their event videos on their website.

Franne Van der Keilen, director of external relations at the American School of The Hague (ASH), explains that any school day is a good day to visit ASH. She says, "We believe that the best time to see our school is one that works for you and your child. We are people-centred and help families decide about the best fit for their children. For this, we always make ourselves available, answer questions with integrity and keep open communication lines with you to help strengthen the bonds we forge for many years following our first meeting. Remembering the importance of that first connection and nurturing positive parent relationships in combination with cultivating a positive student induction experience are key priorities to us."

Trust your instincts

It is unlikely that you will find the 'perfect' school that ticks ten out of ten boxes, so it is important to prioritise what is important for both your family and also your child’s interests and wellbeing. At the end of the day, while we want our children to be successful, we also want them to be balanced and happy. A school that cultivates and fosters children to explore, experiment and express themselves through curiosity and collaboration, as well as challenges them academically, will result in a confident, successful young adult.

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