International School Guide For Expats

International School illustration

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Relocating overseas with your family can be incredibly exciting, but one of the very many factors to consider is your children’s international school.

Expats often prefer international schools since they offer education tailored to your child, such as:

  • Lessons taught primarily in English.
  • The teaching of the local language.
  • Help to adapt and learn about the national culture.
  • Opportunities to meet other expat children.
  • Smaller class sizes and more dedicated support.

Of course, costs are always going to be one of the critical criteria. Unfortunately, the most exclusive international schools can be costly and often carry long waiting lists – so being prepared and beginning your search as early as possible is often beneficial.

Here we’ll explore a checklist of all the things to consider when deciding which international school is the best fit for your child.

Applying For A Place In An International School

The best international school for your child depends on so many things – and a lot should rely on your child’s personality, interests, strengths and weaknesses.

For example, an academically focused school will challenge gifted students and help them to excel. Children with additional needs will require an international school with a supported provision to help them grasp the foundation subjects.

Therefore, it isn’t as simple as choosing the school in your new home country with the best grades or the highest prices.

First, we’d recommend thinking about what priorities matter most to you and your child and making those the key factors in any shortlist you create.

It’s also wise to bring your children to any school visits or meetings with the teachers. You will get a great idea about how they feel about the environment and whether the teachers engage with your child.

Is The School Accredited?

There are benchmark questions to investigate before even thinking about which schools suit your needs:

  • Does the school have recognised accreditations?
  • How many years has the school been established?
  • What facilities are available – such as IT equipment, science labs or libraries?
  • How far away is the school from your new home?
  • Is the school safe and secure?

Once you feel that a school meets your requirements and is a well-respected educational institution, it’s also crucial to think about the application process.

Many international schools will have:

  • Waiting lists requiring students to enrol the term or year before.
  • Rules about expat children joining midway through a school term.
  • Open days or meeting slots to enable you to meet the teachers.
  • Deposit requirements to secure a place, often a term’s fees upfront, plus a term’s fees as a holding deposit.
  • Strict limits on class sizes and limited places available.

While you may be lucky enough to have a prestigious international school just around the corner from your new home, it’s essential to inquire about these factors before depending on being allocated a space.

Can You Afford International School Fees?

There’s no getting away from the fact that international schools are often the most expensive option for expats moving abroad.

Budgets are a reality, so it’s essential to consider the annual fees, deposit requirements, and other expenses required. The worst outcome would be to select an international school above your budget and then need to disrupt your child’s education later down the line.

Remember that fees are just one of the outgoings you might need to cover – other costs include:

  • Uniforms.
  • Equipment and resources.
  • School trips.
  • Extra tuition if required.
  • After school or breakfast clubs.
  • Lunches.

Yearly fees are not an accurate indication of the total budget you’ll need for an international school, and costs are also likely to increase year on year.

Those fees reflect the learning stage in many countries and will be highest in the most critical years when important exams occur.

Are The Teaching Styles And School Values A Good Fit?

When you’ve shortlisted international schools that you think cater to your child’s educational needs and are affordable, it’s then time to compare the school’s ethos and values.

Here are a few things to look into:

  • Is the school all about a well-rounded education? Do they teach children about the local culture, social responsibility, sports and music – or is it solely academic?
  • What size are the classes, and how does the school communicate progress with the parents – are there regular parents evenings?
  • Do the children have options about which subjects they study for exams, and are there provisions for after school clubs and social activities?
  • Is the school religious, and if so, how does that integrate into daily school life?
  • What do the classrooms look like? Is there a library, areas for children to relax, and does it feel like a space where your child will thrive?

It’s also important to ask about disciplinary procedures. For example, while corporal punishment is an outdated relic in the UK, only a small number of countries have banned this altogether.

Pastoral care, learning support, and help for new students to settle and adapt to their life overseas are vital for expat children to flourish in their new school environment and make the transition a little smoother.

What Is The International School Curriculum?

In the UK, schools follow the National Curriculum, so we’re familiar with stages such as GCSEs, SATs tests, A-levels and exams.

The table below shows an overview of the key stages and what age groups they cater to.

Key stageAge groups
Early years – nursery to receptionThree to five
Key-stage one – junior schoolFive to seven
Key-stage two – junior schoolSeven to 11
Key-stage three – senior school11 to 14
Key-stage four – senior school14 to 16

Although nearly all British schools will follow the general exam structure, private schools and academies don’t necessarily follow the same curriculum.

However, international schools might look very different in terms of how educational stages are broken down. For example, in America, the system works as follows:

  • Preschool: ages three to five.
  • Elementary school: ages five to eleven, grades kindergarten through to grade five.
  • Middle school: ages eleven to fourteen, grades six to eight.
  • High school: ages fourteen to eighteen, grades nine to twelve.

International schools tend to either follow:

  • The national English curriculum.
  • An American-style curriculum.
  • The International Baccalaureate.

There are other national curriculums, and while smaller international schools will usually offer one option, larger ones may have two or even more curricula to choose from.

It’s wise to make decisions based on the curriculum your child was taught before. This ensures they benefit from consistency and won’t join a class where the material taught is far ahead of their existing knowledge or covering old ground.

Co-Educational Or Single-Sex International School?

Next up, you will need to think about whether you prefer a co-educational or single-sex school. International schools often offer a single-sex option in countries or cities where there is a large expat population.

While studies indicate that girls perform better academically in single-sex schools, this decision is very personal to your family and what teaching environment they have been used to before.

Where you have the opportunity to talk to other parents, it’s well worth taking up as they can provide an insight into daily school life that you’re unlikely to get from the brochures or school tours.

Getting To And From School

Back to practicalities, with the need to think carefully about how you would manage the day-to-day school run.

  • Does the school offer transport, or would you need to drive or rely on public transportation?
  • How long does the trip take from home each day?
  • If you’re unsure where you will be living, are the rents or property prices near enough to your preferred schools within your budget?
  • Is the public transport provision safe, affordable and reliable?

Once you know that you will comfortably be able to get your child to and from school each day, it’s also vital to look into how the school day works:

  • What time does school start and finish?
  • Are after school activities encouraged, and if so, what times do they run until?
  • Does the school supervise children or wait with them until they are collected at the end of the day?

Most schools will offer lunches, breakfast clubs and snacks for younger children. Take a look at the menu to ensure nutritious options and whether the school can cater to dietary requirements if your child has any allergies or intolerances.

Is There Extra Educational Support For Expat Families?

Should your child have any special educational needs, you need to select a school that offers extended support.

In the UK, this is often managed by a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator). This staff member will be your main point of contact to ensure your child is getting the best help with their education.

International schools may or may not have the teaching skills, capacity and staff to deliver specialised assistance, and the cost of private tutors can be prohibitive.

How much do international schools cost?

International schools vary wildly in costs, depending on the school’s reputation and prestige, demand for places, and the country in question.

The International Schools Database reports on the average annual prices of international schools for 2020, with the most and least expensive as below:

CityMedian annual cost $Median annual cost £
New York$39,898£28,700
Beijing$35,233£25,400
Shanghai$30,146£21,700
London$21,787£15,700
Phnom Penh$5,000£3,600
Copenhagen$4,818£3,500
Cape Town$4,151£3,000

International School Frequently Asked Questions

What questions should I ask when visiting an international school?

The right school for your child will be where they feel confident, supported, and have the teaching they need to excel.

Some of the critical questions for expat families include:

● What do you do to help new foreign national children settle in?
● Can parents get involved with the school – is there a parent’s association?
● Are there any plans for the school, such as changes or expansions?
● What are your policies on discipline, bullying and mental welfare?
● Can you support children with special education needs or mobility needs?

What are the differences between international and state schools?

International schools are created to teach local children and families of foreign nationals. They can be found worldwide in popular destinations, mainly in the larger cities where professionals often relocate for work.

There are usually several options:

● Public or state schools – managed by the national government, teaching the national curriculum usually in the native language.
● Private schools – funded wholly or partly by tuition fees and managed by a private board.
● International schools – usually in major cities catering to children of expats and local families, often teaching primarily in English.

Do children at international schools perform better on their exams?

Sometimes, but not always. It depends on what sort of exams your child is studying for, what areas of their education they need the most help with, and whether they are creative, academic, sporty or have other interests.

Many expat families prefer international schools since they usually cover international educational topics and deliver more rounded tuition.

Expat children benefit from tailored teaching in their native language; often with the choice of learning alongside the curriculum they are already familiar with.

However, it’s vital to assess the school’s teaching style and values to ensure these are consistent with the education you wish for your child to have.

Do expensive international schools provide the best education?

Again, this depends on the school, their quality of teaching, and how competently they support each student.

International schools often have smaller class sizes and recruit highly qualified teachers, so they generally tend to have a better teacher to pupil ratio, and therefore more dedicated education.

Below is a list of some related articles, guides and insights that you may find of interest.

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