Selecting local schooling for your expat child
When you relocate to a different country, there is a lot to consider, the obvious culture shock being the main concern. When you move abroad with children, there is a lot more to organise. Luckily, children are usually very adaptable and there are simple ways to help them integrate into the new culture.
Staying in that country on long term or permanent basis means that confining your children to an international or English-speaking school or home school system may not be the best option. In this case, the benefits of sending your children to a local school will usually outnumber any drawbacks. We also take a look at some of the differences you may encounter.
School age variations
Certain countries have a later starting age for children than others. Finland, for example, has children starting school at the age of seven, compared to UK reception age of four or five.
If you’re relocating with young children, we recommend researching the specific age your child will need to start school. You will also need to consider the options of kindergarten and pre-school and find out for yourself which is best. You may want to have your child at home before starting school, or alternatively have them integrated with other local children they can potentially maintain a friendship with throughout school.
Term or semester differences
In the UK, and the rest of the northern hemisphere, we’re very much used to our set term times of September to June or July, so moving to a country (ie, in the southern hemisphere) where this routine is different can take some time to adapt to. For example, South African schools start their school year in January. And this includes the specific international school my daughter attends. That takes some getting used to after years of northern term times, I can tell you!
Australian schools have a similar system, starting in January or February depending on the schedule for the year. This may be a strange system to adapt to for children (but mainly parents) used to starting in September and mean that some will be in a different year and working at a different level than they’re used to. My daughter is actually working a year ahead of her British peers now, purely because of the term dates.
However, children can be very adaptable and shouldn’t have a lot of trouble coping with this. As I say, it’s the parents who find it harder to get used to! It is worth keeping an eye on your child’s progress if this is the case. If a child is falling behind they may need some additional academic support. On the other hand, if a child finds themselves put into a lower class than they’re used to and find the work too simple and frustrating, emotional support will be very necessary.
When you relocate to another country, children will often find learning the new language easier than their parents. The best way to help them get a head start in this is by immersing them in a local school rather than a purely English speaking one. Immersion is well known as the best form of language learning, and you can truly get this at a local school. This is true for adults and for children, but children acquire second languages at much a faster rate.
Spending time around children with different first languages will enrich your child’s life in their new environment. This is actually true of international schools too, but the language immersion isn’t there so the fluency may not happen. If your children choose to stay in your chosen country when they get older, having knowledge of the different languages will allow them to find further opportunities.
In some European countries, schools will offer classes and extra assistance to help English speakers catch up and learn the language. However, spending time around other children speaking the native language will serve them better in the long run.
Making friends with local children also helps a child adapt to their new environment and local culture. By allowing them to become integrated into the local community, the feelings of alienation will soon be alleviated. Having friends near their home is invaluable to help them settle quickly. Socialising like this will be an adventure for your children, and in no time at all, they’ll be talking excitably about the new things they’ve learned about their local friends – in their newly acquired language.
Expats often get a bad reputation for refusing to socialise with the local population. Why not prove the critics wrong and bring up your children to integrate in the culture? Encourage them to socialise with neighbours and engage with local clubs. Your children may be nervous at first, and have a natural shyness around their new peers. Encouraging them to organise play-dates and find out exciting facts about their new friends. What languages do they speak at home? What’s their favourite food to eat with their parents? Your support will mean a great deal to them, and help them to thrive with their new companions.
Cultural differences could be a step too far
With your encouragement and support, your children will thrive in a local school environment. In certain countries however, choosing an English school may be the better option as the educational culture may just be ‘too much’ for your family. For instance, local schools in South Korea have an incredibly competitive system. And other countries in Asia may have similar set-ups. In the UAE, international schools are full of children from different backgrounds and may be less of a culture shock than the local Emirati schools. Choosing international schools still offers an opportunity to mix with a diverse range of backgrounds, but local schools still have the edge with the immersion that your children will undoubtedly benefit from.
Expat children at local schools will have a worldly knowledge that their peers back at home can only dream of. Their cultural understanding and integration means that more opportunities will be open to them as they grow older in the new country too.
It is always worth researching your school options before relocating, but we recommend considering the local school system and what they can offer your children.
Choosing the right school for your child is one of the hardest decisions you’ll make as an expat parent when moving abroad. There are many education options around for expats, and so much depends on your individual family set-up and child that there is no ‘one-school-fits-all’ solution. Each child is different and each country’s school system is different, even within the ‘generic’ international schools. Also, families differ in their requirements and aspirations, and even relocations vary greatly. What worked well for you all in one country won’t necessarily be replicated in your next move.
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If you need advice on choosing a school overseas, or would like some practical and emotional support with creating your new life abroad, get in touch! I can help you navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas.
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I found it interesting when you said that spending time around children with different first languages will enrich your child’s life in their new environment. We just recently relocated to a new country due to my husband work, and we’re looking for an all-girls Catholic school for my daughter. I’ll keep this in mind when choosing a school for her.