Different types of international schools

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Many types of international schools; beating the confusion

Before you made up your mind to move overseas, I’m willing to bet that it hadn’t crossed your mind there were so many different types of school to choose from, let alone so many types of international school? It’s been a steep – and sometimes frustrating – learning curve. I hope that by sharing a little of the knowledge I’ve accumulated along the way, I can help you to avoid some of the pitfalls and choose the right educational setting for your expat child.

What is an international school?

Let’s start with the basics, which many of you will already know, although actually, it’s a bit of a loaded question because of the diverse nature of the schools we’re trying to lump together.

An international school is an educational facility for children aged between 2 and 18, that operates outside of the normal state system in any given country. Originally set up for the children of expatriates, these schools teach an international curriculum such as the IB (International Baccalaureate) and have international values reflected in the mission statements and their teaching ethos. These schools are populated by broadly multinational and multilingual pupils and staff, many of which come and go during the school year as the expat life can be transient to say the least.

The idea is of course that for those children who are on the move around the globe, international schools provide a form of stability; their values and teaching will be similar wherever you are in the world and it’s easier to transition from one International School to another, than it is to go through a wide range of local education provisions. A lovely idea – but due to the growing variety of international schools, many of which now accept local as well as International students – it doesn’t always work like that and you have to choose very carefully.

More about the IB (International Baccalaureate)

IB schools were built in recognition that as a greater number of families took to travelling, there was a need for an aligned and standardised curriculum to make it easier for their children to learn effectively. There are currently around 3000 IB schools across 245 countries, educating over a million international children between the ages of 3 and 19.

The IB curriculum is rigorously academic and achievement based and is crafted to give international children a head-start on acceptance into Universities. Teaching staff must be IB accredited and there are strict acceptance criteria for children – but also there is little doubt that this is the gold standard of international education and well worth looking at.

British, American and Canadian Schools

These international schools are in a category sometimes referred to as ‘original expatriate’, meaning that most pupils and staff (as well as the teaching curriculum) are from the one country of origin. This might be the best choice for a child who is expatriating for a short-term period with a foreseeable plan to return to their homeland, because they will be learning roughly the same curriculum content at roughly the same ages.

I say ‘roughly’ for a reason – it’s worth checking out what relationship each of these schools has with their native country. Some are very closely linked, with staff offered exchange opportunities and the same Senior Management Team and Governing Body – but some have drifted rather further away and receive no support or endorsement from the native Governments.

The British schools show the greatest diversity in this respect with some of them teaching almost nothing of the current British curriculum. To keep as close as possible to the original idea, look for schools that are members of COBIS (Council of British International Schools); many apply but only the best few are granted status.

International Group Schools

As the name suggests, these are groups of schools that all share the same management structure, curriculum, assessment method and values. A child could transfer quite easily from one school to another in the same group, even if they were in very different locations. Examples of group schools are:

  • GEMS – teaching roughly 142,000 students across 16 countries and committed to 4 core values that are integral in each of their schools regardless of location.
  • Nord Anglia, perhaps the largest group with 56 schools around the world including the US, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
  • Cognita – smaller but growing, with schools so far in 8 different countries.

Broadly international schools

These tend to have a curriculum that is broadly (and loosely) modified from one country but accept children and teaching staff from all over the globe. Instruction is almost always in English but the curriculum is tweaked to suit a huge ethnic diversity. These are perhaps the most international schools of all the categories out there and well suited to families of a very nomadic nature.

Local international or bilingual schools

This is the largest and fastest growing of the International school types. These are local schools, serving a local populace, yet also encouraging international students. Their curriculum tends towards being broadly similar to the host country but heavily modified to include most subjects delivered in English. These schools, despite the English language in many lessons, are considered immersive in nature; the overall language, culture and format is that of the host country.

Which type of school you choose for your child may be governed to some extent by your future plans. If you’re moving overseas with the intention of settling permanently, then you may find a local bilingual school is your best bet. If it’s a short-term assignment and you’ll be returning to your home country, a British, American, Canadian or IB school might offer your child a way to repatriate more easily. Or, if you’re planning to keep moving then an IB school, a group school or a broadly international school might allow your child to embrace his or her nomadic lifestyle.

Your child, your choice

Remember that even within these categories, individual schools will vary so look carefully at the culture behind each international school on offer, considering what sort of educational experience you want your child to have. It’s all well and good to choose your ideal school type but make sure the individual school can live up to your expectations.

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.

It’s easy to get very stressed at this point. Don’t panic! I’ve put together this book to help you kick-start your search for the best type of school for your child.

Now available on your local Amazon.

Get instant access to the key points you need to know right now with my abridged version eBook here

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