Choosing a school overseas
If you are able to visit your new host country prior to your move, you are in a prime position to visit schools in order to help you decide which one is best for your child and yourself. Select your preferred schools, phone each one and make an appointment to visit.
Even if you are unable to visit in person, these questions will help you work out how well your child will fit into the school.
Go with a list of questions as it’s easy to forget specifics. While the answers to many of your questions can be found on websites and in the school’s prospectus you do need to be aware of the carefully composed advertising literature.
Prioritise your questions in order of importance to you and your child. For example, if your child particularly interested in a specific subject such as science, sport or music then you need to ensure that school has good facilities and enthusiastic teachers in that area.
Updated 8th June 2019 to include valuable comments below in the body of this article as they are relevant to choosing a school in France for a Special Educational Needs child.
Some questions to ask when you choose a school
- Is there a place available for my child? If not, how long is the waiting list and when would they realistically be able to start?
- Are there any admissions tests?
- Is there a policy to admit siblings?
- What is the nationality and diversity of their students?
- Does the school advocate and work hard towards inclusivity?
- How many children are in each class? And how many per year group?
- What is the teacher to pupil ratio?
- How are students “streamed” for ability?
- How is diversity of ability dealt with in the class room, at both ends of the spectrum?
- Are measures in place to assist those with special educational needs and those who are gifted and talented?
- What is the staff turnover at the school like?
- How much homework can be expected?
- What subjects, sciences and languages are offered as exams in the later school years?
- What focus is there on life skills?
- How is religious education taught, if at all? How does this fit in with your personal belief and preference?
- What incentives, rewards and discipline systems are in place?
- What do they do if you have a student who is smart but is not performing?
- How do they identify students who need extra help?
- What do they do if a student isn’t coping with the workload?
- How do you help a student who is struggling?
- Where do the students go after leaving this school? Is further education facilitated by the school?
- How often do parents meet with teachers?
- What contact methods are there between school and parents?
- How do they help new kids settle in?
- What do I do if I have a concern about my child?
- What are the mobile phone, internet and social networking policies at school?
- Are parents involved immediately in issues such as bullying, behaviour or other issues?
- How does the school handle bullying? If any staff member says there is no bullying, be suspicious. Either they are lying or they are unaware due to failures in the anti-bullying system.
Extra curricular activities
- Which sports are available and where do they take place?
- What extra music tuition is available? Where and when is it held?
- What other activities are available? Lots of extra-curricular activities indicate that teachers are enthusiastic and prepared to put in an effort.
- Are the extra curricular activities free, or do they have to be paid for?
- Are there regular school trips?
- Are the buildings and facilities in good condition?
- Do students need to leave school grounds for any activities such as sports? If yes, how is this handled?
You may be surprised at some of the extra money you have to fork out. School trips, excursions and school uniform are expected expenses but can be costly in some cases.
However, we were horrified to discover at the last moment that we had to pay for all of our daughter’s stationery. Each subject specified certain items, and lots of them. I think we have eleven folders in total; each with precise paper requirements, special (expensive) pencils for art, portfolios, countless pads of paper, notebooks etc.
Chat to the current students. The school will probably draft a couple to show you and/or your child around. If the school tries to keep you away from the pupils, consider what they might be trying to hide.
Ask them questions such as what do you like about school? Who do you go to if you have a problem? What do the teachers do if you have a difficulty? Take into account the school will have chosen particularly good representatives to show you around.
A good question to ask is, “What was your favourite lesson this week?” A good answer would demonstrate enthusiasm and engagement as that that generally means the teaching is great. But if the reply is “Dunno.” Or “English – we watch videos all the time!” you may want to rethink your choice.
Your gut feeling
Hard to quantify, but you should be able to get a feel for the atmosphere in the school and have an idea whether your child will be comfortable there. And remember, your child is not you; the sort of school you would have enjoyed attending isn’t necessarily the same as the one your child will fit into best.
See how the teachers interact with your child; if they only talk to you and ignore your child then that is not good.
Of course, each school is different and your child may need you to ask questions specific to them. Hopefully this list will give you some ideas to start with, though.
Addendum June 2019
Schools in France, especially if your child has Special Educational Needs
Food for thought when making the decision to move your family to France with your special needs child. Our experience includes ADHD, Aspergers.
We are English speakers, and moved to Saint Martin D’Uriage August of 2017 with an 11 year old son and boy/girl twins aged 9. We installed them in the local school, Les Petites Maisons. Our older son has an IEP for learning difficulties posed by ADHD-Asperger’s.
Both of the CM1 teachers, for the twins, accommodatingly amended the CM1 curriculum to include them and to educate them. They even created a class for after school for both, twice weekly, to help them with french language.
The CM2 teacher, upon meeting older son, yelled at him “I am in charge!”, “It is I who command!” She had never met him before. Our oldest sat in the seat astounded, not understanding, fearful. Then the CM2 teacher turned and yelled at the director (also in the meeting) that she “I will not occupy myself with him!”
And she does not. 8 months have passed.
Our oldest son sits in the middle of the class room reading English series after series.
This, while I scramble for admissions elsewhere, which, you must know, is impossible.
Either you have your child enlisted for the following year, at minimum, 9 months in advance or you will need an act of God to install him into a school. There are lists and diligent parents are filling in applications years in advance.
Many articles from supporting friends back home appeared on my Facebook page after citing our experiences as I have stated above. Each article concluding the same, that France is 40 years + behind the rest of the world in accepting, recognizing and accommodating special needs children.
Note: Before moving here, we applied for ULIS and AVS, these are special services in France, to help our son in school. This was in early August of 2017. It is May 28, 2018 and we still have not received word, much less services.
Further, the social medical system quite literally blocks continuation of imperative medications for management ADHD-Aspergers. To see a pediatric psychiatrist who prescribes and manages dosages of your child’s medications you will wait up to a year to receive an appointment. Again, we moved here in August 2017, our son’s appointment was made shortly thereafter, our appointment is February of 2019.
Most of the medications for ADHD-Asperger’s are tightly controlled. Please note that if your child formally took Adderall, you will not find it in France or in Europe at all.
France is simply not equipped to help juveniles with special needs, in any way.
When you read an article that supports this claim, believe it, it is true.
My intent in sharing my story is not to disparage France in any way.
It is a beautiful culture and country.
Rather, please use this information to make informed choices for your special needs child(ren) and for the wellbeing of your family.
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.
For instant access to the key points you need to know right now, check out my abridged version eBook right here