Choosing a school
Senior deputy head teacher Stephen Martin surveys the processes and questions involved in choosing a school. Whether you’re concerned about class sizes, school facilities, transport, or all of these things and plenty of others, here are some useful points to get you started finding the answers.
In this article I take a look at a wide range of issues. I can’t pretend it’s exhaustive, but I hope that some of this advice is useful on your own quest to find the right school. Let’s start with something very boring and get it out of the way…
Application procedures can seem very onerous. Usually online applications are possible, but they often require the collation of supporting evidence, such as reports and references. Depending on the country you are moving to these documents may need to be attested by a solicitor and stamped by your embassy. Each school will have clear instructions regarding this issue, and most registrars are extremely helpful.
The school visit is key… It’s very useful to book a tour of a selection of schools so that you can make informed decisions – and it’s always better to have your children with you if that’s possible. They will immediately get a feel for a place, and being involved in the decision process can help give them a feeling of control. Always ask if you can meet some children in the relevant year group. On visits to my school I always take parents and children into classrooms, and invite a few pupils to come out to speak to the parents, and give time for questions to be answered. Ask to meet staff or heads of the departments in which your children are particularly interested. Ask if you can watch a lesson changeover – the way the pupils move around the school between lessons tells its own story. Academic success is not necessarily the most important thing when choosing a school. How friendly and supportive a school is can have a greater impact on your child’s happiness.
"Academic success is not necessarily the most important thing when choosing a school. How friendly and supportive a school is can have a greater impact on your child’s happiness..."
What happens on the first day? This is a question you could ask on your tour or once you have had an application accepted. The pupil cohorts in most international schools are quite transient, and schools are used to dealing with casual entries during the year. Usually a Head of Year, Housemaster or Tutor will meet new children in the morning and take them to their new tutor group. Children are then introduced to their peers and are usually assigned a buddy (a reliable member of the tutor group) to look after them for the first week or so.
Class size can make a big difference to the feel of a school. Smaller class sizes can obviously mean children get more attention from the teacher, but the number of teaching assistants is a factor as well. For class size, although this varies enormously, anything around 24 is quite common, and certainly less than the norm in the UK. Also enquire about the school’s policy on ‘setting’. At what age are the children tested and put into sets for core subjects like English and Mathematics? Are the sets fluid, allowing children to move up and down at regular intervals?
What’s the ratio of nationalities in the school? This is something parents often want some information about. One of the real educational advantages of international schools is that there are often children from many different countries. Even a British or an American school can have a very international flavour.
"Smaller class sizes can obviously mean children get more attention from the teacher, but the number of teaching assistants is a factor as well..."
School transport may be something that you need to think about. Traffic in major cities is often a problem, and you may not have a car when you first arrive in your new place. Find out in advance how children travel to school. Proximity to work/school can play a big part in your choice – it really does make a difference to the day (twice!) as every parent knows!
Opportunities for exciting trips are one of the great advantages of living abroad. Ask about the foreign or residential trips a school offers over the course of a year. Are all age ranges catered for? Are there some compulsory trips which you would need to budget for? Both questions are well worth thinking about if it’s an area you’re especially interested in.
Homework may be a consideration for you – and even if it isn’t, children often want to ask about it! Anything up to three pieces of homework per night is quite common in Senior Schools, but the volume may be considerably less in Junior/Prep schools.
The structure of the school day (including the frequency and length of lessons) is always worth asking about. Start and finish times vary considerably across the international school sector. Some schools have a long lunchtime and others have a much shorter break. Often schools have enrichment activities running at lunchtime or after school, and this may affect the time you pick up your children.
"...opportunities for exciting trips are one of the great advantages of living abroad..."
Food, glorious food – does the school have a dining hall/canteen, and if so what are the procedures for purchasing hot/cold food? Ask to see example menus, and find out if children can bring their own food (and not just whether they can, but what most children actually do). Children may need to be dropped at school early, so ask if there is a breakfast club; and if enrichment activities take place after school, are refreshments and snacks available?
Enrichment activities and opportunities to pursue interests/hobbies outside the classroom are extremely important. Take time to find out what the school offers beyond the classroom. Sport (usually a plethora of activities), Drama (clubs, productions etc) and Music (along with individual music lessons, are the norm, but ask about debating, Model United Nations, technology, World Scholar’s Cup, etc. Schools should be really selling this to you! Children remember this aspect of school life far more than the geography lesson they had last week…
Library and study facilities is an area to look at when visiting prospective schools. How much does the school value independent reading and research? What are the facilities like for e-learning?
Pastoral systems are the key to a school’s ethos and work ethic. What is the structure within the school for pastoral care – Housemasters, Heads of Year, Tutors? Is there a House system?
Duke of Edinburgh/International Award offers pupils the chance to earn their Bronze, Silver or Gold Award by taking part in expeditions, learning new skills, giving back to the community, and taking part in a sporting activity. This is an award which is valued in many countries and certainly adds depth to a CV.
Subject choice at GCSE/A Level/IB/etc is extremely important if your child is looking to move into Year 10 or Sixth Form. The breadth and depth of the curriculum has to be suited to the needs and strengths of your child. What is the structure of the option blocks, and which examination boards does the school use? UK examination boards are moving to linear style exams, but the CIE Board will remain modular for schools overseas.
Language options need to be considered. For example, not all schools offer the same choice of languages in Year 7, and some schools introduce extra language options at GCSE Level.
Good luck with your search!
"The breadth and depth of the curriculum has to be suited to the needs and strengths of your child..."