Expat and returning expat parents may feel intimidated about the process of finding the right school for their children in a foreign country. Differences in standards, practices, culture, and curriculum may collide with the particular needs of the children. To clarify some of the issues and provide some helpful tips in order to make informed decisions, X-Expats interviewed Jean Mann, Director, Client Relations at School Choice International, an organization established in 1998 that helps relocating and repatriating families choose the right schools for their children anywhere in the world.
X-Expats: What sets School Choice International apart from other organizations?
Jean Mann: School Choice International is a WBENC-Certified Women's Business Enterprise that works with global corporations and their relocating employees. We have a team of 90 experienced consultants, including special education professionals in 50 locations worldwide. In addition to our school placement services, we conduct research and policy analysis for corporations or governments seeking to make strategic decisions before embarking on international or domestic moves. We also developed the only web-based, self-serve resource to inform families about education across the globe.
Global Education Explorer enables families to compare curriculum, assessments, and customs between countries simply by inputting home and destination countries, and a child's birth date.
X-E: How far in advance do returning expats need to look for a school for their children? Are there regional differences?
JM: It is always helpful to be able to plan as far in advance as possible, although many relocating families do not have this luxury. This question is actually very complex, but some of the key factors to be aware of are: Age of child- generally the older the child, the more important the lead time. Families need to consider academics as well as a child’s emotional characteristics and interests – Sector the employee works in. Some companies or institutions have affiliated schools that guarantee placement, although not as relevant for repats. Lead time is less important in these sectors than in most other instances. Whether the family is considering public or private school. Private schools often have admissions deadlines that expats may not work for repatriating families. In more developed countries, public schools generally accommodate the relocating family as well as possible, but sheer size forces the public sector to focus on the mainstream children – and repatriating children are, by definition, not mainstream.. Schools in some cities are more competitive to relocate to than others. For instance, Hong Kong is notorious for its long wait lists. For families that do not have the benefit of appropriate lead time, it is very helpful to utilize an educational consultant who understands the schooling options in the new location, admissions criteria, academic and school activities and has relationships with school personnel.
X.E: What typical mistakes do parents make when looking for a school for their children?
JM: We find that parents often mistakenly rely too much on their colleague’s experiences or opinions, or ranking of the school without realizing the importance of their child’s learning style, character traits and other family values. Parents also place extra importance on the school’s prestige factor, or physical facilities, which may or may not correlate with the success of a child’s schooling experience. School Choice International feels there is a wonderful opportunity inherent in change. We hope parents consider their child, family values, and logistical concerns along with all their other desired school attributes to make each move, including the return home, a child’s best educational experience.
X-E: What factors should they consider when selecting and/or reviewing potential schools?
JM: There are so many factors to consider. For instance: is the family considering local schools or international schools? Educational approaches are important; some schools are traditional, with a teacher directing the classroom from the front of the room whereas others are progressive, which may be better for students that learn by doing and utilizing a more integrated curriculum.. Needs of expatriate families, th are often quite complex. Here are some of the issues expat families should be aware of: How are newcomers welcomed? How large is the international body? Do teachers understand that children may have learned curriculum in a different sequence, so that they may be ahead in some subjects but behind in others? Are students accepted mid-year? Is the school a social center for the expat community? Is English offered as a 2nd language? What percentage of the class is ESL, or local vs. expatriate?
X-E: What is the typical process to select and enroll in a school overseas? Are there specific documents, information parents need to have in their possession prior to initiating contact?
JM: Admissions criteria can vary by country, and sometimes by school. Most require visa information, proof of residency in the catchment area if the family is considering public school, the child's birth certificate and an immunization record. It is always helpful to provide report cards, a letter from a former teacher, and work samples such as artwork, a writing sample, and math work. If your child has special needs, it will be important to share this with the school principal to ensure they are aware of the type and level of support necessary and to discuss the program options available in the school or school district.
X-E: What are the major differences between international schools and local schools?
JM: There are many differences between international and local schools. International schools were originally founded to serve expatriate populations. Many of the first international schools were founded as a result of a foreign state department or military presence in a country. In today's global economy, now there is also a demand from multinational companies for this kind of schools. There were various impulses behind the creation of these schools. Most obviously, the schools provided instruction in a specific language if that language was not that of the host country. They also provide choices for families who prefer a curriculum and school-leaving qualification not offered in the local school system. These schools responded to families' desire to preserve their home culture in some sense. Today, financial considerations as well as global awareness make many families more open to local schools, depending on what educational experience the family is seeking for their child. International schools also provide a built-in community for expatriates. International schools can be defined by their curricula: they either offer a national curriculum other than the host nation’s, and/or they teach a specifically international curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate.
X-E: In your experience/opinion, do children of returning expats thrive better in an international school?
JM: The most important thing about a school search on repatriation is recognizing that the experience has changed the child. The children have studied different curricula, and may have been learning in a different language. In some subjects, they may be ahead, and in others, they may be behind. Advancing them or having them repeat a grade can improve some academic problems but can cause social/emotional difficulties. Some children will thrive in their former school, while for others the return home can be traumatic. As long as parents treat a move home as carefully as they would an overseas school search, reviewing alternatives and talking with their children, a positive outcome is likely to ensue.
X-E: Are there age-specific issues parents should consider?
JM: There are many factors parents should consider: curriculum differences, extracurricular activities, social dynamics, tests/assessments are often age/or grade related. Generally, the older the child, the more age specific challenges will be present. Nevertheless, the earliest years of mandatory schooling teaches skills and content that varies considerably by country as well, causing many parents of young children concern that an overseas move or a repatriation will place their child in a curriculum that is not aligned. It is important for families to be aware of key school curriculum changes or assessments at all ages.
X-E: What recommendations do you have to prepare children/teenagers for their change of environment?
JM: Preparation and good information is most important. Be open with your expectations. Understand the cultural context of the country will influence the school experience and that rules of the new country may not be the same as those back home – and that these differences should be discussed with parents.
X-E: Any educational resources/websites you would recommend for parents to consult?
JM: There are many excellent educational resources available for relocating families. The State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools provides excellent general information for US residents. For information on the International Baccalaureate programs and schools please visit The International Baccalaureate. For families preferring direct assistance, School Choice International provides many options for school placement assistance. Families can also subscribe to School Choice International’s web resource: Global Education Explorer. It will assist relocating families in determining how to prep for an interview, how to evaluate schools for your own child, how to determine admissions criteria in a new location, what children wear to school, the academic calendar in your new country, how holidays are celebrated in your new home, what your children will learn by phase/grade, what teacher gifts are appropriate in your new country, what children eat for lunch, and much more...
X-E: Thank you Jean for these useful tips and important resources. For more information on any of the above, please feel free to contact Jean Mann at
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