Safe, happy and well-educated
As a soon-to-be or new expat, one of the most important and difficult decisions you will have to make is where your child will attend school. When considering school, most international parents have three main concerns: their children’s safety; their happiness; and the quality of their education.
By almost any measure, international schools in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are of the highest quality. They generally employ high-quality, well-trained staff from the Americas, Europe, the UK or Australasia and have excellent, secure facilities and highly qualified management teams. The majority of expats arriving in these cities report that international schools are safer than those they are used to in their home countries.
Adjustment to a new school can be a stressful and challenging experience for all concerned, especially when combined with a move abroad to a new country. However, we will provide you with all of the tools that you will need to make the process as simple and straightforward as possible, so that you can make the right choices for your family and your child’s education.
As above, the standard of education on offer at international schools in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai is of a uniformly high standard. Therefore, you can rest assured that your child will receive a top-quality education during your time abroad.
Choosing the Best School for Your Child
Finding the best school for your child means asking the right questions both of yourself (so you have fully understood and articulated your priorities) and of the school (so that you can ensure that your priorities are being addressed). Below are some areas where it might be useful to make a note of what you might expect from a school, and what you can reasonably expect a prospective school to be able to provide.
International schools will generally have impressive buildings, grounds, and teaching & learning facilities, so it is important to remember to look most closely at, and ask the most questions about, the school’s provisions that best suit your child’s interests and talents.
For instance, excellent sports grounds will be important if your child is actively involved in a team or competes in an event regularly, but of less interest if they are not especially sporty; therefore, it is important that a prospective school is made aware of and understands your particular needs and enables you to see and ask questions about things that are relevant to you.
Further to this, it is also important for you to understand how a school’s facilities are used. The benefits of a talented and inspiring teaching staff will generally outweigh any deficiencies in a school’s buildings or grounds and so asking questions and making decisions based on a school’s teaching & learning philosophy and co-curricular programmes is the best way to ensure that you are exploring all of your options and making the choice that is right for you.
As above, the quality of the teaching staff and leadership team is by far the most important criteria when choosing a school, but it is also one of the most difficult things to judge. The majority of international schools in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai employ accredited, western-trained teachers and so this can make distinguishing between them a difficult task.
For parents of primary school students, it will be extremely helpful if you are able to meet the teacher whose class your child will be in, as this is the person in the school with whom they will spend the most time and who will have the greatest influence on them. Ask yourself if you like them, have confidence in them and would be happy for your child to be with them for anything up to eight hours a day. It will also be useful to look for yourself at the work produced by pupils in the class (if possible, over the course of a term or a reasonable period of time) in order to see if the level at which the class is working would be appropriate for your child. Ask to have a look at the timetable to see if the school day looks balanced and contains sufficient variety, while a sample menu of school lunches might also help you in coming to a decision.
For parents of secondary school students, where pupils are usually taught by a number of different teachers, the most useful members of staff for you to meet will be your child’s prospective form tutor (sometimes called class teacher, or mentor), and perhaps the head of year (or the member of the leadership team with overall responsibility for your child’s year group). It would also be helpful for you to have a good understanding of the areas of study in which your child is most enthusiastic, or shows the most aptitude because, while a school will aim to have high quality staff teaching in all areas, having positive rapport with the member of staff who will teach your child’s favourite subject might be the factor that finally makes up your mind. It is important to keep in mind, however, that staff turnover is quite high at international schools and therefore it might be helpful to talk to that teacher about how long they plan to be with the school if you’re going to base part of your decision on the premise that they will be teaching your child.
Depending on your priorities, it will certainly be worth discussing with the school what it values most highly in its pupils. Some schools are unashamedly exam factories where academic achievement is prized above all, while others pay no attention to examinations and are far more concerned with pupils’ social, moral and spiritual development. Most international schools, however, tend to be a mix of the two, seeking to produce well-balanced high achievers, with a strong focus on global citizenship.
Therefore, in order to get a good feel for a school’s priorities, you might want to ask: what examination boards they use; how their results compare with both national averages and their immediate competitors; which universities their graduates go on to; what community service programmes pupils are involved; pupil participation in the International Award or similar development programmes; and the nature and focus of their mentoring programmes.
And, of course, if possible speak to the kids who go there. You can often find out more about a school simply by spending five minutes in the company of its most senior students – those who will shortly be on the outside world, as it were – than any amount of reading websites and meetings with senior leadership will tell you.
The location of a school may be a very important factor to consider, especially if your child is young. It’s important to consider how much travel your child can endure on a daily basis. It’s also important to consider extra-curricular activities and general school life, as you’ll need to make the trip to the campus regularly. It’s helpful to decide on a school before you decide where you’ll be living, or at least to do both concurrently, as this will help you mitigate certain factors and improve the quality of your choice.
One very important but often overlooked factor to consider when choosing an international school is the size, whether that be the overall size of the school as a whole or the size of its individual year groups or classes. Below are some issues related to school size that might help you as you make your choice.
One potential advantage of a small school is that the parent community there will usually have developed some very close relationships and social networks. When you first arrive in your new home, a close-knit well-established community could be just what you need to help you adjust to your new life and surroundings.
Although small schools may not offer the same breadth of choice for students in terms of sports teams, a pupil at a smaller school who may not be especially gifted athletically nevertheless often has a greater chance of playing on a school team that competes against other schools. Big schools will of course provide many opportunities for pupils to participate in intra-school competitions against their peers, but in many cases at such schools the competition to play in representative teams is intense and the majority of students therefore do not have the opportunity to experience this.
Falling Through the Cracks
One of the most significant potential drawbacks of a large school is that children who need special attention can sometimes go unnoticed. In a smaller school this is less likely to be the case as teachers will very often have more time and opportunity to support those pupils who need additional time and attention. Furthermore, even when student-teacher ratios are the same between large and small schools, in a smaller institution it might be easier for you to connect effectively with teachers, leaders and school administrators. Close and constant communication can be invaluable in helping you to feel confident and reassured that your child is on the right track, as well as for helping you to understand how best to guide and support your child at home.
The relationship between the size of a school and the effectiveness of its management can have a significant effect on the quality of the educational experience that the school is able to provide. A small school administered by a capable principal or headteacher will usually have a staff that is well managed, hard working and highly accountable. Senior leaders have opportunities to observe teachers regularly and to help them develop professionally, which also contributes positively to the quality of the education on offer. Those same capable leaders in a large school, with hundreds of staff to supervise and mentor, might not have the time to manage the professional development of individual teachers quite so closely. At the same time, a principal in a smaller school will come to know their students and the issues confronting them in greater detail, which means that there may well be a wider raft of support and pastoral programmes available, while you can feel assured that your child’s individual needs are being adequately catered for.
One area where there is a clear advantage to choosing a larger institution is in the number of academic and co-curricular choices that are available to secondary school students. A wider range of course choices means that pupils have more opportunities to pursue areas of study in which they are especially capable or interested, while at the same time it means that they may also have the chance to try something new and adventurous, be it an advanced design course, music tuition, advanced maths or a third language.
You and Your Child
While they are adjusting to a new and completely different educational environment, some children may need additional guidance and support and so in these cases the size of the school that you are considering might be especially important. In so doing, it will be useful for you to consider how adaptable your child is, how easily they make friends, and how well they respond to changes in their routine or the things with which they are familiar. You can help a great deal in this regard by becoming involved in school life yourself. Get to know your child’s new classmates and their families; offer to come in to school to listen to pupils read; support the school’s sports teams; or volunteer to be your class or year group representative. These sorts of actions can help you to engage with and understand the school so that you are able to provide support should your child need it at this important time.
The Selection Process
Now that you’ve looked at some of the many issues connected to choosing your child’s education, it’s time to begin the selection process. Given the wide array of choices available, it might be helpful to employ a process of elimination. Make a list of your top three priorities – the deal breakers – such as curriculum, fees or year groups offered, and make an initial run through our listings to begin eliminating schools from your list. Expand your list of priorities to six and begin your research into the schools by visiting their websites. Make notes on each school and when you’re finished, go through the list of schools again and reorganise them into a ranked list, from most to fewest matches.
Take your top five (if you have five left) from your list and dig deeper into each of the schools by visiting parent forums on websites. If you have specific questions about a school on your list, post a question and take account of the feedback. Be aware, however, that respondents may not always be trustworthy; they may be advocates or employees of the school you’re enquiring about or its competitors. That being said, these forums can be a valuable source of intelligence about schools.
If you want to eliminate any further schools from your list, do so at this time and then make a formal enquiry to the admissions offices of the schools remaining. It is at this point that you will be able find out which schools have places available, and those that have waiting lists, in your child’s year group. In this case, prepare to eliminate more schools from your list and perhaps to resurrect some of the schools that didn’t make it in to your top five. As a general rule, you should try to visit at least three schools before making your choice; in addition, once you have made a decision and decided on a school you should plan a further visit before accepting the offer of a place and paying your deposit.
Your visit to the school will probably be the final and most important part of your decision-making process. It’s during the visit that you’ll get a feel for what the school is really like. Despite your research, despite how widely you consult, despite how diligent you may have been, your final choice of a school may come down to instinct, a gut feeling that this is the right place for you and your family. It could be a simple as that!
At some stage during the admissions process you should get the chance to meet with the principal or headteacher, and this will be a valuable experience for you both. Again, you will want to feel comfortable and confident in this person, because ultimately they are responsible for how well your child is educated. Therefore, you can’t be too prepared for such a meeting and so the questions below may serve as a useful staring point for your discussions. However, it is of course also important to consider your child’s specific needs and refine and expand this list. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions, as the answers to those questions will tell you the most about the school.
- What is the school’s academic programme (i.e. IB, AP, etc.)?
- How will the school cater for your child’s individual needs?
- How can parents get involved in the life of the school?
- What are the respective sizes of your child’s class, year group, stage (e.g., early years, primary or secondary) and the school overall? How might this fit with your child’s development and needs?
- How convenient is the location of the school in relation to home and work and how much time would be spent commuting each day?
- Is the environment of the school one which will enable your child to thrive?
- Does the school offer a wide and engaging variety of learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom, including extra-curricular activities, community service and sports?
- By which educational and/or government bodies is the school accredited?
- Are there scholarships available for deserving or talented pupils?
- How ethnically, socially and culturally diverse is the student body?
- Is the school’s philosophy and mission statement appealing to you?
- What qualifications or awards are available for secondary students?
- What post-secondary institutions have alumni attended? What percentage of students proceed to post-secondary education?