Last update on May 01, 2019

Choosing whether to send your kids to a local European school or an international school while living abroad can be a tough decision. Here are some tips to help you choose a school abroad.

What factors should you consider when finding a school for your child after moving to a new country?

Finding a high-quality school for children is undoubtedly the number one priority for any expatriating parents. Some opt for a local school. Others rather prefer an alternative, such as international school. The choice is often difficult and the implications potentially far-reaching. So, how do you get it right?

Researching potential options is always a good place to start. But what you usually won’t find out are the reasons why parents picked a certain school and what they think of it now.

Finding a school in a new country

Once you’ve made a shortlist of educational institutions; contact them directly for detailed information. It’s also a good idea to visit any school before you make a final decision. Make sure you find out what the school’s attitude is towards the realities and needs of multilingual children and what kind of support is given to families that do not speak the local language at home.

Also, review the social aspects, the curriculum, the kind of qualifications, and the extent to which parents are encouraged to be involved with the school. If your child is likely to go on to higher education, you also need to find out how attending a particular school will affect any future plans.

Local schools

For young children, attending a local school may be a good option. It helps them to learn the local language. In this way, children adjust quickly to the local culture and establish friendships close to home.

“Obviously, every child is different and their capacity to adapt will be different as well,” says an American mother of three who lives in Paris. “For us, [the local schools] worked out well. My children are getting a good, solid education. And it’s so much easier going to a school that is nearby.”

Most primary schools in highly-developed countries offer a solid foundation for further studies. Nevertheless, it is important to take a good look at the school’s curriculum. It might be different to what your child is used to, and may include certain cultural or religious topics. The atmosphere at local schools can also vary greatly. For example, local schools in Belgium and France are much stricter than those in Denmark.

International schools abroad

If your child is older than 10, local schools may no longer be a suitable option. Learning a new language and fitting in socially can be more difficult at this age. Also, for continuity reasons, an ordinary local school may not be the best choice.

Therefore, many expatriate parents with older children will consider an international school. These schools either offer a curriculum specially designed for international schools, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). They may also offer a national curriculum from the country of the school’s origin, such as a British International School.

Finding a school in a new country

For primary schools, there are the IB’s Primary Years Program or the fast-growing International Primary Curriculum.

Unfortunately, high demand for these institutions means that finding a school can be a chore in itself. International schools are expensive, sometimes poorly managed, and often require a lengthy commute. There may also be extremely long waiting lists. Schools in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore are charging parents more than €10,000 to place their children on a preferential list. However, this still doesn’t guarantee admission.

Boarding schools are another way to maintain educational consistency. However, the decision to send your child to a boarding school is usually not taken lightly. Luckily, boarding schools are now a far cry from the cold, distant places people usually imagine them to be. A mother of three, who spent the last 27 years in the Middle East, explains:

“Our two youngest children are in school here in Saudi Arabia. But our seventeen-year old son is at boarding school in Bahrain. Life for teens in Saudi Arabia is very different. My son came here after spending five years back in the United States; he disliked it immediately. Now he is having a blast in Bahrain.”

Homeschooling abroad

If finding a school abroad isn’t an option, you may consider teaching your child yourself. While some parents embrace this option wholeheartedly, for others it is borne out of necessity. The latter is true for a Canadian mother of two in South America:

“Homeschooling for me went from a serious consideration to an actual reality almost overnight when I researched the support networks available for parents and their student children. I realized how much better my children could fare under my own personal tutelage.”

Homeschooling is an option for expat families

While some parents mainly focus on teaching the child’s own language others teach a complete curriculum. The advantage is that they can take absolute control and responsibility for their child’s education. Parents can ensure a child’s education is not interrupted by a move abroad.

However, homeschooling requires a massive commitment in terms of time and discipline for both parents and children. In addition, it restricts the opportunities to make friends and learn the local language. Parents often try to solve this by getting their children involved with local events, clubs, and sports teams.

Best for your child

Whatever educational system parents choose for their children while living abroad, “as long as you are making the decision based on what is best for your child, you will make the right choice,” says a German mother in Singapore. “We researched all options extensively and enrolled our child in the local school, but all my friends’ kids are in international schools. We each chose based on what was best for our kids and in the end that is all that matters.”

Country-specific information on finding a school abroad

Visit the Education section of Expatica’s country sites for country-specific information on finding a school abroad: