Last update on December 20, 2018

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.

‘It’s so much easier going to a school that’s nearby’

‘We chose what was best for our kids and that’s all that matters’

What factors should you consider when choosing a school abroad for your child?

Finding a good school for the 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?

Internet is always a good 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.

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 check out 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, to quickly adjust to local culture and to 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 is so much easier going to a school that is nearby.”

Most primary schools in the western world 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), or a national curriculum from the country of the school’s origin, such as a British International School.

For primary schools, there are the IB’s Primary Years Programme (PYP) or the fast growing International Primary Curriculum (IPC).

Unfortunately, international schools are expensive, sometimes poorly managed and often require a long commute. There may also be extremely long waiting lists. Apparently, schools in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are charging parents more than EUR 10,000 to place their children on a ‘preferential list’. However, this still won’t guarantee admission.

Boarding schools are an alternative 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 is very different. My son came here after spending five years back in the States. He disliked it immediately. Now he is having a blast in Bahrain.”

Home schooling abroad

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

“Home schooling 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, and realised how much better my children could fare under my own personal tutelage.”

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, which is not interrupted by a move or multiple moves abroad.

However, home schooling 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.”

By Karen Glerum / Global Connection / Expatica

Members of Global Connection can read more information in the Global Connection magazine.

Country-specific information on schooling abroad

Listings of international schools

Visit the A–Z listings on the relevant Expatica country site for a listing of international schools in your new country of residence.

Information on education systems abroad

Visit the School section of Expatica’s country sites for country-specific information on schooling abroad: