Children's Education

How do I choose a good international school?

International schools continue to gain a reputation for preparing children for English-language higher education opportunities throughout the world. As an expat parent, what should you look for when you’re choosing a school for your child?

International school

By Adam Nowek

Updated 9-1-2024

Ten years ago, the chance of finding an international school in your new relocation destination was, at best, sporadic. As a result, many families had trouble choosing between a local school or an international school. Today, most major cities have at least one good international school, if not several. Most international schools cater to a healthy mixture of expatriate and local children. In addition, international schools have a reputation for preparing children well for English-speaking higher education opportunities throughout the world.

History of international schools

International schools were first set up for the children of missionaries and business people who were frequently moving around the world for work. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program was first created to serve as a framework for other international schools to follow. Under the guise of a standardized program, it didn’t matter where in the world a child ended up; they would be roughly learning the same things if the school taught the IB curriculum. Most international schools offer the IB Diploma; universities worldwide recognize this diploma.

Other international school programs also exist alongside International Baccalaureate. These are a number of organizations that offer accreditation to schools, such as Advanced Placement, Cambridge IGCSE, the Council of International Schools, the International Primary Curriculum, and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Facts and figures about international schools

In 2000, there were 2,584 international schools teaching close to one million students – mainly expats. Today, that number stands at 5,676 schools teaching over 2.5 million students; by 2020, the prediction is that there will be over 11,000 international schools with more than 5 million students.

The growing desire to send local children to international schools is based on the quality of teaching that these schools provide. Local, wealthier families also recognize value in an English-language education. Costs can be high, even in countries with a low cost of living.

Empty classroom
Classroom in an international school (Photo: Geronimo Giqueaux / Unsplash)

ISC Research, an independent organization dedicated to mapping the world’s international schools and analyzing developments in the market, tracks these figures and trends. They predict continued opportunities for parents wishing to provide an international education for their children wherever they may be living in the world.

“Asia has dominated the growth since January 2006 and with 3,000 schools. This accounts for 53 percent of all international schools worldwide,” says Nicholas Brummitt, Managing Director of ISC Research.

“The leading countries for international schools currently are China, India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Thailand. Europe has also grown significantly and now has 1,324 schools. We expect future growth in Southern Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan; in Western Asia, in parts of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia; in Eastern Asia, especially China, Hong Kong, and South Korea; and in South East Asia, in Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore,” he says.

Demographics of a typical international school

So, why the growth in local children attending international schools? It’s mostly been fueled by a significant increase in the wealth of local families says Nick. “In many cases, an English-language education for their children is very high on their list of priorities.”

“It is now widely accepted that opportunities for students after international school are tremendous. The top universities the world over are consistently competing for the best students. Many local families want this opportunity for their children and most schools also see this as an enormous benefit for their expatriate intake; providing immediate and direct links with the local community that they’re living in.”

Although some schools employ a small percentage of local teachers, the vast majority of teaching staff in international schools come from English-speaking countries. This includes teachers from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and South Africa.

Currently, there are 350,000 fully qualified teachers working in international schools. Accordingly, that number is anticipated to rise to 500,000 by 2020, to meet the demand from increased student intake and additional new schools.

“This is the biggest problem facing international schools today,” says Nick Brummitt. “Not only to meet the demand of students, but also to maintain the high quality standards that most of these schools currently hold.”

New options for students

Nick points out that a recent new trend in international school options is the establishment of sister schools of top UK private schools. Harrow, Dulwich, Shrewsbury, Repton, Oxford High, and Wellington College have all opened foreign locations, while Epsom College, Oundle, Brighton College, and others are preparing for imminent school openings globally.

“Excellent schooling options for expatriate families continues to grow,” says Nick Brummitt. “In many cities, you may have the choice of several international schools.”

Student with backpack
A student with a backpack at an international school (Photo: Scott Webb / Unsplash)

Making your choice may therefore require the consideration of curriculum. You may well have the choice of schools focusing on the a national curricula, or a curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate or the International Primary Curriculum. Bilingual schools are becoming another alternative.”

Some cities have many international schools to choose from; however, other cities have just one. If you have a choice between several schools, here are a few questions to consider.

Does the school have accreditation?

An accredited school has a curriculum that articulates and matches specific standards. The accreditation process ensures that a school has a positive learning environment, a strategic plan for its future, that the school is mission-driven, and that the school has high safety standards. Accreditation also allows students to transfer credits between schools. If the school is accredited by an American organization, this allows schools to offer diplomas that are valid for American university entry, for example.

Is the school a member of educational organizations?

In Europe, high-quality international schools are affiliated with the European Council of International Schools. There are also councils of international schools within each country or region. In order to be a part of these councils, the school must comply with certain standards. For example, if a school in Germany is not a member of the Association of German International Schools, you might want to ask them why.

What is the turnover of teachers and administrators?

International schools are, by design, places where the student population is transient. Teachers also choose an international setting so they can see the world, staying a few years here and a few years there. But if the school has a low turnover rate, you’ll know the school treats employees well. Teachers might sacrifice their wanderlust when the school provides excellent pay and benefits, quality resources for the classroom, and plentiful professional development. A happy teacher means productive students.

School lockers
Student lockers at an international school (Photo: Moren Hsu / Unsplash)

Be wary of schools who have a high administrative turnover. If administrators have been with a school for a while, it’s because they’re pleased with the school; they’re invested in the institution, its vision, and its program. If the school hires a new director and principal every two years, then the school is in flux, coping with the new visions brought in with each new leader.

Does the school’s website make you want to visit it?

A school’s website should be up to date. It should have a full calendar of events showing a variety of things: parent meetings, sporting events, activities, or assemblies. The website should have student resources as well as parent resources available. Don’t worry about areas that are password protected; this allows schools to create safe spaces to communicate only with their clientele. The curriculum map, programs, and the school’s strategic plan should be easily accessible to anyone, though. The website should express that the school values clear communication with all stakeholders.

Do photographs of the students show a variety of ethnicities? Are the students shown participating in a variety of activities? Does the calendar show the kinds of events that you and your child would like to be involved in? Can you easily access the information you are looking for? These are all things to look for when browsing a potential international school.

What is the culture of the school?

When you get the chance to visit the school, ask your tour guide to describe the school’s culture. They should be able to give you a description of the overall values of the school. Keep your eyes and ears open as you walk through the halls during passing times or breaks.

Is it a highly academic school? Does the school have long-practiced traditions? Does the school incorporate the local culture as well as value the home cultures of its clientele? Do the students seem happy? Are they congregating in areas for conversation and study? Do you see teachers walking alongside or conversing with students?

Does the school value languages?

Most international schools use English as the primary language of instruction. International schools often require students to learn the local language, as well; local language instruction will aid the student’s acclimatization to their new home, so don’t underestimate the importance of this. Even though most subjects at international schools are taught in English, you should hear other languages being spoken in the hallway. If only the local language of the community is being spoken in the hallways, then the school may not be internationally focused.

Classroom with students
A class listens to their teacher at an international school (Photo: NeONBRAND / Unsplash)

A good international school should also provide native language instruction for students living away from their home country. Students need the opportunity to have access to language classes that allow them to sustain their native tongue. Some schools offer these classes within the school day; others will offer them as after-school or weekend programs. Balancing language learning opportunities ensures that a student’s knowledge of the local tongue goes beyond simply knowing what to call their teacher.

Do students have access to technology?

Today’s students and teachers should have access to modern tools in the classroom. A good international school will value technology. You should see teachers using interactive whiteboards and projection systems in the classroom. You should also see students using laptops and tablets in the classroom. Technology should not be confined to a lab.

Is the school a one-to-one laptop or tablet school? Do students bring their own devices? What kind of access do students have to Wi-Fi throughout the school? Do instructors enforce limitations on device use at school? Does the school’s use of online tools allow for easy access to homework, information, and grades when not at school? Is the school’s strategic plan visionary and does it address technology training and use for the future?

Does the school have a library with a teacher librarian?

A school library is more than just a place to store books. Equally, a librarian’s job is not just to buy and check out books. In today’s world, librarians also need to be educators. They need to be working in classrooms to help students with research skills. Librarians need to help students and teachers find ways to curate information and resources. They should also be there to guide students through the plethora of digital and print resources available to them.

School library
A library in an international school (Photo: Alfons Morales / Unsplash)

When you walk into the library, do you see students there? Are they working or reading? Are there places for students to meet and collaborate? If you visit the library between classes, is it abuzz with activity or is it silent and empty?

Does the school have extra-curricular activities?

An international school should provide activities for students that go beyond academics. The arts are also a vital part of education and enrichment for children. Students need the opportunity to participate in band, orchestra, or choir. A great international school allows students to express themselves through art, drama, dance, design, or technology.

Larger schools are also affiliated with organizations that sponsor festivals and competitions for schools in the region. This allows students to compete against or join with students from other schools in a variety of ways.

If sports are important to you, inquire about the athletic programs provided by the school. Most international schools also have sports programs that compete with schools in their region.

What is the reputation of the school?

Do some research on the schools in your new city. There are a few websites that provide parents and teachers a place to review international schools. Some charge a subscription fee, although others are free. International School Community, International Schools Review, and The Good Schools Guide are a few places to start.