As any parent can tell you, finding a place in an international school for your child can be a stressful and confusing experience. It’s not as simple as showing up on the first day of class and dropping them off; there are several steps to go through beforehand.
First, you’ll need to find all of the international schools in your new home city (using the International Schools Database, naturally!). Next you’ll need to choose the best ones for your child, and eliminate those that don’t meet your child’s needs, don’t meet your budget constraints or can be disregarded for other reasons. Then, you should have a shortlist of the top contenders - ideally two or three schools.
After that, it’s time for the most important step - visiting the school in person, with your child in tow.
Visiting prospective international schools for your child is a vital part of the process. It’s your chance to ask questions that the school’s website (or even our website) doesn’t answer; to meet staff, teachers and fellow parents; to see how the school operates day-to-day; and most importantly, to see if your child likes it. Here’s our checklist of what to ask, what to look for, and what to do.
1: Plan the Visit
Get in touch with the school to arrange your visit. You should aim for your child to spend as much time as you can spare at the school; a half day or even a full day if possible. He/she can join classes and interact with other students, and you can observe the day-to-day running of the school in the meantime. Ask for some face-to-face time with the headmaster or coordinator and at least one teacher, and have a list of questions prepared (more on that later).
2: Students and Classes
Map out the school day from start to finish. There may be an assembly or activity before classes begin. Find out the daily timetable; how long each class lasts, how class transitions work (do the students move from room to room or do the teachers?), when and how often students have breaks and what they do during them (eat lunch, play in the playground, etc.), if they leave the school grounds and if so where do they go, and so on.
Ask if you can sit or briefly look in on some classes and note the student-teacher and student-student dynamics. Does the teacher maintain rigid control, or is discussion encouraged? Do students get much individual attention from the teacher? Are there teaching assistants in the class? Do students work in groups on some problems? Do class transitions happen in an orderly or chaotic manner? All will give you important cues about what the school is really like.
3: Teachers and Staff
You’ll already know the important facts about the school when you visit (that’s why it’s on your shortlist, after all), so you should use your time with teachers to find out all the nitty gritty, soft and subjective details. Start by asking teachers where they’re from and what kind of training they did. Find out how long teachers and students usually stay, and if there is a good balance of new vs. long-term staff. This should tell you if your child will have a stable environment and circle of friends or not. If staff are happy, then generally speaking the students are too.
Try to get an insight into their approach to teaching, too; how much homework they give, how they use technology, if they encourage soft skills like teamwork, public speaking or creativity. Make sure to ask about exams. How often do they happen? How much emphasis is placed on them? How do they support students who struggle to keep up (or aren’t challenged enough)? How do the school’s exam results rate as a whole? What do most students do once their education at the school is over?
4: The School Campus
Explore as much of the school campus as you can. Look at the condition of the classrooms and common spaces; is it (mostly) neat and tidy, and does it foster an atmosphere of positivity? Remember your child will be spending most of their time here, so it should be a happy place for them. Look for noticeboards, school achievements, students’ artwork.
Also take note of the students’ behaviour; do they seem comfortable in their environment, do they get along well together? Do the students stick to groups of their own nationalities or is it more inclusive? And more importantly, do they speak the common language of the school (e.g. English if it’s an English International School) or the local language? You’ll want it to be as easy as possible for your child to socialise with peers.
Check out the open spaces in the school. Is there adequate, safe space for sports and physical activities? Ideally, there should be an area within the school where students can get the exercise they need without having to cross busy roads.
On a similar note, make it your business to stop by the canteen if there is one. Take a look at the food options - is it healthy? Are the children supervised during lunch to make sure they eat properly? Don’t neglect other facilities either; if you have time, take a peek at computer rooms, libraries, etc.
5: Your Child’s Reaction
Above all else, the key thing to watch when visiting an international school is your child’s reaction to it. While you’re still in the school, it’s best not to ask them directly what they think; their answer may be based on what they think you want to hear rather than what they’re feeling.
Instead, keep your eyes and ears open to their body language, unprompted comments they make, and their attitude during the visit. Wait a little while after the visit to give them time to take it all in, and then ask some general, open-ended questions to get them talking. Pay careful attention to what they say; they’ll have an entirely different perspective to you, but an equally important one.
6: Other Questions to Ask
Every international school is different, and so is every child. You will no doubt have a long list of questions to ask, but here are some others to consider adding. Don’t be shy when it comes to probing headmasters and teachers - it’s what school visits are for!
- How do you help new students settle in?
- Is there an active parents association? What do they do?
- What plans does the school have for the near future?
- How do you deal with bullying?
- What support is there for students with special education needs, mobility needs, etc.?
If after the visit you have a few lingering doubts or more questions to ask, there’s nothing stopping you from arranging a second visit. If the school staff were accommodating and friendly the first time, they will be again. A good international school will want to help you as much as possible, and will be more than familiar with parents like you and situations like yours. So take as much time as you need - making a good choice is better than making a fast one!
You can find all the international schools in your home away from home, along with extensive information and contact details for each, on the International Schools Database.