What is an international school?

What is an international school?
How can you ensure your child gets a quality education while living overseas? Sending them to an international school could be the key.
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Moving to another country is an exciting development in any family’s life, but it’s also a daunting step – especially if you have children. Finding a school where they’ll thrive is one of the biggest priorities, with lots of unknowns: how will they settle in? Will they be ahead of or behind their classmates? What happens if you want to move back to the UK?

For many families, choosing an international school gives them the peace of mind that their child will be educated to UK standards.

What is an international school?

An international school provides an international education for an international community. They’re typically found in major cities and cater for children from expat families as well as the host country. Families from the UK often choose to send their children to British international schools, but there are international schools aligned to other countries, including the USA, France and Germany, among others.

In 2009, the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) came up with a set of criteria to define international schools:

  • Students’ education is transferable across international schools.
  • There is a mobile population (more so than in state schools).
  • There is a multinational and multilingual student body.
  • Pupils follow an international curriculum.
  • Schools are internationally accredited, for example by the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) or the Council of International Schools (CIS).
  • Schools are non-selective.
  • English is the main or bilingual language.

However, these criteria are not set in stone; for example, some international schools are selective.

Which curriculum do they follow?

One of the biggest distinguishing characteristics of an international school is that they follow an internationally recognised curriculum. These include the English National Curriculum, the International Baccalaureate (IB), International GCSEs (IGCSEs) and the International Primary Curriculum (IPC). ‘This makes it easy for children to transfer from one international school to another, or back to a school in the UK,’ says Colin Bell, chief executive of COBIS. It also means that any exams they take are valid in other countries

The benefits of choosing an international school

There are many benefits to choosing an international education for your child. ‘Our member schools are quality assured and have to meet robust criteria in terms of the quality of teaching, pastoral provision and co-curricular activities,’ says Colin.

As their name would suggest, international schools give children an international, multi-cultural education. ‘Schools have a genuine international flavour with students from many different communities,’ Colin says. This gives children the chance to meet others from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. But because English is the language of teaching in British international schools, they won’t be held back by a language barrier.

With a mobile population, international schools are adept at helping pupils settle in. ‘Our youngsters are incredibly adaptable and tend to make friends very quickly,’ Colin explains. Schools may also be more accepting of pupils taking holidays in term-time to visit family back home, and of the different religious and cultural festivals of their pupils.

Following an international curriculum means children can move between schools easily – for example, if the family relocates due to work, as is often the case amongst expats – and should be able to slot back into a UK school in the right year group for their age.

The quality of a British education is also recognised worldwide. ‘English is the language of business, so lots of families – including those from the host country – see the value in sending their child to a British international school,’ explains Colin. ‘It also gives children access to the top schools and universities worldwide.’

Colin says that the quality of teaching is high in international schools, and the competitive salaries attract good teachers. ‘Many of the teachers will have trained or worked in the UK, but the fact that they’ve chosen to work in another country shows that they’re real go-getters, and levels of motivation are high,’ he says.

Extra-curricular activities tend to be outstanding, with opportunities ranging from sports and performing arts to volunteering trips to other countries. ‘In general, British international schools are very similar to UK independent schools, and provide a similar quality of education, pastoral care and co-curricular activities: they just happen to be overseas,’ Colin adds.

Potential drawbacks of international schools

All schools have their drawbacks, and international schools are no exception. One of the pitfalls is that the population is very transient. Pupils move on frequently and children may have to keep forming new friendships. There may also be a high turnover of staff, with teachers fulfilling an ambition to teach overseas before returning to their home country.

Although international schools give kids the chance to meet people from lots of communities, children can run the risk of not being immersed in the local culture in the way that they would be in a state school. They may miss out on learning about local customs, and on picking up the language.

Some international schools have a very competitive ethos, and parents and pupils may struggle with the ‘pushiness’ of teachers and other parents, both within the classroom and in extracurricular activities.

Gaining a place at an international school can be difficult. Good schools may have long waiting lists, and some require children to pass an entrance exam and/or interview to secure their place. Fees can be high, too; some schools are not-for-profit, but others are for-profit, and an expensive education doesn’t automatically mean it’s superior.

While teaching quality can be very good, bear in mind that international schools often appoint teachers who don’t have a formal teaching qualification such as a Bachelor’s degree in education (BEd) or a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). This is not necessarily a problem – UK independent schools and academies are also allowed to appoint unqualified teachers – but is worth bearing in mind.

Another potential pitfall is that if your child’s education is being fully or partly funded by your employer, you may have to select from a limited list of approved schools, narrowing your choices.

Questions to ask when looking at international schools

If you’re looking at international schools for your child, these questions are worth asking when you’re making enquiries.

  • How does the school help new starters settle in?
  • How big are the classes?
  • What is the annual student turnover?
  • How does the school communicate with parents?
  • What proportion of the teaching staff has UK teaching qualifications?
  • What opportunities are there for parents to get involved with school life?
  • What curriculum do children follow?
  • How is progress assessed?
  • Is the school accredited by an organisation like COBIS or CIS?
  • What co-curricular activities are on offer?
  • Do children have to sit an entrance exam or interview?
  • How much homework do children get?
  • What are the school’s values and vision?
  • Are there any scholarships or bursaries available?
  • If a child moves schools, how do they pass on their knowledge of that child to the new school?

‘We were impressed with the teaching quality’

‘Owen attended an international school in Moscow, and then both he and his sister Rhiannon went to an international school in Jakarta before we returned to Wales. As expats moving every three to four years, we felt it would be easier if they stayed in an English language setting, although they did receive local language lessons. 

‘We were impressed with the teaching quality in both schools, and the well qualified, highly engaged teachers. The facilities were brilliant, and we liked the cultural diversity and the opportunities for families to get involved with social events and volunteering.

‘We did, however, find some parents very pushy, and the schools sometimes seemed overly defensive when we questioned their teaching methods: for example, neither child learnt to read using phonics. There was also a lack of economic diversity among pupils.

‘Moving back to the UK, Rhiannon settled in easily in Year 1. What she lacked in formal academics, she made up for in confidence and a love of learning. She joined a booster class to catch up with reading, and is now ahead for her age.

‘Owen found it more difficult to join Year 4. He thrives on oral work and stands out when he has to make presentations, which reflects the skills that his international schools focused on, but struggles more with written work. Overall, though, both children are happy, and due to the difficulties in switching between curricula and the challenges of fitting in for older children, we’ve decided to stay in the UK – for now!’

Eleanor Williams, mum to Owen, nine, and Rhiannon, seven