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Choosing an Overseas School for Your Child

By Mary Emslie

The process of choosing a school for the kids when you move overseas can be confusing and difficult.

First of all, should your child attend an international school or a national school? If you plan to live in your new country for five years or more a national school may be the better choice. Despite the difficulty with language and cultural adjustment in the beginning, children will probably establish more stable friendships in the long run.

For a short stay, an international school is probably the better alternative. In choosing keep in mind that an international or English-language school may be that in name only: many have a high percentage of native students who naturally speak their national language during recess and between classes. While there is certainly nothing wrong with children speaking their native language at school, your child can feel isolated at a time of adjustment when he or she needs friends.

Overseas Schools and Home-Country Schools

Most overseas schools are private. At our children’s school in Santiago regular meetings are not open to all parents. Instead, the school administration meets with a committee that represents the parents. Check to see how much input parents can have in school policy and ask about the organization of the administration. Is there a board of directors or does a single individual with unlimited powers run the school? It’s better to know ahead of time if you want to have a say in how your children are educated and what recourse you may have in the case of potential grievances.

Extracurricular Activities

Take a good look at the curriculum and find out if art, music, and computer courses are offered or if they are offered as extracurricular activities at an additional expense. Some schools have very limited sports programs, leaving the planning up to parents through private clubs or organizations.

Planning Your Budget

Ask the school administration for a projection of extra expen-ses. Field trips, extracurricular activities, sports clothing and equipment, school events, and school bus costs can add up. See if your employer provides an allowance for these extra expenses.

Violence and Harassment

Many countries have virtually no laws protecting children’s rights. Does the administration have an effective program in place to prevent harassment and violence at school?

Admission Procedures

There will un-doubtedly be an admission test; ask if you can take a look at it. If your child is not used to taking tests, you can conduct a practice test at home to familiarize them with the process as well as with questions that may be asked by school counselors.

The Curriculum

Ask for a written summary of the curriculum or at least a copy of last year’s curriculum for your child’s grade level. Will there be a seamless transition from what your child is learning now? Don’t forget to ask what languages are required subjects. You might consider buying language materials to familiarize your child with the new language or languages they will be learning.

Learning Materials

We discovered that the English bookstores in Santiago, Chile have a limited, rather outdated, and extremely expensive selection. Find out what’s available and stock up on needed books before you leave home.

Special Needs

It’s essential to find a school that is prepared to give your child the support he or she needs. You may want to consult with their former teachers. Parents don’t always see the needs and abilities of their own children as objectively as educators can.

My Family’s Experience

After three weeks of searching, we were relieved when our children were finally accepted into a small British school in the foothills of the Andes. But would three new languages, a new school, and a new culture be an overwhelming adjustment for them? My fears were put to rest when my kids showed a surprising new sense of enthusiasm for learning. In their first semester they studied subjects ranging from Mozart to traditional Chilean dance to ancient Mayan cultures and showed a real thirst for knowledge. It’s not only the new and unusual subjects they are learning. Their everyday experiences in school are an invaluable chance to expand their already multicultural horizons even further.

Editor’s Note: For a complete worldwide directory of overseas schools, go to the International Schools Services’ web site at

MARY EMSLIE is a freelance writer and managing editor of, a web site for English-speaking parents in Sweden.

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