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The chance to live and go to school in the UK can be a tricky but remarkable experience for any child. It can make an indelible  impression, and influence the direction of the rest of his life.

The selection of the school is not always an easy process, and it's deserving of much thought and research by the expatriate family before the decision is reached.    

Families, particularly in the greater London area, may wish to consider alternatives to the British state and independent sectors, namely the American, international and foreign national schools which are described in this article.  Admission to most of these schools is made not by examination, but on the basis of previous school records and references, and consequently families are advised to have the necessary documentation available should they visit these schools.  Most of these schools have a ‘rolling admissions’ policy and will admit pupils throughout the academic year, subject to the availability of space.

International Schools

Schools that offer the International Baccalaureate programmes  (I.B.) offer an internationally-recognised curriculum which prepares students for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.  The concept of internationalism is reflected in every aspect of the school:  the philosophy, the curriculum, the students, and the faculty.  Students who receive the I.B. diploma (an A-Level equivalent) are able to enter university in virtually any country of the world, including the UK, and for those entering American universities, they are often given advanced placement and/or credit (up to a full year).  Recently in the UK, UCAS (the British University and College Admissions Service) re-evaluated  the IB in comparison to  the A-Levels, and as a result the IB is now regarded as the more rigorous academic programme.

International schools often address the important issue of maintenance of mother tongue literacy skills.   This has been proven by researchers to be an important factor for the development of cognitive skills in the adolescent years; parents who neglect the child’s mother tongue literacy skills may regret it later.  Most international schools also provide a strong “English as an Additional Language” (EAL) programme for students at all age levels in the school (also called English as a Second Language (ESL)).

International schools are generally quite flexible and welcoming to children of all nationalities, and the staff are well-equipped to serve the unique needs of the expatriate community (not only as the heart of expat family life, but also particularly sensitive antennae to lonesome, anxious newly arrived students).   

European School

The European School in Oxfordshire was set up for the dependents of  European Economic Community (EEC)  employees working in that area, although others are welcome on a fee-paying basis.  Instruction is offered in all of the Community languages, and the programme leads to the European Baccalaureate diploma which is accepted by universities throughout the EEC.

American Schools

These are independent schools in which, using familiar materials imported from the US  for core subject areas, best replicate the style of education available in the USA.  They offer a curriculum and social environment similar to that found in the U.S, and lead to a high school diploma in preparation for American higher education.  These schools often offer AP (Advanced Placement) courses, the IB programme or both.   American schools in London generally offer some form of English language support for non-native speakers of English.  The American Department of Defense Schools (DoDDS), located on or nearby the US military bases, often accept non-military children on a fee-paying basis, though these schools are dwindling in number due to US military cutbacks.

Other Foreign National Systems

Some families elect to use one of the other foreign national school systems. London in particular has a variety of other national schools or schools offering instruction in languages other than English.  These include Arabic (Acton), French (South Kensington, Hammersmith and Kentish Town), German (Richmond), Greek (Holland Park), Japanese (Ealing and Milton Keynes), Norwegian (Wimbledon),  Russian (Notting Hill), Spanish (North Kensington), and Swedish (Barnes). These foreign national schools offer the advantage of continuity for students of the respective countries, or continuity even for English-speaking expats who may have started in that system while abroad and want to continue in it.  Some of these schools are run under the auspices of their respective governments and some, such as the German and French schools, are part of a world-wide network.  Alternatively, others are independent of each other and of their respective governments.

Saturday Schools

Many embassies offer “Saturday schools”  - mother tongue language and cultural studies - for children residing in the UK.  This is another useful way for children to maintain literacy skills in the home language.  Details should be sought from the embassies concerned.

Points to consider when choosing a system

There are several factors that come into play in the decision-making process, all of which should be given equal consideration:

a)         age of the student

b)         adaptability of the student

c)         the language factor

d)         location of home and/or work place

e)         length of overseas assignment

f)         likelihood of admission

Generally, the younger the child, the easier it will be to enter a new or different system of education.  If a child has not yet started school in the home country, the British system may be appealing, because the cost will undoubtedly be less than that of an American or international school, and it’s an excellent opportunity for children to be truly immersed in the  culture of their host country. NB American parents may be startled by the early emphasis on academics, whereby very small UK students can practically write War and Peace by the time they’re five.  

For older students, a change to the British system may be difficult if the student is not fluent in English, an excellent reader or if the student has not been prepared for the various entry exams required for independent schools. Entry to the British independent system is complicated, and there are certain years when entry is not a viable option because of the timing of examinations such as the 11+, common entrance, and GCSEs.  The higher the year, the deeper and more intense the course work becomes, the more difficult it becomes for the outside student who has simply not been doing the work leading up to that level. Any student taking it on that late in the game would have to be intensely motivated, oblivious to the pressure, and a very quick study.    

Planning for University

If your child is likely to complete his or her secondary education in the UK, you must consider whether the school you choose will have the support system in place to assist with the university admissions process for your child’s country of choice. If not, you can still get help from independent college consultants in the US who are accustomed to working with international students, but you’ll need to plan for that a year or two in advance, not leave it until the last minute (or year) and then discover no one in the school has made sure your child was taking appropriate courses, tests, or extracurriculars required on a US college ap.

Change Systems or Not?

Parents must endeavour to anticipate how well their children will react to the upheaval of relocation.  If prior to the move a child is displaying serious signs of apprehension at the thought of a new home, a new environment, and new friends, then it is probably unwise to change schools systems if the more familiar school/language system is available.   A happy school situation will facilitate a smoother transition for everyone concerned. 

Foreign National schools

For English-speaking parents considering foreign national schools (in preparation for a future move to that country and school system, for example), the prospect of entering school where instruction is offered in a foreign language can seem like an overwhelming challenge. Yet the experience can almost ensure, given a few years, total fluency in that language - a skill which is highly valued in today’s world.  Parents who are worried about how a child might cope with a new language situation should consult the teachers of the current school as to how their language skills have developed.  It is a reasonable assumption that a child who has encountered difficulty with his native language skills will have even more difficulty working in a foreign language.

Choose the School before the Housing

One practical consideration in choosing any school, or even an entire school system, is one of simple logistics:  the location of the work place, and in some cases, the home.  Most people facing an overseas transfer will be working at a fixed location.  In the event company housing is provided, educational options may be severely limited. With luck, the company will give employees as much flexibility as possible with regard to choice of housing location so that they can aim to be within easy access of the preferred school the prefer for their children.    

Location and Transportation

Most of the schools serving expatriates offer some form of school bus service – either door-to-door or a pick-up point service.  However, traffic can be brutally slow in London, particularly during ‘the school run’ so be sure to ask very precise questions about the probable duration of a child’s bus commute and consider how your child will respond to that experience. If the school doesn’t have door to door service, but pick-up/drop off points instead, ask where they are (and remember it gets dark by 4pm by the end of October.) 

Sports: In school or out

Also consider the commute (by tube, car or school bus) if your child wants to be involved in sports or after school activities, and whether you want to be involved in school parent volunteer or family activites. Does the school plan things around parents that tend to live in the vicinity, and do they run buses late in the afternoon geared to the students getting out of clubs and athletic practices at staggered times?

If your child is very good at a sport and wishes to continue his or her training, but the school you choose (or can get into) doesn’t offer it, there are still many sports clubs offering all levels of proficiency. But their locations, and the locations of their practices vary and can range from one side of town to the other within a single week. You need to take those schedules and commutes into account, and mesh those with school locations and schedules. Movement across London can be very, very slow (studies show it moves at the same rate now as it did in the late 19th century), whatever your mode of transport. Traffic jams and street closings beset the bus or car; leaves or people on the tracks, wet/dry/hot/cold weather, or planned closures for improvements beset the tubes and trains.

And of course figure travel passes, school bus or congestion charges into your annual budget, along with school fees.

How Long Will You Stay?

Many families go abroad with only a vague idea of the length of stay.  It is not unusual to meet expatriates of 20 years who claim they originally went abroad for a two-year stay!  Families who anticipate an overseas tour of two years or less would probably be wise to opt for their own national system or perhaps an international school, in order to maintain educational consistency.    However, if a long-term stay of 5-10 years is anticipated, serious consideration may be given to  “going British”, although parents must weigh up how this will affect the student’s higher education.    Parents who foresee a series of overseas moves over the course of a few years often consider the boarding option for the sake of continuity.

Plan Early, Move Quickly: The Shortage of Spaces

Though originally set up for the purposes of serving a mobile  expatriate community, many of the American, international and foreign international schools are finding that they are unable to accommodate unlimited new applicants.   This is because London has grown in popularity as a destination for a wide range of professions, and also because families are tending to stay for longer.   What used to be a fairly predictable 30% turnover in population due to expatriate movement is now more in the region of 15-20%.  

Therefore, families are finding it prudent to apply to more than one school in order to have a back-up plan or plans in the event the first choice school is not possible.   It is also important for parents to realise that an American passport does not guarantee entry into the so-called American schools, and that previous experience of a Lycee in another country does not guarantee admission into the Lycee Charles de Gaulle in London (the second largest lycee outside of France), where even French nationals are startled to find they do not always secure a place.

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