Choosing schools - the Defining Moves Expat Guide to Relocation

Choosing Schools

Choosing schools - the Defining Moves Expat Guide to RelocationOh boy. If you thought sending your child off to school for the first time was the hardest day of your parenting life, think again. Try taking them out of the first school, transporting them across town /state/country/continent (delete as applicable) and then asking them to go to a new one, where they know “NOBODY – ALL MY FRIENDS ARE BACK HOOOOME..”.

In reality, starting a new school is not the end of the world that our children would have us believe, but until they are settled, it is incredibly stressful for all concerned.

The bottom line is that you and your child are looking for completely different things in a school;  for you, you need to be sure that the school provides a safe and nurturing environment and is academically stimulating, while your child wants friends, interesting teachers, fun play equipment and good snacks. Not necessarily in that order.

Ask yourself what is most important to you long term.  For “Third Culture Kids”, they are unlikely to achieve long term academic success without first addressing their emotional well-being, so my advice is to look for a school that meets those needs first, and worry about the academics later. The same applies to a local move however – no matter what the reason for the move, until a child is comfortable and secure in their environment, they are unlikely to learn anything effectively.

My mother, a child development specialist, always maintained that children only developed in one area at a time, so when they were going through a physical growth spurt, their emotional development would slow down for a time, and if they were in a socially challenging situation, their academic performance would dip.  Education is a journey, not a race, and so my preference is to go with a school that meets their social and emotional needs, rather than necessarily having the best academic record. However, there are plenty of people who would disagree with me, so whatever your parenting preferences, here are my top strategies for choosing schools.


Make a list of available schools.

Ask your HR department, future work colleagues, destination service provider, relocation counselor, realtor or your Embassy. Go online, do a Google search, and explore expat websites like School Choice International if you are still struggling.


Contact schools in advance,

requesting a prospectus or information. Private schools will usually have a printed prospectus available, public schools may have a website.


Information to look for includes:


  • Numbers of children at the school, and demographic profile
  • Numbers of children moving in and out of the school
  • Academic curriculum followed – most commonly US, UK or International Baccalaureate
  • Age range at school, and which schools children commonly progress to
  • Class size / student:teacher ratio
  • Range of classes offered
  • Qualifications of teaching staff
  • Test results
  • Overall philosophy and values of the school
  • Antisocial behavior policy.
  • Fee schedule
  • Transportation – public / school bus / car pools / sidewalks
  • Accessibility – traffic, bell schedules, after school care

Bear in mind that school test scores can be affected by high numbers of ESL / EFL (English as a Second /Foreign Language) students, by having a higher number of students with differentiated learning needs, or by rigorous entry requirements. It is most important to find a school that reflects your values, whether they be academic rigor, cultural diversity, sporting excellence, alternative teaching methods or all the above, rather than looking simply for high test scores or a foreign language program. However, if you know you will be moving often but would like your child to attend college in a specific country, it’s a good idea to follow a single type of curriculum that is widely accepted once they reach high school years. While colleges are becoming more flexible about the range of entry qualifications they accept, there is no point in making it more difficult for your child than it needs to be.


Consider curriculum options.

Depending on if, when and where your child/ren will be attending college, choose a curriculum that will support those future choices, while meeting their wider learning needs. Consider also the long term implications: should your assignment be extended, become permanent or your allowances change, will you be able to afford the fees privately, and will you be paying international student rates.


Visit shortlisted schools.

If possible, take the child attending the school with you, so that they can experience it, and  you can see how school staff interact with your children. Visit during school hours to observe classes, watch how the children and teachers behave, and get an understanding of the school culture as a whole. Encourage questions from your children, and take time to visit the parts of the school that they want to see. Especially the bathrooms – you can learn a great deal about a school from their bathrooms..


Request a copy of the school transcript

Once you have selected a school, arrange for your child’s school transcript to be sent to them in advance and keep a copy for your own records. Request copies of the new school calendar, the name and email of your child’s teacher, and any immunization, uniform or school supply requirements, and the contact details for any parent organizations, both in the school and the community.


Write a brief note to your child’s teacher,

introducing yourself, your child and anything you feel would it would help them to know, and invite questions from them.


Ask if there are any supplies / resources / donations etc. that you can bring

as part of your household shipment that are not on the official list. Teachers have home lives too, and are a wonderful source of information, recommendations and support in the early days, so any efforts you make now will be amply repaid when you land…

4 thoughts on “Choosing Schools”

  1. These are fabulous tips! I’d add two: be sure to remember the names of the front office staff of the school you choose, and bid an appreciative farewell to the one you are leaving — these folks are the gateway to important details (including forgotten lunches, inside skivvy on schedules, quick record retrieval and more). Second – don’t be afraid to admit defeat. Allowing our HS senior-who-moved-as-a-junior to return to his beloved school and pals, staying with a wonderful family,has been a good decision.

    1. You’re right about the need for flexibility – the idea of moving schools once you are in location is one we typically try to avoid, but having the bravery to change can mean the difference between a few miserable weeks and a few miserable years. None of the people that I know who have felt compelled to switch schools have regretted it, and you make a very important point about the need to keep listening to what our children are telling us.

  2. I have found it useful, in the US, to get to know the Vice President of the PTA. You can leave your number for them if you can’t directly get their number. Ask the VP for more parents you can talk to. And any school Principal will give you some time. I always ask to observe in a class so I can check out the teacher. Better for your child to stay home for a few days whilst you do the advance scouting.

    1. Make that ‘any Principal worth having’.. It always sets off alarm bells if the school principal or senior teachers haven’t time to or aren’t interested in meeting incoming parents – if they are too busy now, what are the chances of an audience when things go wrong?

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