I get a few emails every month from people, mostly Americans, who are thinking about taking a job overseas or are already in the process. A large majority of these inquiries come from people with families, all more than a little concerned about the quality of education their children will receive after they move abroad. I get it, I really do, and that’s why I respond to each and every one, because our daughter’s schooling was by far our biggest worry throughout the expat process. I lost many hours of sleep convincing myself that our 11-year-old’s entire future hung in the balance – one wrong decision and we could say goodbye to any chance of her being accepted into top universities, and offers of scholarships would be passed along to more deserving individuals. A bright future ruined in one fell swoop. While I do have a tendency to over-dramatize things occasionally (okay, more than occasionally), choosing a school is no small dilemma, and in London we had a lot of choices.
Here, I intend to answer our most frequently asked questions about education abroad. This is not meant to be taken as advice, since everyone’s situation will differ, but rather as information from one expat parent to another – a “this is our experience, make of it what you will” story. As I’m sure this will end up being extremely lengthy and of little interest to my regular readers who come here for pretty travel pictures and stories, I won’t be the least bit offended if you click away immediately. Everyone else, if there’s something I’ve forgotten to address here that you’d like to know, just leave a comment and I’ll make updates to this post as needed. Obviously, for the sake of safety and privacy, I will not be disclosing exactly which school we attend in London.
Choosing Which Type Of School To Attend
The most common question I get is – how did we choose what sort of school to put her in? The choices vary from country to country, but in London, this is what we were choosing from:
a) State schools. Essentially the same sort of thing as American public schools. All children between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a British state school following a national curriculum. Just like in America, the quality of education varies from school to school.
b) British private schools. Also known as independent schools, these are similar to private schools in America. Annual fees will apply. Entrance exams and interviews are often required before acceptance is granted.
c) American schools. An American-style private school following a standard American curriculum and grading procedure. Made up mostly of children from American expat families.
d) International schools. Private schools promoting international education by following an international curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate. Each international school is different, but all are made up of teachers and students from many countries around the world creating a very global environment.
There are other options available in London, but for the sake of time, I’ve only listed the ones we considered. And consider them we did – you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who put more effort into finding the right school than we did. It took us six months of research, phone calls, interviews, and visits to make a decision. That is something I’ll be happy if I never have to go through again! In the end, we decided on an international school, and here’s why:
We rather quickly ruled out state schools. It was extremely difficult to determine which of the free schools were best, and not having any friends at the time who could share their personal experiences with us, it just felt too risky. (However, now that we’ve been here a year, I now know where I’d send her if we’d gone that route. There are great state schools, and they’re a viable option, especially if education isn’t covered by your expat package.) We also quickly ruled out the American School in St John’s Wood, the most well-known of the American schools in London and the only one we considered for our daughter. For one, it was too far above our budget, but more importantly – it would have made it too easy to live like an American in London. All of Lexie’s friends would have been American, as would mine. The area surrounding the school caters to its American population – it would have been like we’d never left the US. While it certainly would have made the transition much easier, that’s not what we wanted from our time abroad.
So the decision came down to a British private school or an international school. We visited both, spoke with headmasters, and did our research. Eventually, it became clear the international school would be the best option simply because of the timing. In America, Lexie would have been starting Grade 6 as an 11-year-old. At age 11 in the British private school system, children are in Year 7 and are moving up to the senior school. Children here begin school when they turn 4, not 5 as we do in the US, which means British 11-year-old’s had an extra year of schooling than Lexie had, and at such a critical stage – moving from junior to senior school – we didn’t think it would be a good idea to essentially have her skip a grade. Nor did we want her to stay behind with the 10-year-old’s in junior school. At the international schools, grade levels corresponded more appropriately with what we were used to back home, which made them a much better option, especially if we wanted to return to the US before she graduated. It seemed to be a good compromise. If she couldn’t immerse herself in British culture, at least she could experience something different than what she was used to. And boy did it turn out to be different, which leads me to my second most-asked question – how hard was it to go from an American public school to the International Baccalaureate program?
Adjusting To The IB Program: The Downsides
New Curriculum & Course Requirements
Oh, boy. As much research as I did and as many questions as I asked, neither Lexie or I was prepared for how different the International Baccalaureate program would be. (From here on out, let’s call this by its acronym, IB.) I, mistakenly, believed that because her age/grade level corresponded with that from our public school that she would be prepared for the work in her classes. I was wrong. She was behind in almost every subject. Plus, there is also a stipulation in the IB program that students must be learning at least one other language in addition to their mother tongue, so we had a brand new language to add into the mix. She was in the gifted program at our public school, but that didn’t help her very much during the transition – it took months for her to catch up, at least three, and I believe it would have taken much longer were she not a quick learner and a very dedicated student. A good portion of the students coming into our IB school receive outside tutoring until they catch up. We, being determined to do it on our own, chose not to, but looking back on it now, there are definitely subjects where that would have helped. It progressively got better, and now that she’s completed her first year, I’m happy to say she’s doing quite well. At least we won’t be playing catch-up next year!
As I reread that last paragraph, I’m realizing behind is not quite the right word to use, but I can’t think of an appropriate one so I’ll have to leave it. See, the thing is – there were certainly things Lexie hadn’t learned yet that were already expected of her at this school, but the main issue was that she wasn’t used to looking at her subjects from an IB perspective. Students in the IB program are expected to use a lot of critical thinking, something I was never asked to do in my own public school education until college. I think it’s a fantastic skill to be teaching kids this age, but it takes a while to learn when you’re used to the more straightforward, multiple-choice type learning popular in American public schools. At an IB school, it’s all about the application – how can I apply what I’ve learned on a grander scale? To quote the IB program itself, the program seeks to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”. Sounds pretty good, right? I think it is – it just takes a while to get the hang of. I mean, math exams that require essay writing? That was a new one for us.
The schoolwork is more complex at the IB school. There is a lot less “busy work”, and a lot more projects and papers. At first I thought that the dismissal of things like worksheets would mean less homework, but I was wrong. So wrong. Lexie puts in a minimum of two hours a night into her ongoing projects and essays. Math is the only subject where she still brings home exercises to work on. Every other subject requires her to form her own thesis or idea, make a plan for completing her project/paper by the due date, and then stick to it – and do this in multiple classes simultaneously. This seemed to me a very grown-up skill to expect from an 11-year-old. It’s great to see her taking responsibility for her own learning, but sometimes I do think it’s a bit much. The workload, I mean.
The Grading Scale
Also very new to us – the grading scale. Gone are the glory days of percentages and letter grades when I could actually understand whether Lexie had done well or not. Now I have to rely on her to tell me because I have never seen a process of grading more complicated than this one. I even attended a seminar that attempted to explain to new parents how the grading system worked, but I walked out just as bemused as I was when I walked in. It’s my goal over the summer to dig deeper and figure this out.
Adjusting To The IB Program: The Good Stuff
The Multi-Cultural Peer Base
The workload and the grading system are really my only complaints, and both are hopefully something we will become accustomed to next year. In my opinion, the benefits of IB learning definitely outweigh anything negative I could say about it. For one, Lexie knows things now. Like really knows them, not just memorizes them for a test. Sometimes I’m shocked by the things she says and the concepts she grasps because they’re so adult. While I can accredit a lot of this to what she’s learning in school, I think it’s also due to what she’s learned from having friends from all over the world. Each person at this school brings with them a whole host of knowledge and experience of their own part of the world and then they share this piece of themselves with everyone else, creating a truly global community.
While at the beginning of the year, the kids tended to gravitate towards other kids of their same or similar culture, within a few weeks that hesitancy to branch out had disappeared. Even language barriers couldn’t keep these kids from making friends with each other. Lexie’s best friends now are from Italy, Japan, Spain, Finland, Australia, and Great Britain. This was exactly what we were hoping for. It’s a beautiful thing when people realize how similar they are, regardless of nationality.
Well-Rounded Classes & Course Offerings
Other things I love about the IB program – the topics they cover in classes and the extra effort made to provide a well-rounded school experience. In her humanities classes, Lexie is learning about current events and how to form her own opinion about them. In both of her English classes, she’s reading and reporting on truly great pieces of literature. Her science class is hands-on versus based on book learning. It’s everything I wish my own education pre-university had been. And then there’s the extra classes they add in to help kids develop their interests and hobbies – drama, textiles, wood-working, swimming, and cooking to name a few. As they get older, they’ll have more choices and be able to choose which to take, but for now they get a little bit of each.
Even though her school is quite small, the list of optional extracurricular activities is extensive. Each term (there are three) the kids have a choice of over 20 activities they can be involved in, ranging from things like traditional sports to meditation. Of course, considering the amount of after-school work they bring home, it’s very important to be selective. Lexie chose one activity each term – running club, creative writing, and an additional drama class, and really threw herself into each one. I got to see her really blossom this year as she competed in her first cross country race, her first swim meet, and played Violet Beauregarde in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. I seriously could not be more proud of my little girl who is learning to confidently come out of her shell.
Speaking of confidence, both Lexie and I made big steps early on in the school year. One thing the international school does is plan a week-long trip during the first month of school so the kids can spend lots of time with each other and learn to work together. We were both feeling hesitant about the trip, but when she got back, I saw the change in her immediately. She was older somehow, and certainly more sure of herself at school. Although I initially balked at the idea of almost a week apart from my little girl, I get its purpose now. Kudos to the school for taking us both out of our comfort zone long enough for us to realize we can survive without each other for five days.
This school, and probably most schools geared towards expats, is truly about building a community. Festivals are thrown to entice parents to come meet each other. (Everyone knows the best way to bring people together is to offer them food!) Events are organized throughout the year for charities. Discos and other parties are held to get the kids socializing outside of school. Everyone pitches in. For a lot of kids, and their parents, too, this school is the best or only avenue they have for making friends during their expat contracts, so it’s a wonderful thing that the school is so invested in making sure everyone feels included.
The flip side of making friends with other expats in similar situations is that those friendships are often transient. Lexie has already said goodbye to a few friends throughout the year, but there will be a mass exodus at the end of this week and I know that’s going to be especially hard. I remember that feeling well from my own experience as a kid overseas, and it never gets easier. The bright side for Lexie is that she’s an expat after the invention of the internet, so it’ll be much easier to stay in touch. (I suppose it was around when I was an expat, but no one I knew had the time or patience for dial-up!)
So there you have it, in one million words, our first year’s experience in an IB program. Would it have been easier to choose an American school? Probably so. Would we have enjoyed it as much as this school? Who knows? What I do know is that Lexie says she likes it here at this school more than any of the others she’s attended and that makes all of the work and transitioning completely worth it!
Disclaimer: I, in no way, represent the IB program and am not attempting to sell anyone on this form of education. All of this was written so I’d have a place to direct people when they email with questions. I’m happy to answer any other questions, particularly if it’s something I haven’t addressed today. I wish I’d had something like this to read for each of our options when we were trying to decide which school to choose, so hopefully it will be of help to someone else!