In the summer of 2015, my husband I pressed go on our long held dream to move our family to Spain for a year. We had no personal connections anywhere in the country. No idea where in Spain we wanted to live. And we were, generally speaking, entirely clueless about the entire process. From immigration formalities to researching cities. From finding housing to getting local phone numbers. Most importantly, given its impact on our children’s well being, we knew nothing about how to choose a school for our kids in Spain.
7 Tips to Choosing Schools in Spain (or any other foreign country!)
With nothing but the internet to guide me, I got down to work. After all, I was a mom who’d spent many hours volunteering in my kids’ classrooms. The mom who went into those parent-teacher conferences ready to advocate for their needs. Surely I was qualified (enough) to evaluate schools for our year in Spain.
Turns out, I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. None of the blog posts I’d read prepared me for the realities of educating my children in a foreign country.
Here are 7 things I wish I knew about choosing a school in a foreign country:
- Few things will have a greater impact on your child’s acceptance of their international relocation than their school setting. This will be especially true if your family will be arriving in your new country as complete strangers with no personal connections.
- Choosing a school for your child in a foreign country involves considerations you would likely never think of in your home nation. Student body demographics is just one example. Are most of the kids from the country you’re relocating to, as would likely be the case if you go to a local public or state school? Or are you looking at a private school that might be host to kids from countries all over the world (including your own)? You’ll probably drill down the specifics of what language(s) classes are taught in. But just as important is the language students speak when they’re on their own. (“Language of the playground” in expat lingo.) There’s no right answer to these questions. But, the answers themselves will greatly influence both your child’s academic and social success in their new school setting.
- Language usage, both for instruction as well as socially, will be even more relevant to your children if they have little to none of the local language. Many parents who move abroad typically welcome the opportunity for their children to learn a foreign language. Becoming bilingual was one of the driving factors inspiring my husband and I to take the expat leap. But whether or not your child will drown or thrive in a foreign speaking school setting depends on many factors. Personality, age, and learning differences to name but a few. Of course, many children work through such challenges and come out thriving. As with so much of parenting in general and expat parenting in particular, the key is awareness and how to manage the potential hazards to ensure success educationally as well as emotionally.
- The notion of school community and school spirit, as we tend to think about it in the US, is not the norm in other countries. Not to say it doesn’t exist. Some international schools see it as part of their educational offering to foster a greater community for students and families. But, generally speaking, don’t expect to find cheerleaders, school dances and gymnasiums full of students cheering on school basketball team. In fact, your school abroad won’t likely have its own basketball team. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you should turn down an otherwise good fit school. What it does mean is that the onus will be on you as parents to help your child create opportunities to cultivate a like-minded community of peers for themselves.
- English language arts class in a foreign school likely doesn’t mean what you think it means. At least, not in the traditional American English Language Arts class sense of the word. Schools that bill themselves as a bilingual education might be teaching half their core curriculum in the English language. But if the majority of students are not native English speakers, the content of English language class will be English as a second language. What does this mean to you? While your kid’s peers at home are reading Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird, your kids will be circling the sentences depicting verbs written in the conditional tense. It should go without saying, your child is not going to forget how to speak English. (Assuming English is still spoken at home, of course.) However, their skills in reading, writing and vocabulary development in English will all but come to a halt if you don’t manage it properly.
- “International School,” “Bilingual School,” and even “Local School” can mean a lot of different things across different countries. And even within a given country. In particular, private schools take many different forms in terms of degree offering, curriculum, language of instruction, student body demographics, and much more. Carole Hallett Mobbs has written what might be the only book that helps break down expat education related terminology. For a review, click here.
- Finally, an internationally recognized diploma doesn’t equate to preparing your child for higher education in the US. Increasingly, private schools in Spain offer the option to earn American High School diploma. (Other options being International Baccalaureate or the Spanish Bachillerato.) But that doesn’t mean their curriculum will support your child to take American university entrance exams. Unless you’re specifically enrolled in an American school abroad, don’t expect a guidance counselor on staff familiar with the college selection process in the US. Again, the lack of college guidance isn’t in itself a deal breaker. It’s something you need to be aware of so you can fill in the gaps.
Most of these issues I raise aren’t intended to drive you to one specific school option or another. I don’t advocate for any one educational path. Public or private. Bilingual, English-based or completely local language. Predominantly international student body or almost exclusively that country’s nationality. There’s no one size fits all answer. As parents, you are the guides. First and foremost, educate yourselves. Know what questions to ask. Think long and hard about your children’s personality and strengths, both in and out of the classroom. And if your expat life leaves you little choice as to where your kids go to school overseas, it’s all the more important that you learn best how to support them with what you’ve got available.
For more information on choosing a school overseas with a guided list of questions to ask prospective schools you can download our free guide below.
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Jackie Baxa is a mother, yoga teacher, and expat blogger. She writes honestly about the ups, downs, joys and challenges of moving, living and parenting abroad. Through her website, FamilyMoveAbroad.com, she helps families follow their dreams to forge a life in a foreign country. You can follow Jackie on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.