What's it like choosing an international school for your children? We talk to Aimee Fisher, a UK expat based in the UAE about her experience.
Hi Aimee, tell us about yourself and your family.
I moved to the UAE as a teacher on a two year contract, FIFTEEN years ago and now find myself in the privileged position of raising my young family in the country I have grown to call home. Making the transition from single expat to family group has been hard as there are so many things to consider when raising children in a country you didn’t grow up in - but its been a learning curve that has changed my outlook and started to define the global citizen I want to become.
My children, both boys, are now four and six years old and are settled into full time education. The journey to getting them to where they are now probably started about four years ago when my eldest turned two and we decided a nursery would provide him with additional interaction and social skills. It opened up conversations with friends, family and my husband that taught me my first BIG lesson: everyone's ideal is different!Why did you choose the international schooling route for your children?
The choice to send our children to a particular school was heavily based on who our children are as individuals. Faris, my eldest is a fiercely confident child with a very sensitive side and relates closely to his Arabic culture especially the language. Zayed on the other hand is a quieter soul who likes to find his own way, he desperately needs to be independent and shows amazing perseverance in doing so. He refuses to speak Arabic at the moment, pretends he doesn’t hear, and when he does answer its always in English.
We decided not to select a local school for them as we felt we had a great opportunity to provide the children with an education in a diverse international setting that would help them develop friendships that would eventually span the globe. However the type of international setting that best suited them was very different for each son!What factors were important in your choice of international school?
As a British-trained teacher the British curriculum (UK) is my comfort zone: I know it well and I am confident in the pathways that are open to students. That said, as I learned more about the school options available to me I began to see that different curriculums had different advantages. We started our search for Faris by looking only at UK curriculum schools that were located within a 30 minute commute from our home. When we came to making the choice for Zayed though I knew I wanted something that would encourage his language acquisition, foster his enquiring mind and would be closer to home. Having been through a Montessori nursery, we felt an IB route would actually suit him better and so we explored the provisions at both IB and UK curriculum schools, weighing up if both boys being together was more valuable than having them attend separate schools each suiting their individual characters.
I'm a big believer in the feel of a school and so for me visits were a huge deciding factor in our final choice. To make that feasible as a full time working mum though a lot of time went into the shortlisting project before we even set foot in a school! I visited individual school websites, school comparison sites, studied Google Maps, read through reports from the inspection authorities and even asked on Facebook community groups. I also read as much as information as I could published by individual schools, including their social media pages, articles written by senior leaders and so on. I also needed of course to consider cost versus outcomes, not the easiest task to achieve and even now I struggle to justify the cost of one school over the other as both children are thriving equally and often feel like this at least should be equal between the two children.How did you narrow down your shortlist to your final choice of schools?
The school visits ultimately were where I made up my mind and ironically most of the other fact finding I had done went out of the window when I stepped into each school! Some felt cold and empty, some warm and full, some felt comfy and homely and others chaotic and big.
The way the staff addressed my children directly, the natural welcome from students, the sense of community and the tone of the conversations were all HUGE influencing factors because ultimately beyond anything else what I really want for my children is to fit in and be cared for as part of a supportive setting. If they are happy, they will learn.How useful were the school visits?
Looking back at my experience I can’t say that any of the schools I looked at gave me a lot of information about the curriculum, their pedagogies or their provision for students' social and emotional wellbeing. For me this wasn’t a major problem as I knew the standards of these curriculums anyway but if I hadn't worked in education, it's definitely something I would have been keen to know more about before making my decision.
A lot of the school tours I went on were impersonal, scheduled and brief. They were also often lead by administrators who struggled to address questions if they were about something other than the general schedule and admissions processes. Many tours were at set times without any consideration for working parents or other commitments a parent may have and most didn’t even welcome people individually - we were often shepherded into a corner and, like a tour group, led at a fast pace around the schools key areas.
The visits I appreciated the most were the ones that had no fixed time, didn’t feel rushed and where I had time to ask probing questions to academic staff. It was very much for me about how I felt after the visit - was I one of a crowd or a valued individual with my own needs and questions? The latter is the way I want my children to feel.So how did it go? How are your boys getting on in their international schools?
Faris is well into his academic career now: he started Year 1 this year and is making fantastic progress. I am part of a great parent group that is supportive and positive and he has a teacher who openly communicates and is available whenever a parent or child needs to talk. The escalation model is clear and although Faris takes the bus to and from school, I feel like I know everything there is to know about what’s going on at any time. He continues to love school despite a few social issues with older boys, issues that were identified, communicated and resolved effectively to ensure Faris felt safe.
Zayed is only a few weeks into his KG1 school life and so things are still very new, he tells me daily that he only plays at school and has made friends quickly. My quiet little boy has participated in Show and Tell and has stood on a stage in front of lots of people which demonstrates how secure he feels and the enquiry approach they are taking.
My only job now is to encourage, support and keep assessing. I can’t guarantee the schools they are in now will be their only schools. My sons will inevitably change as will their schools and so I will keep a close eye on them and how they are doing and each school's ability to adapt to their individual needs. As long as they are happy, they will continue to thrive!
Aimee Fisher is a British Parent of two Emirati children living in the UAE.
If you have any thoughts or comments on how to help parents feel at ease with choosing a new international school for their children, let us know in the comments below.