Which school stands out?

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Educator, Julia Knight, tells us how to go about choosing an international school for our children. International education is growing at an ever-increasing pace with the demand for international school … Continued

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Educator, Julia Knight, tells us how to go about choosing an international school for our children.

International education is growing at an ever-increasing pace with the demand for international school placements on the rise for both local and expatriate families, not just in Bahrain, but across the region.

A parental demand for high quality education in the Gulf saw an exponential growth in the sector. “In the last seven years there have been 72 new private schools opened in Dubai – 33 in the last three years” Mark Ryder, Regional Consultant for RSAcademics explains, which is great news for parents in Dubai as it means a greater choice. This is also true for schools in Bahrain with new schools on the island expected to open this academic year and the next. However, choice can be overwhelming for parents given the myriad of things that need to be compared and contrasted.

Expatriate families are often making other life changing decisions alongside choosing schools. Whilst both: local and expatriate families are looking for value for money, local families are also looking for longevity and schools which reflect local customs and provide community links.

So, what are the top indicators to look for in an international school?
The answers might surprise parents but in research conducted by RSAcademics, 68% of parents cited the school’s ethos and values as very important when choosing an international school. How can parents understand the ethos of a school? Firstly, parents should book a school tour and get a ‘feel’ for the place. If you can talk to the teachers, visit the playground, see the classrooms. During the school tour, you can ask questions about the academics and curriculum, talk to the teachers, visit the playground and see the classrooms – the feel of the school is a big indicator of your child’s happiness.

Another way to find out about the school is by talking to parents, in fact according RSAcademics, 71% relied on recommendations from parents of children at the school they were applying to. If the majority of parents are happy with a school, then this is a good indicator that the school is doing something right. Parents can use local forums on social media to reach out to parents as well the school’s own website and social media posts.

For many parents, the curricular of the school is the first consideration when they begin the search for a new school. If your child attends a British school then the expectation is that if they move on, they will find it easy to slot back into a British school either in their home or another host country.

This should be true for all international schools. Bahrain has a variety of schools that offer curriculums from France, Canada, the US, India and the UK; expatriate parents should consider how long they might be away from their home country and whether this might impact external examinations such as GCSEs or SATS. Local or long-term resident families might consider where they want their children to study in the future- whether A levels or IB would be a more suitable pathway to the US, Canada or UK universities and colleges.

Once the curriculum has been selected and the school tour booked, what are the other aspects for parents to consider?
The size of the school is a consideration for many families. In smaller schools and classes, students are usually more confident and competent learners who are able to make significant progress. This is because smaller schools often feel safer for children, they can take risks in small classes where friendships are quickly established and across the whole school rather than from just one year group or class.

In UK mainstream, independent schools – the average class size is 16 – this is often attractive to fee paying parents who want a bespoke, boutique style of learning. Smaller schools can build a greater sense of community spirit as teachers, parents and students are able to get to know one another which provides invaluable support to new families arriving.

Larger schools can have benefits too, a larger cohort can present more diversity among the student population and allow for more opportunities for school teams and productions. For teachers, the sweet spot is around 18 – 20 students, poor behaviour and disengagement is far less likely in a smaller class as students are more visible to teachers and peers and tend to be more motivated as they receive more attention from the teacher.

Aside from academics, what should you look for?
Find a balance: some parents will favour sports and the arts over academics, but well-rounded students need a mixture of both to thrive. Look carefully at the school facilities and spaces, ask questions about the number of weekly lessons allocated for drama, art and sport. Find out if the spaces are shared between different sections of the school.

Another crucial question to ask is about the playtimes or break times – where do the children eat, and do they get enough time to run off the energy that learning builds? On average, children in independent schools in the UK have 90 minutes of breaktimes per day – this is an important factor in wellbeing and happiness. International schools often mirror the UK independent school timings – longer hours in the classroom should also include extended time for children to socialise and engage with their peers.

Choosing a school for your child depends on so many factors, but in the end, it really does come down to the simple question of does the school fit your family ethos and values? If it does, then you will know it when you ‘feel’ it.

Julia Knight has been teaching for 18 years in London, Bangkok and, is now a principal in Bahrain. She writes for many education magazines worldwide and offers teacher training and consultancy. You can follow her on Twitter @KnightWilliams.