There are more than 8,000 international schools scattered across the globe, which means that if you have to transfer for work, or merely fancy life as a digital nomad, you shouldn’t need to compromise when it comes to your children’s education. Indeed, in some locations, you will be spoilt for choice.
But choice doesn’t always make life easier, and if it’s difficult to find the right school at home, choosing one in a location where you may not speak the language can be that bit more challenging.
Singapore-based Selina Boyd, who heads The Good Schools Guide’s international schools advisory service, has transferred her own children across continents on several occasions. She suggests that you start by seeking recommendations from as many sources as possible: friends, family, relocation agents, expat groups on Facebook. “Remember to take all advice with a pinch of salt, however – those with the biggest gripes often shout loudest,” she says.
School websites are a further invaluable resource. “International schools recognise that it isn’t easy to visit, so they often have amazing virtual tours and parent ambassadors to speak to through live chat.”
Academic matters will naturally be significant, and, unsurprisingly, international schools offer a multitude of educational systems. Most parents stick to the system they – and their children – know, but, as Boyd warns, it helps to be reasonably clear about your long-term plans, whether that’s transferring to a boarding school in the UK or a university in the US. “No international school will prepare you for Common Entrance [the exams taken for entrance into some senior independent schools], but many are excellent at providing advice for universities in both the UK and the US,” she says.
Some destinations, of course, offer greater variety than others. Singapore, for example, has more than 50 international schools, many long-established and setting the highest academic standards. International schools in Dubai – reflecting its rapid growth from small town to global city – are of more recent date, and some have been known to disappear as quickly as they emerge. Whatever your intended destination, Boyd recommends prioritising not-for-profit and deep roots: “Schools that have been around for a while find it easier to attract and retain staff, and will generally have a teaching body that has strengthened over time.”
Switzerland is renowned for its elite boarding schools – exclusive establishments that tend to be patronised by wealthy families from outside the UK, as British parents generally favour the home-grown variety. But it is also the birthplace of the International Baccalaureate (IB), which includes a final-years Diploma Programme, an alternative to A-levels, that is esteemed throughout the world. “Most of the international day schools in Switzerland – there is a large concentration around Geneva – follow the IB curriculum, often with excellent results,” says Sally Walker, The Good Schools Guide’s Swiss expert.
Outside big cities, international schools tend to be clustered around commercial centres such as the Sophia Antipolis technology park on the Côte d’Azur, which employs nearly 40,000 people of 80 nationalities.
“The area has a great offering in terms of international education,” says Alex Balkin, executive director of Savills French Riviera and French Alps. “The International Baccalaureate and English curriculum allow parents to select the best option for higher education later on. And shuttle services are available to enable students from all over the region to take advantage of its quality schools.” Studies in English are also available at several universities and business schools, with exchange programmes established with partner institutions across the world.
For many parents, their children’s school will be the anchor of a new community they have chosen for lifestyle reasons. British expats have been settling in Spain’s Costa del Sol for sun and fun for nearly 100 years, and the international schools, several of which have been operating since the 1970s, cluster in the stretch from Malaga to Sotogrande.
James Stewart, who heads Savills associate office in Sotogrande, has no difficulty understanding why he has seen an influx of digital nomads since the pandemic: “The area, of course, has wonderful sports and outdoor attractions, but it also has great schools that will take families happily from nursery to a university anywhere in the world.” Who could ask for more?
Dr Lisa Freedman is a consultant for The Good Schools Guide
Pictures from top: a student in Singapore (unsplash); taking to the slopes in Verbier (Alamy); the Promenade du Paillon in Nice (Alamy); the Reformation Wall in Geneva (Getty); on the beach in Dubai (Getty)