International schools: passport to the journey of a lifetime

Curriculum and university choices set the foundations for lifelong learning. The 'Exploring Curricula and Higher Education Options' webinar welcomed experts to show how schools are preparing young people for the future.

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This insightful broadcast, available here, is vital viewing for all parents and families making an international move, and the destination service providers, HR and global mobility expertise supporting them. Packed with practical intelligence and advice from education professionals, the webinar explores how relocating families can choose the right curriculum to set their children on the journey to the future they want.To help signpost parents to the international education pathways available, joining host BBC World presenter, Jayne Constantinis, and Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie, is the highly accomplished panel of experts:

Home or host country curriculum?

Parents looking at an international education for younger family members and those planning their next international move have a range of curriculum and school options available to them. Alongside the rise in global mobility, international schools are growing in number, location diversity and scope. They offer families on international assignment a choice of curriculum when educating their children at local schools is not an option. International schools that offer an English curriculum-based approach ending with GCSE, IGCSE or A Level qualifications are among the most established. Yet, as Relocate Global's other Great International Education and Schools Fair webinars have highlighted, French, US, Australian, Singaporean, bilingual and other national curricula are adding to the options available, including now fully virtual schools.Each enables students to continue their education anywhere in the world and are especially useful where families expect to return to their home country at the end of the assignment.

The IB – universal appeal

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is another option. A rising number of international schools and students around the world are adopting its continuum-based approach.From the Primary Years Programme (PYP), to the Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma and now Careers certification, the programme is particularly interesting to families on the move, as Richard Parker explained in the "Exploring Curricula and Higher Education Options" webinar.“The IB is recognised I believe in every country in the world bar three,” he says. “It means it is understood everywhere, which is especially important for travelling families.“If you’re doing the IB, you know it doesn’t matter what university system you go into: the IB is understood. At a school like ours, where people go to universities all around the world, we feel comfortable with that.”It is also a curriculum that values different contexts and cultures. “It’s very adaptable,” says Richard, whose school offers the IB curriculum to its over 400 students from 61 nationalities. “From the PYP to the MYP, it is based on concepts you can explore and adapt in different cultures. As a quick example, if you’re in the MYP and you’re looking at democracy, you can explore it from different perspectives based on where you are. The conceptual approach allows it to be more flexible." 

An holistic approach

Johanna Sale of Impington Village and International College - which was named the UK’s top non-selective provider of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in the Sunday Times Parent Power 2020 - which has run the IB Diploma (IB DP) programme for over 30 years from its campus near Cambridge and is preparing to offer the IB MYP, agrees. “As Richard said they are fantastic curricula. We are one of the most experienced IB schools in the UK. For us it’s the holistic nature, and the fantastic depth and breadth these programmes offer, which is why we are so keen to introduce it into our main school – our middle school.”While each curriculum has its merits, the ultimate choice depends on several factors, including the family’s longer term plans. Ksenija Popac of EMG School Placement is an experienced consultant advising expat parents on curriculum and school options. She approaches conversations with relocating families from a child-first and future-focused perspective. “At the intake meeting I look at the strengths and the whole child,” she says. “Of course, the curriculum they are doing now is important, but we look ahead and think for the future. Is the family going to move elsewhere? If they are moving to Germany, and then in the next few years are moving to Singapore, we would advise an international curriculum and that is usually the IB.”

A range of options for an international qualification

One concern parents may have is around whether the IB’s conceptual approach is suitable for every child. Historically the IB has had a reputation for being only for the “academic elite”, which Johanna Sale questions.“Particularly in the UK, there are lots of schools that market it as such and ask for enormously high GCSE grades to be able to get on to the IB DP programme. Here we ask for an average GCSE grade 5. That is because we’ve seen over our 30 years some incredible successes from students who have come in with some quite low to middling GCSEs and absolutely flourished.”“I think the IB is designed in such a way as to be open to everybody,” agrees Richard Parker, whose International School of London also has a completely inclusive IB programme with no minimum requirements. “Some argue that the IB DP is designed for more academic students, which I would dispute. “There’s also the new Careers programme that’s been around for a few years. The IB is adaptable to basically be there for anybody in terms of their ability and I think most curricula do that.”

Inclusion in international education

Among the downsides of more traditional syllabuses and curricula, including A Levels and GCSEs, is that because of timetables some schools must narrow the range of subjects on offer and students specialise early in subjects. For example, where triple science subjects are compulsory, students may need to drop subjects they enjoy more, like the creative arts, languages or humanities. This means not every student can necessarily play to their strengths.For Ksenija Popac, selecting a curriculum is about the child, their individual interests and finding a curriculum that is flexible enough to accommodate their range of interests and abilities. “There are students where we and their parents can see that the IB DP is just too challenging for them. In that case, there are possibilities. Some schools offer IB certificates.”This option means fewer subjects are studied, but it still offers a pathway to university if that is the goal, especially for study in the United States where early subject specialisation is less of an issue than say in the UK-based system.“What is really important is that a child can enjoy the school and their programme and that they can enjoy being part of a multi-cultural environment,” continues Ksenija Popac. “There are options where children have a realistic chance of being admitted.”“It’s not necessarily a lesser deal,” says Richard Parker. “Lots can happen with an IB certificate.” 

Making wellbeing a priority for now and the future

Of course, curriculum choice is just one aspect of a student’s journey through education. A school where the culture creates a supportive environment where students can thrive is also critical.“When you look at a school, you look at the culture, the wellbeing of staff, students and families, and what they are trying to achieve, rather than just the curriculum, to make sure they really do cater to the needs of every child,” says Richard Parker.“This is about your child’s wellbeing,” agrees Ksenija Popac. “That’s what matters most. If the child is happy the family will be happy. It will influence their perception of their host country.“I advise families to ask the school admissions officer first ‘how do you integrate newcomers?’,” counsels Ksenija Popac. “That is the most important thing. And then we work out the whole list of child-specific questions. I stress one more time a child’s wellbeing is paramount and that they feel well socially, academically and emotionally. This comes on its own.” The International School of London is among international schools that have well-established transitions programme for families. It takes great care to welcome and integrate students and their families into the school community. This really showed during this year’s UK-wide and English lockdowns.“Our school has a large home language department,” says Richard Parker. “We offer home language to anyone from wherever they are in the world. We have around 25 language groups at this present time. During lockdown our mother-tongue teachers were key to our whole wellbeing approach.“One of the things when you are moving around the world is that it’s not just children – it’s the whole family and they need to feel connected. The school becomes your central community and your real support elements. I think the multilingual and the multicultural approach is really key if your school’s function is to be there for international families.” 

Higher Education options – the world at their feet

For the next steps on students’ journeys, the panelists reported a wide – and increasing – diversity of destination universities and apprenticeship, whichever curriculum they follow. Could a sense of international mindedness, global citizenship and intellectual curiosity being nurtured at international schools and in globally mobile families mean more students have the confidence to go to a wider range of universities than traditionally has been the case?“Our students have an incredibly broad range of destinations,” says Johanna Sale, commenting on recent trends. “Many go back to university in their home country in Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland and other Eastern European countries. We also have an increasing number of students who go further afield, like to the US, and Canada this year – a relatively new pathway for us. “One thing that is really interesting is the popularity of the Netherlands' universities certainly. Increasingly in the last two years students from Spain and Italy in particular are going there.” Richard Parker has also seen the appeal of universities in the Netherlands grow for students at the International School of London. As well as courses being conducted in English language, could this be because of Brexit, asked Jayne Constantinis?Panelist Kate Raison of advisory UK Study Options says Brexit “has changed the higher education landscape quite drastically.” Before Brexit, EU students enjoyed Home Fees at UK universities. They are now classified as overseas students and fee payers. “That means a lot of students are going to think now ‘do I want to go and study in the UK? It’s much more costly than it used to be. Is it still worth it for me?’,” says Kate Raison.“The good news is that universities really do want students to come here and they are making lots of different schemes, incentives and scholarships and fee freezing to encourage them to get that diversity of knowledge in their classroom and continue to provide world-leading education to anyone who wants to study in the UK.”

Planning for university admissions

Planning post-18 education from overseas destinations can be tricky, but “it should be something students are thinking about very carefully,” advises Kate Raison. “We always say jump into the future: what subject do you want to be studying and what potentially do you want to be doing as a career. Then take the steps back on the path towards that. “With the IB there are more compulsory subjects such as science and language to the end of school, which can be an advantage. But for A-Level students, they need to be much more selective about which subjects they carry on to the end of school because that has a real impact on which degree they can go on to.”Fortunately, there is lots of information out there, including Informed Choices, the Russell Group’s website (the UK’s top research-led universities, including Oxford and Cambridge). This looks at what subjects lead from A Level into certain university courses. In the UK, apprenticeships are also an option.“It’s really important for the parents and students to think ‘where do I want to go?’ before they make any choices,” says Kate Raison. “They can go onto the university websites to check what are the entry criteria for the courses I’m interested in. Are there particular subjects that are compulsory and a particular grade in that subject to get onto that course?”Despite the impact of Brexit, getting into UK and other universities around the world remains incredibly competitive. Schools and parents are vitally important here for preparing students for the admissions process. It is also not just about making the grade. Universities are looking for genuine interest and motivation to study.

Making a statement

“It’s generally the case that more people apply to university than there are places available,” says Kate Raison. “If you look at the entry requirements on the university website and you are meeting the academic requirements, then that’s great. But you do need more than the grades to make sure you stand out and make yourself an excellent candidate for that course.”Personal statements are key in the UK application system. “It’s the space where the student gets to talk about themselves beyond their curriculum,” says Kate Raison. “What their passion is for the course and what they have done to explore the subject outside of school. It shows how you are exploring that subject even further and showing that academic hunger to explore more. “That might include things like going to lectures, doing MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], listening to podcasts or reading texts and journals. Candidates can put all that in their personal statements to show you really are an excellent person to be doing this course. That is how people really stand out. Your references can also give you the edge in applying for university.”Their exposure to universities around the world means international schools are also often well placed to guide and support students through the applications process in other countries, too. “You have to tailor it to the needs of different countries,” says Richard Parker. “Australia is very much points based whereas in the US you have to do a lot of work on your personal approach to the university of your choice.”In Germany and the Netherlands, the approach is also centred on the individual and what motivates them to study a particular course. “They want to make sure they have the right students, so understanding their motivation and why they want to study is very important,” says Ksenija Popac. “They need to see extra-curricular activity and engagement in the community and then there is an interview.” “The huge advantage to IB is that you get all of these things,” adds Johanna Sale. “Working with IB DP students is a joy because it is all there. We are lucky to work individually with all students because we are small enough. We really help them to explore what are the very best things about their 2, 5 or 7 years with us.”Catch the replay with our accomplished panel of experts:

Meet the speakers

Find out more about all of the speakers and panelists who participated in the autumn 2020 Great International Education & Schools Fair.

Find the perfect school from the comfort of your home

Now is the ideal time to discover the right school for your child. As schools hosted Open Days and Virtual Events throughout the autumn, we used the opportunity throughout November to showcase the schools around the world that welcome relocating families and international students, not only at the beginning of a new academic year, but also at any time, with rolling admissions to meet the needs of families on the move.

The next Great International Education & Schools' Fair is coming in spring 2021

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