Securing a school place in the Middle East, Europe and Africa

Competition for schools places makes forward planning for families in global transition fundamental. The rewards of doing so will last a lifetime, as panellists in this webinar explored.

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The world of global mobility is fast-paced and dynamic. It has to be to keep pace with the constantly changing global business landscape.But for families making an international relocation with school-age children, this need for agility and responsiveness can be at odds with the stability and foresight needed for carefully planning an international education.This Relocate Global webinar, part of November’s month-long Great International Education & Schools Fair, examined how to balance these competing needs. Plus, what parents, schools and employers are doing – and can do – to support families relocating internationally. Joining hosts Jayne Constantinis, BBC Worldwide presenter, and Fiona Murchie, Relocate Global’s Managing Editor, in this inspiring webinar were:Watch the webinar

Competition for places: what does it mean?

One of the challenges in countries like Qatar and the UAE, which have a very high proportion of expatriate families from all around the world, is that while the number of international schools matches that in other world cities, like New York and London, demand is high and the number of available places is limited.“Parents have to do their homework long before they arrive because if they don’t guarantee their school place before they arrive, then they will have a bad start,” warns Dr Sergio Pawel, Head of the International School of London Qatar, also highlighting the vital role schools have in making international transitions a success. “They will find a school, but they are generally full. Ours is no exception.”While a stark reminder of the reality of international moves with a family and the need to plan as early as possible, making a great move to the Middle East is definitely possible with the right support and advice.

The right school for the child

Echoing Dr Pawel’s observation, all of the panellists advised parents to adopt a child-first approach to international relocation and education choices. For the panellists, with their many years of experience, school choice needs to be front and centre of the relocation decision-making process, including choosing the school before the place to live. UAE-based Fiona McKenzie has helped many families make the right education choice and also counsels forward-thinking employers on how to support their relocating families in planning an education overseas. She advised parents to avoid getting distracted by competition for particular schools, not least because it might not actually be appropriate for their child.Pressure to secure a place and at the ‘right’ school might encourage parents to focus less on what their child actually needs. “Full disclosure about a child’s educational history is definitely the way to go,” says Fiona McKenzie. “Transparency means the children’s needs can be met. There’s nothing worse than being in the wrong environment because ultimately that is even more damaging and far more stressful for everyone involved.”Catalina Gardescu, Head of Admissions at the American International School of Bucharest, heartily agreed. “For parents relocating with children with diverse special needs it is even more important that they start doing their homework and research ahead of time. Go and look at the website and school and talk to people. Come prepared with all of the documentation because it is very important to have all the details from the start.”Fortunately, the special atmosphere of international schools and their inherent diversity is lending itself to a growing understanding of practice and thought-leadership around neurodiversity in the classroom. This is a real opportunity for parents to grasp what makes their children thrive at school and to seek out the right school for them.“I think schools have become so much more aware of neurodiversity,” says Fiona McKenzie. “There is much more of a vocabulary around inclusion and schools are so much better prepared.”As an excellent example of how international education is encouraging and supporting neurodiversity, the International School of London Group, which has international schools in London and Doha, has developed a multi-lingual programme that reduces from 6 months to 2 weeks the time it takes for teachers to identify individual learning needs. “This has been extremely successful over the past 10 years in minimising the timeframe while underlying learning needs are disclosed,” says Dr Pawel. “My advice to parents if they were to disclose from day one is that it would be much easier to help the students.”

Curriculum choice

Matching the number of international schools in Qatar and the UAE is the sheer range of curricula options available. “Here in the UAE we have 17 curricula on offer,” says Fiona McKenzie. As well as the US and UK approaches, this number includes curricula from Japan, China, India and the IB. “It’s very much about finding the right curriculum for your child that suits their style of learning,” continues Fiona McKenzie. “Also, it’s very important to think about where your career journey is taking you and where you may go next. Think about the transferability of the programme, especially if you are one of those families that is going to be highly mobile. “In some curricula there are key moments when it is difficult to transition, particularly mid-way through GCSEs and A-levels. The American curriculum and the IB are much more transferable.”Language and a child’s strengths also often play into curriculum choice. “If they are bi- or multilingual, how keen are they and their parents to want to keep up their native language?” says Fiona McKenzie.  “A huge number of international schools offer that facility. But, for curriculum choice, a lot is also about the individual child and the feel of the school.”

The route to higher education

All three of the international schools represented on this webinar offer the IB curriculum. Recognised as an established route to university, the IB means students from these schools head to universities all over the world. For the International School of London Qatar, around 90% of school leavers go to universities internationally, often in the US, Germany and the UK.  When students start to explore where to go next for higher education, Catalina Gardescu, Head of Admissions at the American International School of Bucharest, adopts a listening approach.“We work with a range of counsellors to hear what students want and what the parents can do because that is a huge element,” says Catalina Gardescu. “Most students, unless there is a strong family tradition or desire, go on to international colleges or universities, mostly in the US or the UK."

Nurturing the next generation of globally minded citizens

International schools are developing curious and open-minded global citizens who are confident and keen to engage with, experience and learn from a diverse range of people and places. These are vital skills in the 21st century workplace.“One of the things I love about being in Dubai is walking into the classroom and seeing the range of students there,” says Fiona McKenzie. “It’s the intercultural understanding that these international schools foster. It really is an extraordinary phenomenon and perspective. The children here look 360. If they are looking to go on to higher education, they will look all over the world. It is a very open and growth mindset.”“International schools are normally in a good position to bring different cultures and settings together,” says Dr Sergio Pawel of ISL Qatar, where global citizenship and community action are important. “They open students’ horizons and develop engagement with cultures and communities often not accessible to a local school in a region where only one culture dominates.”The ability to understand another’s perspective, take on board different views and develop critical thinking are vital attributes for navigating the future. “Around the world in the last few years we’ve seen the emergence of Nationalism, for example in France, England and the US,” says Dr Tim Stuart, Head of the International Community School of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “The global citizen stands in contrast to that. A global citizen believes their answer is not the only answer. They inquire and ask questions about how other people view a particular situation and are not dogmatic about their own perspective.”

Co-curricular – no longer an extra?

Developing these all-important intercultural skills and outlooks happens both inside and out of the classroom. Sports and creative activities foster teamwork, mutual respect and better communication in these rich, multicultural and multilingual environments. So much so that some schools in EMEA increasingly regard these not as extra-curricular, but co-curricular, and are literally building these into the curricula with impressive facilities on campus. “Co-curricular means these activities are aligned with curriculum,’ says Dr Tim Stuart. “In contrast with skills we would consider to be the soft skills developed in co-curricular programmes, traditional academic skills are actually potentially diminishing in value. Skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity are not skills traditional curricula have emphasised.“I would say for parents looking for schools, focus on a school that is developing the whole child, not just the cognitive or the traditional academic skills. There is a shift globally in terms of the important skills and dispositions being developed in co-curricular programmes. These are being correlated in research with success where students are thriving.”“Education is so much more than the academics,” agrees Fiona McKenzie. “We are blessed in this part of the world to have some newly built schools and fantastic facilities. Sports, drama and music develop social skills, confidence and critical thinking and are very important to parents and their child’s development.”

Aligning ethos and values in school choice

If an education is about far more than the academics, then understanding and evaluating a school’s ethos can be another key element of the finding the right school.“All schools are about education” says Fiona McKenzie. “But what makes each school different is ethos. We spend a lot of time with parents unpacking their values and finding schools where the ethos aligns with their values and that’s where you get a good fit.“Sometimes families want that dynamic competitive environment whereas others want a more creative environment. So, for us, it’s about understanding what the family’s values are and how that is going to fit. An ethos needs to be coherent, authentic and permeate down from teachers to students. Parents can feel that."“A great place to look for an ethos is a school’s vision statement,” says Dr Tim Stuart. “That is the school’s attempt to point to the direction they want to go and the direction they want their students to end up. Our vision statement is ‘Our Best with Africa and Our World’.“If you notice, our vision statement is not the best, but our best. Collectively each day we want to come to school and do our best. It’s not our best in Africa. It’s our best with Africa. There’s a nuance there that obviously we want to bring our best, but do it in collaboration with the community we live in. And it’s not the world. It’s our world and that can be as small as your village or globally. So, I think a good place to look for an ethos is a school’s vision statement then ask questions about that.”

The importance of positive transitions

A theme running through much of the Great International Education & Schools Fair is the importance of the school community for making smooth transitions. There are some great personal stories,  research and practical advice available to ensure that the first and last days at a new school in a host country start and end on a positive note.Again, many international schools are heeding research that highlights the potentially negative lifelong impact poorly managed transitions can have emotionally and educationally. “International schools have developed programmes to ensure there is support and a smooth transition for the students coming from different schools and leaving for different schools, but also for parents and teachers,” says Dr Tim Stuart.“Having a comprehensive programme of onboarding is very important. It’s also about making sure you are supporting those who are staying when people are leaving. These people are also transitioning.“Transitions are very complicated and schools have put a lot of thought into it. At the heart of it are relationships, leaning in and listening to kids and teachers and parents and making sure you let them tell their story because that’s a key part of the transition.“Onboarding is really important to us” continues Dr Tim Stuart. “We have teachers and counsellors meet one on one with students when they come in. We also have an individual ‘Hopes and Dreams’ conference with all our students and their parents at the beginning of the school year to ask what are your hopes and dreams for this year and what are your fears? We truly take the time to listen to make sure the educational experience children are going to have at our school is going to meet those hopes and dreams for each one.”

Coming full circle

In addition to orientation days, transition workshops, buddy systems and links with other families in the school community, the American International School of Bucharest also offers logistics support to link back to the all-important advice for parents of doing their homework, full disclosure and getting transition records in order. “When a family knows they are leaving they come to me and I handle the references and paperwork and make contact with the new school,” says Catalina Gardenescu.This transition journey is also something the International School of London Qatar takes extremely seriously. “At ISL we have dedicated a lot of time to thinking about transitions,” says Dr Sergio Pavel. “We map the transition for students, parents and teachers and follow this through long before the student arrives in our school.“Perhaps the best way to summarise is to stop thinking of our school as the sun in the universe, but part of a constellation that is in permanent revolution. We are just one planet in this family’s journey. It is our job to see parents through this process of coming in and leaving it.”“The whole transition experience can be incredibly overwhelming for everyone,” says Fiona McKenzie. “In my experience, the schools that handle this best treat it as an holistic experience for the whole family. In the UAE, everyone was new to this country at some point so there is a huge level of empathy around welcoming people.“I think the schools that do handle it well really make a huge difference. For me, it’s all about the research: working with the family to help that transition to be much smoother and parents fully briefed on why they are making that choice so they can start building a relationship with the school early on, are prepared, and know what to except and what is coming up when they hit the ground.”

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

<< Return to the Great Education & Schools' Fair homepage


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