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International schools: educating citizens of the world

Children don’t have to return to Britain to be schooled. There is an international option, says Nick Morrison

International schools in cities such as Dubai offer children the chance to be educated in a cosmopolitan setting

Living abroad, even if it is just for a limited time, opens up a host of new opportunities, but for families with school-age children it also creates a dilemma.

A boarding school can be a good option and provides continuity if the family ends up moving back to the UK, but it also means children miss out on some of the benefits of living in another country. For many, an international school offers the advantages of a UK education while still living at home.

Even though students in a typical boarding school will meet peers from many different countries, it still cannot replicate the experience of living abroad, according to Mark Leppard, principal of Doha College in Qatar.

“The educational benefits are pretty comparable, but coming to an overseas school means living in a different culture and that is something you won’t get from the classroom. They are experiencing a genuine multicultural society,” he says. “It also means parents can keep their children with them.”

About half of Doha College’s students are from the UK. While previously many came while their parents were on short-term contracts – two years used to be the norm – stays of up to five years are increasingly common, Leppard adds.

But even so the school is set up to make transfer back to the UK as straightforward as possible. It follows a UK curriculum, including A-levels and international GCSEs, and most teachers are UK-trained. It also has links with British boarding schools to ease the transition for students returning home.

Doha College also subscribes to a voluntary scheme run by the UK government’s Department for Education, where schools are inspected every three years, as well as the quality assurance programme run by the Council of British International Schools (Cobis).

Like many international schools, it was set up to serve the British community, but now has a much more eclectic student body. There are 75 nations represented, including European and South American, as well as Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and India. About 10 per cent of its students are Qatari, and it counts the current emir among its alumni.

“The UK education system is held in very high regard outside the UK, and parents see it as a gold standard,” Leppard says.

Facilities are similar to those you would expect in a boarding school, with its own sports pitches, swimming pools, drama studio and concert auditorium. The big difference is that the heat means outdoor sport is not possible at the beginning and end of the school year, and instead runs from October to May/June.

The heat is not normally a problem at the British School in the Netherlands (BSN) in The Hague. Around a quarter of its 2,200 students are British and another 12 per cent Dutch, with the rest from around the world,reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the Dutch capital.

And this feeds into one of the major advantages of an international school, explains principal Martin Coles. “The international nature of the student body, the culture and ethos of the place, means children learn to get on with children from all different backgrounds,” he says.

“Since the parents have mobile lifestyles themselves they see that as the norm and they want their children to get on with children from any other place in the world.”

For parents whose jobs may take them anywhere in the world, the presence of British international schools in so many other countries provides some reassurance of continuity in education, he says.

The BSN offers both A-levels and the International Baccalaureate, and school leavers head to universities all around the world. “Because of the context in which they’re educated, their perspective is much wider than just whether it is Oxbridge or a red-brick university,” says Coles.

An education in an international school, plus qualifications that are widely recognised, helps students gain access to the best universities, he adds, whether they are in Europe, North America or further afield.

Like many international schools, BSN offers a rich seam of extracurricular activities, including frequent trips to other countries. In the past 12 months, its students have gone on an exchange visit to China, played basketball in Rome and swam in Cairo.

“International travel is a normal part of their lives,” adds Coles.

Parents can expect both a high standard of education and first-class facilities from an international school, according to Cobis chief executive Colin Bell. Students also develop an international outlook as a result of encountering so many people from different nationalities, he adds.

“It can be an amazing experience,” he says. “International schools are pretty incredible places and it means you can stay as a family unit.”

British expats make up around a quarter of the 120,000 students at Cobis’s 230 affiliated schools, he says, although the proportions vary widely from school to school. Almost two-thirds have primary and secondary phases.

Gems Wellington International School in Dubai has 86 different nationalities among its 2,430 students, with 22 per cent from British backgrounds. Three-quarters of its teachers are from the UK, with the rest largely from Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the Middle East.

And in an increasingly globalised world, this experience will stand students in good stead in the future, says principal Keith Miller.

“International schools enable their students to fully understand and appreciate different cultures, integrate with students from different backgrounds and build a different set of interpersonal skills that fully prepare them for study and the workplace in any country in the world,” he says.

Similarities between international schools mean children who move between schools will feel secure in a familiar environment, while parents can have confidence in both the academic standards and the level of pastoral support, he adds.

A strong pastoral system is important for any school, but particularly crucial for an international school, says Sue Woodroofe, principal of the British School of Brussels. She says students typically stay for around three years, although secondary age students are more likely to stay until they have completed their exams.

“The transient nature of the community makes it very dynamic, but it also means you are constantly losing your friends and having to make new ones,” she says. “The critical thing for us is how you help new students settle in and also help existing students.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex visit Doha College

“But if you develop a pastoral system to embrace that as being a normal way of life, you get something very special. Students have an ability to be accepting of everybody and understand their differences.”

It’s not only students who benefit from pastoral support. The school also has a strong network for parents, including facilities on campus, organised trips and language clubs, she adds.

Around 40 per cent of the school’s pupils are British, with 70 nationalities represented altogether, and this gives an extra dimension to the curriculum. Rather than looking at subjects from a particularly British point of view, there will be a more international outlook.

“We adapt the curriculum because we have got children from all different parts of the world in each class,” says Woodroofe. “It brings a much richer and better understanding of the topics we study because we see them from a great number of perspectives.”

Students at an international school see themselves as global citizens, she adds, who are more willing to travel for work and study opportunities. But they also have the benefit of living at home.

“There are an awful lot of parents who want to keep their children with them,” Woodroofe says. “It means if they want to support them playing rugby, then they can, and it is a fantastic community for the parents as well.” via telegraph.co.uk



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