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How Expats Can Evaluate Their Child’s School Choices and Costs

May 27, 2016


Deciding to move as the adult of the family is the easy part. The hard part comes when you plan to move the kids:

  • How can you make sure they get the quality education they need in your new home country?
  • What happens if they fall behind in class because they struggle with the language?
  • Will this affect their university options?

The rest of the expat community is way ahead of you, and most countries have a variety of schooling options for kids of all ages. It’s really a matter of choosing your personal preference, and what’s best for your child.


Know Your Early Childcare Options

In most countries, parents with children too young for school face three options:

  1. dropping them off at a local daycare,
  2. hiring an au pair,
  3. or staying at home with them.

Each of these options is viewed more or less favorably depending on the family, and is more or less affordable by region as well.

Local Daycare Cost Varies by Country

The most common early childhood education option for European parents is a local daycare. Not only does this let both parents return to work, but placing their children in the care of professionals removes any worry about their child’s development and social skills.

After all, a child’s brain develops more during the first five years than any other part of his or her life, says the team at Busy Bees, a child care facility based in Staffordshire, England. They believe childcare options help children develop the necessary social skills they’ll need throughout their lives, and offer specialist knowledge to make sure your child hits all the appropriate milestones for their age.

Unfortunately, cost and availability for daycare varies significantly by country.

Natasha Bita did a side-by-side comparison of popular expat destinations for The Australian. She found that the average childcare and student education costs exceeded 14,000 AUD for each baby or toddler enrolled in daycare there. Scandinavian countries are even more expensive: childcare costs there exceed 16,000 AUD annually on average. Japan and South Korea were the cheapest, at around 8,000 AUD.

If you have a large family of infant and toddler-age kids, these figures add up quickly.

Nanny or Au Pair vs. Nursery School

When expat parents start adding up the cost of local preschools, the idea of hiring a nanny becomes more appealing. After all, a highly-trained professional can make sure your son or daughter is hitting their developmental milestones while taking them to playgroups or the park to socialize with kids their age.

The InterNations annual survey on Childcare for Expat Kids found that most expats preferred local daycare in Nordic countries, and also reported high satisfaction with the available options. However, an average of 33% of expat parents prefer hiring a nanny or au pair in Southeastern Asian destinations such as Singapore or Hong Kong.

In many Asian countries, the cost of a nanny is roughly the same as daycare, but is significantly more expensive in cosmopolitan European cities such as London or Berlin.

In the past few years, nanny sharing has become a popular alternative. In nanny sharing, two families split the time of one nanny throughout the day. Kate Hilpern explains in the Huffington Post three keys to nanny sharing:

  • Sign a contract beforehand detailing hours, expectations, and taxes.
  • Set up weekly or monthly catchups to review any issues or ideas.
  • Make sure the nanny has one point of contact, instead of getting calls from all members of both families.

Stay-at-Home Parenting and Grandparenting

If you’re moving to a part of the world where local daycare isn’t ideal and you can’t afford a nanny, consider having a parent stay home to watch the kids before they’re old enough for school.

Sandhya D’Mello of the Khaleej Times in the UAE is an advocate for parents spending as much time as they can with their kids — especially fathers. Kids who lack special quality time with their parents tend to get frustrated in their studies and act out when they go to school.

If you’re worried about the cost of staying home with your children, research any benefits the government might provide to support your family. In the UK, working grandparents are also qualified to take time off for childcare. The Guardian reported that grandparents providing childcare save families 2,000 GBP annually, and at least one family member would have to quit their jobs if a grandparent couldn’t care for a child.


Choosing Between Public and Private School

Once your child is old enough to attend primary school, the next battle rages between your private and public options. While some expat parents insist on private educations to increase their child’s university odds, others contend that private and public educations are no different.

How PISA Rankings Can Determine School Value

Before you decide what school to enroll your child in, check the country’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores. PISA ranks more than 75 countries based on tests by 500,000 15-year olds. The test was created to evaluate the quality of education students receive, not just the amount of money a country spends on its students.

In 2015, Singapore and Hong Kong topped the list in science and math, reported BBC education correspondent Sean Coughlan. Finland (6) and Estonia (7) were the highest-ranked European countries.

Expat Crystal Nanavati tells Sassy Mama that she never thought she would spend more than a year or two in Singapore. Eventually, she enrolled her daughter in the public school system because she thought it would be a better fit for her daughter while providing the same education.

Nanavati found the hardest part of enrolling her child in school wasn’t determining what they will learn or what they will pay, but how quickly the kids can adapt and become a part of the community. “I felt a sudden surge of empathy for the recently immigrated parents I’d dealt with as a teacher … I hadn’t thought to explain traditions like a Valentine’s Day Party, either.”

International Schools vs. Local Education

Education specialist Robert Kennedy explains that most parents opt for international schools where kids are taught in English. Learning algebra is hard, but learning algebra in Mandarin is harder.

Most International schools stick to the standards of the country they originate from — the US, UK, France, etc. — which makes it easy for expat children to apply to university with the same credentials as their home-based peers. These schools also create an opportunity to connect with fellow expat families.

In a piece for, Joshua Melvin found that many parents opt for local schools to become more ingrained in the community. One mom said: “People sometimes ask if we ever think about going home. I always tell them, ‘This is home.’”

If you’re permanently moving to a new country, as opposed to spending a few years to manage a project, then a local school is a great way to get completely immersed in the culture. Plus, it will save you 9,000 to 24,000 EUR in international school fees.

How Applying to University Will Affect Your Decision

Tim Olson writes in the Wall Street Journal about applying to university an expat. While the article mainly speaks to an American education, the lessons can be applied to other educational systems.

If you’re not attending a school affiliated with your country, then you need to set aside extra time to apply to universities. Some require specific accreditation certificates or profiles explaining the curriculum, classes and grading system.

However, Olson says there’s good news for international applicants: Your child’s application will stand out above the rest as unique and an opportunity for the school to become more diverse — especially if they attend a local school.

Consider Boarding School

Boarding school can be a godsend for expats with older children. If your child is a few years away from university, it might be easier to enroll them in a boarding school in your home country instead of moving them with you across the world. It’s easier for younger children to learn new languages, but your teenager could struggle to make friends and adapt to the new culture.

Last summer, a German banker ruffled British feathers when he claimed the best boarding schools the UK weren’t any better than German public schools. Melanie Hall of the Telegraph reported Arnold Holle’s comments. Holle’s four kids have been through the UK’s private school system, with boarding fees exceeding £11,000 a term. He brings up a good point: Paying for the most expensive school in the area doesn’t necessarily mean your kids will have a significantly better education.

Evaluating Employer-Provided Assistance

According to The Straits Times, the cost of international schools from pre-kindergarten through high school can exceed 500,000 USD. Some companies offer expat benefits packages that allocate specifically for tuition, but it’s becoming more common to offer a lump salary to let the employee figure the costs out.

Rob Budden at the BBC has also seen this trend. He recommends evaluating the total cost of living before evaluating the benefits package. This way, you have a firm grasp of what you need to survive before signing on to something significantly lower. In China, a private school education can cost $100,000 a year, which can bankrupt an expat who signs a benefits package without researching the school options first.


Moving Your Kids for Maximum Comfort

Before you move, it’s important to prepare your kids for the change that’s about to come. Adapting to a new school is about more than grades; it’s about making new friends and settling into a new environment.

Moving With a Teenager

If possible, plan your move around the start of the school year. Moving during the middle of the year is challenging even if you’re just traveling one town over. All schools learn at different rates and your child could immediately be behind the other students. By moving over the summer, you can meet with the school administrators and determine if any catch-up work is necessary.

Remember, moving your teen will cause ripples throughout the family. Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. explains that teens are reaching an age where they separate from the family. A major international move could either push them back into dependency or accelerate their independence before they’re ready for it.

Be Prepared for Behavioral Problems in Young Kids

While younger kids are more flexible than teenagers, they’re still going to face their own challenges during the transition. Alina Dizik at the BBC interviewed one expat mother who said her eight-year old was still coming home in tears two months after moving, her four-year old even started biting.

Dizik recommends letting your kids mourn the loss of their old lives. It’s OK for them to feel sad about the move, as long as you create the right channel for this.

It also helps to give your child time to prepare for the change. If you can introduce the move six-months beforehand, then your child will accept it as a fact by the time you’re packing boxes.

Remember the Local Dialect

If you’re moving to a country that’s rich in regional languages, your children might have to learn more than one language at once. Amy McElroy, a writing coach and parent of two, found that students in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, were learning up to three languages at a time. Local languages might end up confusing your children even more, depending on their use.

You may not get your child’s school choice right the first time, but pulling them out of one school and placing them in another creates more change and friction with the move. Preparing ahead of time can make sure they’re happy, well-educated, and keep you out of the poor house.

images by tookapic, MJ555, sentraldigital, vikvarga

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