European education: Preparing families for the challenges

To mark the launch of Relocate Global's Guide to International Education and Schools, Rebecca Marriage explores some of the challenges for international assignees when relocating to Europe with school-age children.

European schoolchildren
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Europe is home to some of the world's longest- established international and private schools, many of which are the envy of the world for their high- quality teaching and excellent academic results. Some of the national education systems across the continent can also offer the chance of a smooth cultural transition, with a widening variety of options for relocating families looking to immerse themselves in the local culture.However, for parents navigating education choices, relocation to, or even within, Europe comes with some challenges. To mark the launch of Re:locate Global's Guide to International Education & Schools, we have drawn together some of the expert advice it offers, to help families find practical solutions.Every family will have its own requirements when looking for a school in a new European location. As Martina Meinhold, founder and owner of Paris-based Management Mobility Consulting, which won the 2014/15 Re:locate award for Best International Destination Services Provider, explains, it is impossible to generalise."The choice depends on the specific situation and a number of factors," she says, "such as the age of the child on arrival, the family's ability to learn a new language, the expected duration of their assignment, where they choose to live, and their financial situation."

Choosing an education route

For every family, the first challenge is to find the school that best meets their child's needs. If budget allows, Europe's international education sector is very well established and has been serving expatriates and their families for decades.The International School of Geneva recently celebrated its 90th anniversary. It is the oldest international school in the world, and, with 4,400 students, one of the largest. In 1968, it was the birthplace of the International Baccalaureate, an internationally transferable programme of learning that has grown tremendously in popularity in recent years.Many of the international schools in neighbouring European destinations are no less prestigious. They offer relocating families an English-medium education and globally recognised curricula, and their students hail from a variety of countries. Europe's state-education systems differ markedly from country to country.Students will usually be required to have a working knowledge of the country's or region's language if they are hoping to attend a state school.If immediate language barriers are not an issue, local state- funded education can be a valuable way of integrating into the community. For example, explains education consultant Annebet van Mameren, "Generally, schools in the Netherlands offer high-quality education. The philosophy behind the country's education system reflects the mentality of Dutch society as a whole, and aims to encourage pupils to live and learn in an open-minded, independent and creative manner."Ms van Mameren explains that lack of language skills does not exclude children from the state system in the Netherlands. "Four- and five-year-olds who don't speak Dutch can usually start at regular primary school straightaway. They generally pick up the language quickly and are almost fluent before the 'real learning' starts at the age of six."Children aged six and older are usually required to follow a Dutch immersion programme first. This takes about a year, after which they can continue their education with children of the same age at a regular school."

Coping with culture shock

The second challenge for relocating families is getting to grips with a new culture. Even between countries on the same continent, differences can be considerable.
International schools have an important part to play in cultural adjustment.Resources such as well-developed pastoral care programmes, language support for new students, and parents' groups can make the difference between a successful relocation and a failed assignment.Sue Dunnachie, marketing consultant at Mougins School, an international school on France's Cote d'Azur, argues that relocating children are likely to find their feet in their new surroundings faster than their parents, so it is advisable to look out for a school with a good support network for the whole family."Children have a facility to adapt which does not always come so easily to adults," she says. "As soon as friendships are formed, life becomes easier. It can be more challenging for parents, who re dealing with the daily hurdles of life in a foreign language with which they may not be familiar. This is why a welcoming school which offers pastoral care to the whole family is important."In February, Re:locate brought together education experts, school leaders, and HR and relocation professionals at London's Institute of Directors for its first-ever International Education Forum.Taking a look at some of the challenges facing families making a move to the UK, Nellie Bailey, associate director of admissions at TASIS, The American School in England, described the overarching one as "the loss of the everyday norm".Ms Bailey explained, "Lots of schools have buddy programmes, but we have a programme called the Parents' Information and Resource Committee, aimed at the whole family, not just the child. They are there when parents are having a tough time."We want the parents to feel as though they have a connection, from understanding what pieces of uniform to buy, to helping with where to get a haircut. We give families information about doctors and dentists and the towns in the area before they arrive. These are really important things, as they bring back the norm."Sebastian Troyon, marketing director of St George's International School, in Switzerland, believes that his school's Parents' Liaison Group is the social hub of the community. "We have a very active group, to welcome new families and to support them," he says. "St George's International is a community for the whole family, not just the students, so we work hard on creating positive relationships and exchanging information."All parents are invited to a reception at school before term starts to meet their child's tutor and other staff, a coffee morning in the first week of term to connect with other families, and a family day on the first weekend. We welcome families getting involved, asking questions, and encouraging their children to do the same – to be open to new opportunities, and to smile!"

Breaking down language barriers

Susan Stewart, head of languages at the International School of London (ISL) Surrey, has seen the effects of successive international moves on relocating families.Demonstrating just how complex family situations can be, Ms Stewart, speaking at the International Education Forum, described the unique situation of one globally mobile family when they found a place at ISL. "Their mother spoke to the children in Spanish, and their father spoke to them in Dutch. They'd lived for many years in Brazil, so they had Portuguese, too. Plus they had attended an international school, so the two eldest children spoke English, but the youngest did not."When a family with this combination of cultural references and language needs arrives at ISL, said Ms Stewart, the essential first step is to understand the needs of each individual child, because "every single child is carrying the traits of their passage through time".Maria Haeberli, a Grade 1 teacher at Switzerland's International School of Zug and Luzern, also recognises this need to understand the individual. She points out that a change of school is, potentially, a time of increased vulnerability, especially for children whose mother tongue is not English."They may feel marginalised or voiceless until they reach an understanding of how English works and feel confident enough to have a go at expressing themselves verbally, in not only a new language but also a new culture," she says. For first-time expats, Susan Stewart believes that half the battle is dealing with the anxieties of parents and reassuring them that their child's lack of English-language skills isn't "a big deal". She says, "Time and time again, we see children who were not speaking English last year and now are."

Embracing opportunities

Once a family has settled in, a relocation to Europe offers great opportunities to expose children and young people to cultural wealth and natural beauty.The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) is located on a hillside in the south of the country, with commanding views of Lake Lugano. Its location makes possible an impressive academic travel programme. Via the programme, travel experiences throughout the year bring students face to face with the rich cultural heritage of Europe and the spectacular natural beauty of the Alps and beyond.TASIS's pioneering Global Service Program provides every high-school student with an opportunity to connect across borders – whether geographic, economic, or social – through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility."The programme awakens students to humanitarian needs," says the school's Mark Chevalier. "It inspires them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and leads them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service."Paul Keach, headteacher of the International School of Moscow, believes that making the most of life in an unfamiliar culture is all about confidence and offering opportunities for the family to experience all that their new destination has to offer."Relocating families need to feel confident about settling in to their new environment," he says. "Many of our parents who relocate to Moscow are understandably concerned about adjustment and transition, not just to a new school, but to a new city."We understand these concerns, and work hard to ensure that parents feel welcome in our community by creating opportunities for them to meet one another. Our students become familiar with Moscow as a vibrant and exciting place to live through visits to its cultural centres, including art galleries, theatres and museums.""Above all," says Mougins School's Sue Dunnachie, "try to make a change of school and country a positive experience. It will offer the chance to establish lifelong friendships that are rich and rewarding. Relocate Global Spring Issue 2016
Guide to International Education & Schools

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