A solo expat jetting off to a new life can face a multitude of problems they will have to overcome. For family groups, these issues just multiply.
Families have more people to move, more luggage to ship and more visas to wrangle from unhelpful immigration officials – and that’s just to get into the country.Once you’re set up and settled in, families have to find the right jobs, enrol in the right schools and make sure everyone is getting the most out of their time abroad. Youngsters in particular need to make sure they aren’t falling behind their contemporaries back home.
Schooling and studies are paramount for young expats, who may be close to applying for university places or jobs. Without the right qualifications, they may find themselves struggling to make their mark on the world or even to find a job when they head back home.
Some schools may offer qualifications no university has heard of, while others may have adopted schemes from other countries or signed up to worldwide certificates like the International Baccalaureate.
The situation will be different depending on where you are in the world and the quality of education can vary even within the same country. Do your research well ahead of time to ensure that you aren’t leading your kids into an educational black hole.
Local schools may offer top quality teaching; international schools can provide qualifications that match those of your home country. Much more likely is that a school catering to expat kids will help them through to an International Baccalaureate, a widely respected award that has a reputation for being hard work. The qualification was developed with expat children in mind and is kept free of any direct government control.
If you are thinking of taking your kids overseas, make sure you know what the International Baccalaureate can do for them.
What is the International Baccalaureate?
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a once-exclusive qualification that is now offered by 4,335 schools around the world. Established in the 1960s, its original aim was to offer a standardised curriculum and teaching style to expat kids. The scheme is now so well regarded that many schools around the world are opting out of their national curriculums in order to adopt the IB.
Children studying under the scheme can do courses from the age of three to 19, but the Diploma Programme is the best known and is commonly referred to as the IB.
Under the Diploma Programme students must study a for two years in one of three languages: English, French and Spanish. Assessments take the form of internal tests such as oral presentations, practical or written projects; in addition, two or three externally marked exams accompany each subject.
There are core subjects that each student must study, but they can also undertake a number of subjects from several proscribed groups.
What is the philosophy of the IB?
Founded in the optimistic days of the 1960s, it was hoped that a generation could be raised to believe in an international community, breaking down borders and creating a peaceful world for the future.
The IB aims to produce learners that boast a number of key characteristics. This learner profile informs the makeup of each subject and the nature in which they are taught. The idea behind the ethos is that these personality traits make the IB graduate an ideal international resident.
IB graduates are intended to be: Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-minded, Caring, Risk-takers, Balanced, and Reflective.
This ethos has gained the system high regard, and in an article titled How To Bring Our Schools Out Of The 20th Century, Time magazine described the IB as “a rigorous, off-the-shelf curriculum recognized by universities around the world.”
Howard Gardner, a Professor of Educational Psychology at Harvard, celebrated the scheme’s all-round approach to education, saying students are taught to “think critically, synthesize knowledge, reflect on their own thought processes and get their feet wet in interdisciplinary thinking”.
What core subjects have to be studied?
The IB is very carefully structured to ensure students undertake a range of subjects. There are mandatory subjects common to all students, and these are prerequisites to earning a diploma.
Every student must produce an Extended Essay (EE): a 4,000-word paper that must demonstrate their research skills as well as their literacy. This paper is written in the primary language of the course and the subject can be selected from a pre-approved list of EE topics.
The second of the mandatory subjects is the flagship of the IB, teaching students about critical thinking. Theory of Knowledge (TOK) is assessed with a 1,600-word essay on an approved topic following at least 100 teaching hours.
Lastly, Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) is an introspective module that encourages learners to find opportunities for physical, mental and emotional growth. The idea of this subject is to help students become self-aware and responsible members of their communities.
What are the choices for other subjects?
IB students must take six additional subjects over and above the mandated core topics. They are given the choice of picking an approved subject from six groups.
The intention behind this method is to give each student a broad base of skills across the curriculum without them narrowing down to one or two favoured subjects.
The first subject group is Studies in Language and Literature, which is normally undertaken in the student’s native language. There are subcategories within this group, each including an emphasis on translation, poetry and prose but providing options for performance or mass media.
Students must also study a second language, which covers modern languages and Latin or Classical Greek. Standards are impressive in this group, with higher level students expected to reach a level of near fluency in their additional language.
The third group is known as Individuals and Societies, covering a range of humanities and social science topics. Philosophy, Psychology, Anthropology and Information Technology all sit alongside History and Geography in this category.
Science makes up the fourth category, listing Chemistry and Physics alongside Design Technology and computer science.
There are three mathematics courses offered to cater to a range of ability levels: Mathematical Studies, Mathematics, and the toughest, Further Mathematics. These subjects make up the fifth group.
The final group is the Arts, allowing students to take their pick from Dance, Music, Theatre, Visual Arts and Film.
Will it dominate their lives?
There’s no denying that studying the IB is quite a commitment. Where students in other programmes may get to specialise in a handful of topics, IB students are swamped with their chosen subjects.
It’s not just the elected subjects that will eat into their leisure time. The core subjects each require dedicated research and carefully crafted essays. Without these mandatory topics, the IB will not be awarded.
It’s not enough to just turn in the finished article; students are required to log the hours they worked on each project. It is expected that each project will require at least 50 hours of hard graft.
A concern amongst many potential IB students is that they will not have time to enjoy extracurricular activities alongside their schooling. Stephen Pearse Sixth Form College, a UK Further Education school that offers the IB to its students, dismisses this concern. “In our college, IB students have led our charity expedition to the Gambia, coordinated our charity outreach project, been student president, competed in national or international standard sports, been a leading light in the rowing club and performed on stage as musicians or actors.”
Other schools that run the IB programme also address these concerns but stress the support offered by the school itself and the value of learning time management at an early stage.
Where can my child study the IB?
Expat kids are often faced with the choice of studying in the local school system or joining an International School. These schools are specifically intended to offer a stable environment to globetrotting children.
They fully understand that expats may be on the move again and aim to provide a consistent educational environment between one country and another. It’s possible for your child to live in a dozen different nations during their school life, but always be learning in their mother tongue.
In the interests of uniformity, many of these schools elect for the IB as their preferred qualification. This is exactly the environment the certificate was designed for in the first place.
Although the number of IB schools is relatively low, with fewer than 5,000 worldwide, they are strategically placed to attract expat children in capital cities and expat hotspots. Many are boarding schools.
Even if you live far from an IB school, there may soon be a home-school option, where classes and assessments are delivered via online lessons and course materials. A limited trial has taken place and looks set to roll out in a more extensive form.
Does your child know what they want to do?
The IB Diploma is often compared to the British system of A Levels. Both are studied between 16 and 19 years of age and both are scrutinized heavily by prospective universities.
A key difference comes in the approach the two systems take to educating their students. A Levels are all about choosing a pathway for further study. The subjects picked will play a direct role in deciding what undergraduate study may be open to your child.
Any budding medics should concentrate on the sciences and maths, whilst history hopefuls need to collect points in humanities subjects. Even the highest of achievers can find themselves out in the cold if they decide to change direction when aiming for college spots.
It can be a lot to ask a 16-year-old to commit to a future career and start making decisions accordingly. So the IB concentrates on developing a capable academic with a grounding in a wide range of subjects. This allows the student to keep their options open and put off any life-changing decisions for a few years.
Your youngster’s choice of university may actually inform whether they should do A Levels or the IB. Colleges in many countries express a preference for one over the other, with British institutes asking for a higher performance from IB applicants than A Level applicants.
Sarah Turney’s children found this out when her children looked at their options whilst living in Geneva. Jamie, her eldest, studied the IB and found himself penalised. “We found that the universities were asking for more IB points than the equivalent A-level grades,” Turney told The Telegraph, “Tutors seemed to underestimate the academic rigour of the IB.”
Turney’s younger daughter Issy had her heart set on studying at Cambridge and Jamie’s experiences informed her choice of study, “after her brother’s experience with admissions tutors, she believed that taking A-levels would give her a better chance. She had a point.”
How well regarded is the qualification?
As some expat students have found, the IB is widely regarded and respected but also misunderstood. Universities in some nations may ask for higher grades than from students studying equivalent schemes.
The Guardian describes the Diploma Programme as “more academically challenging and broader than three or four A-levels”, but British universities have been known to mark students down.
This is probably due to the fact that the IB is still relatively rare, with just 1% of university applicants undertaking the qualification.
Employers though seem to like the scheme, with the UK head of IB suggesting that school leavers with the certificate can expect to earn GBP£20,500 in their first job, compared to just GBP£19,000 for A-level holders.
Does the IB cater for different ability levels?
The IB has a reputation a reputation for being tough, but not every student can be an academic whizz kid. One criticism of the scheme is that it relies heavily on written work and offers a limited range of hands-on subjects.
More practically minded students may struggle to adjust to this book-heavy environment and find themselves unjustly streamed into the Standard Level (SL). Whilst not ostensibly a lower tier of the IB, the Higher Level (HL) is more academically intense, with 240 hours of teaching per subject as opposed to 150 hours at SL.
Being placed into either stream will directly affect your child’s subject choices. Further Mathematics is only open to HL students, whilst Sport and Exercise Science are only available at SL.
Students with recognized learning difficulties or weaknesses in certain areas may require help in whatever route they study; the level of support available will be subject to the school rather than the qualification.
What does the student think?
Remember, this is their future. Not only will they be putting in the hard work in the short term, they will be considering their university place in the medium term, and starting their career in the long term.
There is a glamour and mystique around the IB that makes it a fashionable boast for some parents to say that their child is studying on the programme. In reality, their child may be better off in a different school working to a totally different set of expectations.
Talk to your family and make informed decisions about your child’s future based on their ambitions and what they hope to achieve. Living but having family at home may mean their best chance of success is to return home and study courses, apprenticeships or training schemes not available overseas.
The IB can be a great qualification for those who excel academically, but for others, there can be different options that are better suited.
Has your child studied the IB? Share your experiences in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer