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When it comes to gathering intelligence for rich families looking for a good international school for their offspring, many parents are coming to rely on information gleaned not from a James Bond or George Smiley, but from an army of doughty mothers recruited as researchers by the London-based Good Schools Guide to ask difficult questions and probe local scandal, in sometimes dangerous places.
With the welfare of their sons and daughters at stake, not to mention their education and fees of tens of thousands of dollars a year at the most exclusive schools, this inside information can be invaluable – particularly when a bewildering array of about 2,000 schools scattered across the globe call themselves international, each offering a different mix of curricula and examinations.
Harriet Plyler, editor of the Good Schools Guide International, which provides online listings with detailed entries on schools that make the grade, as well as an advisory service for ex-pat parents, hopes to help parents narrow their options, and has been building up her worldwide sleuthing network for three years. She is full of anecdotes about diplomatic wives braving car-jackings and rocket- propelled grenade attacks to make school visits, or risking the disapproval of often tight-knit foreign communities abroad by giving frank assessments about the teaching, facilities and ethos of the local schools.
“Every good mother will gather the gossip on behalf of their child, but some of these women are amazing,” says Plyler, a peppy American who moved to London with her family in 1998. “They move around a lot and they take the job with them, from Seoul to Berlin to Mexico City.”
Plyler first became interested in international schools while investigating the American schools in London – which she rates as “outstanding”. Then when the GSGI was launched she took on board its ruthless attitude to building the directory, which is limited to English-language schools.
“They won’t go in the guide unless they really measure up,” says Plyler. “Several schools around the world, even famous ones which the ex-pats have always used, haven’t made it in.”
Of course, parents will often choose to take the advice of personal contacts or relocation experts in their employers’ human resources departments – some multinational companies and diplomatic services have become adept at offering guidance and helping trailing families acclimatise and adapt to a move. But whether a parent is under the wing of an adviser or not, he or she should be careful to ask some essential questions.
Some of the issues are the same as those affecting a decision on domestic schooling: exam results and test scores; whether pupils get into top universities such as Oxford, Cambridge or the Ivy League; the headmaster or headmistress; and staff turnover. Others are more specific to an international education.
Crucially, the school should be accredited and inspected by an objective agency. Membership of an association of international schools is no guarantee of any such oversight, although some do indicate high quality. The Council of British International Schools in the European Community is so well-regarded that it is recognised by the UK government education department.
And some, such as the National Association of Independent Schools, based in Washington, DC, insist on accreditation by a recognised body as a condition of membership.
The Council of International Schools, a new organisation with offices in the UK, Spain, Australia and the US, is a not-for-profit association that requires a “rigorous process of self- and peer-evaluation” for its member schools around the world, regularly reviews each school’s membership status, and produces a directory.
Richard Tangye, CIS’s executive director, has tightened accreditation requirements on governance and management in recent years as entrepreneurs and investors, particularly in areas of growing demand such as the Gulf states, come into the market expecting a commercial return.
Other associations, such as the International Baccalaureate Organisation help schools establish an academic curriculum based on a particular exam system and exam boards license schools to become official examination centres, but they do not inspect or retain an ongoing overview of how each school is administered.
And the GSGI warns parents against bogus agencies that rearrange the initials of the real accreditation agencies to fool the consumer.
For example, beware of any British school abroad (other than those run by the Ministry of Defence for service families) that says it has been inspected by Ofsted, the official UK agency for education standards. Ofsted does not inspect private schools overseas.
Edward Clark of Gabbitas, the education consultancy, says parents can take confidence if schools are offshoots of well-established English public schools. Early mistakes were made in partnerships with local investors, but now the schools are tending to rely on their own management structure.
Ownership and governance structures can be peculiar to each school, but many are run as family businesses, so it is also worth asking who makes the academic and financial decisions.
“Just because a school is achieving good exam results, it doesn’t mean it is financially healthy,” says Clark. “And if it’s a sole proprietor, make sure it’s something you are comfortable with.”