4 Warning Signs to Watch Out For
I've seen a huge range of international schools here in Malaysia - 34 and counting! Amongst them, there is a huge amount of variation in almost every respect: curriculum, facilities, school culture, vision & values, pedagogical approach, and enrichment opportunities. That variety is important: it gives parents plenty of choice, allowing them to choose the school that really is the 'best fit' for their child.
While the qualities that make up a 'good school' vary, there are some definite warning signs that ring big alarm bells in my mind - regardless of the school's price tier, curriculum or any other factor. Here they are, in no particular order:
#1: A LACK OF COMMUNICATION
As parents, you should be kept ‘in the loop’ with what your child is learning and why, about their progress, and how you can support them at home. In most good international schools, this is done through a combination of school reports, newsletters and emails home.
Here’s a few guidelines for what you should expect, in terms of communication, from your child’s school:
You should be aware (or able to easily find out about) the school’s direction, strategic plan, values and vision.
You should be kept notified of significant school changes and developments - such as major staffing changes, refurbishments or major policy changes.
You should feel like you can email or call the school at any time, and know that you will be responded to quickly. You should never have to wait for an official Parent-Teacher afternoon/evening, or any other ‘official’ parent event, to be able to speak to somebody.
If you’ve got a concern, you should know who to contact. The school should be more than willing to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the person you need to talk to.
If you don’t feel like communication is frequent or useful enough, or if you have other concerns about the communication you get as a parent, please let your school know. Hopefully, feedback like this will encourage them to improve their communication.
#2: THE DOORS ARE SHUT
In a good school, a strong home-school partnership is valued and nurtured.
Your school might not have the flashy parent coffee shops or lounges of the most expensive international schools here - but there are lots of things that a school can do to welcome parents into their school community, regardless of budget.
Volunteer Parent-Teacher organisations: These give a group of school parents regular opportunities to share their views, give feedback and have input into future school developments, take an active role in organising school events/supporting school charities
A Buddy System: Where existing parents are ‘buddied’ with new parents to help them settle quickly into their new school community
Regular Parent Workshops/Classes: Run by internal or external presenters.
Coffee Mornings with Teachers/Leaders: A chance for informal Q&A with key people involved in your child’s learning.
Some schools I’ve visited have tried to start Parent-Teacher Associations or other Parent Committees, and stopped through a lack of interest or engagement. But that might have been some years ago. If you’re at a school where these things don’t exist, but you’d like them - why not get in touch with the Principal and let him/her know?
I do know of some international schools where the Principal or Leadership team has demonstrated an unwillingness to have any parental involvement in the school at all - I think out of fear of inviting endless complaints! However, this isn’t good enough. If there are issues with a school, that is all the more reason that parents should have a voice and the opportunity to be involved in improving things.
#3: UNWILLINGNESS TO CHANGE
Good schools are consistently striving to be ‘better than before’. As part of this, they regularly ask for and respond to feedback from their community.
This could come in the form of:
Regular Questionnaires or Surveys;
Verbal Feedback during coffee mornings
Feedback forms after school events or parent workshops;
A direct email contact for the Principal/Senior Leadership team where parents are invited to share ideas & suggestions.
Most good international schools will gather parental input through a variety of ways, and use this feedback to inform future planning and development.
If your school doesn’t ever ask you what you think, or respond to parental suggestions, that’s a cause for concern (in my eyes).
#4: A LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Whether this is with regard to their recent exam results, their teacher qualifications, or their behaviour policies - there is no reason a good school should want to ‘hide’ anything from you as a parent (either existing or prospective).
But unfortunately, international schools aren’t always as transparent as they should be.
Here are some examples, all shared with me by prospective parents:
A school giving exam results that were 'averaged out' across all of their campuses, rather than the actual results of the specific campus being visited (often to ‘massage’ & improve the results)
A school refusing to give information about teacher qualifications with prospective parents, simply saying “they’re all qualified” & refusing to elaborate further.
A school declaring that a percentage of their teachers were “foreign” but declining to specify which ‘foreign’ countries these teachers came from - when, in fact, very few were native English speakers (which a parent might assume). Important: while the nationality of a teacher is by no means reflective of their teaching skill, it shouldn't be hidden from parents.
I can understand the school being unwilling to discuss specific students or teachers, due to confidentiality issues.
However, accurate, up-to-date information about exam results, teacher qualifications, assessment and reporting methods, behavioural policies & significant school developments: this information should all be easily accessible to both prospective and existing parents.
If the information you’re seeking isn’t available on the school’s website, the school should be happy to email it through to you, discuss it on the phone or share it with you when you visit them. If they are unwilling to share information with you - I’d be seriously asking why.
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