What to Ask on a School Visit (and Some Answers you should Get)
So, you've shortlisted some international schools and booked your school visits in. Congratulations!
But what should you ask when you're there?
For many parents, it can be confusing to know what to ask and what to look for when they visit a potential school for their child/ren - particularly if they are unfamiliar with international schools.
In my experience, international school admissions teams tend to focus on facilities: the pool, the sports facilities, the drama spaces, the cafeteria. But at the end of the day, these are not the things (probably!) that are going to impact your child's wellbeing, learning or achievement.
So, here is my list of top questions to ask - divided into 3 key sections: The Learning; The Teachers & Parent Involvement and Communication. I hope you find them helpful.
I've also added some notes with each question - either to explain them a bit more or to suggest the types of answers/information you will get from a good international school.
Disclaimer: My notes and suggested answers are my opinions, based on my own international teaching experience and knowledge of academic research/best practice, underpinned by my personal values and beliefs about education. You may disagree with some points, or your chosen international school may do things differently from what I have suggested. That's okay!
What to ask about: The Learning
Can I see a timetable for my child’s year group?
It is always interesting to see how much time is allocated for different subjects, particularly foreign languages. This can vary hugely between schools and may prove a 'decision maker' for your family.
If my child was struggling or finding the learning too easy, how would the teachers deal with this?
You want to hear that teachers will differentiate the learning - this means that they will offer easier or more challenging activities as and when your child needs it. While there will be some times when a whole class of 24 students will be working on exactly the same activity, there should also be plenty of opportunities for students to work in differentiated (ability) groups to allow them to work at their own level and progress at their own rate. Good schools also have additional teachers who can help offer support and/or extension activities.
If the school ‘streams’ or ‘sets’ children by ability for certain subjects, I would ask what data they use to group the children, and whether children are able to move between the groups during the year, if their progress (or lack of!) warrants it.
How do you assess student progress?
The answer shouldn't be endless exams and tests, particularly for younger children!
Skilled teachers conduct regular ongoing formative assessments to check their students' understanding and progress, and use this information to help them adjust and adapt their teaching. For older children, end of topic/unit tests or exams - what teachers refer to as summative assessments - are used to 'officially' assess their learning. Do note that most international schools tend to avoid formal testing and exams for Primary age children.
If the school runs any sort of 'official' exams between Years 1-9, I would encourage you to ask how long they spend preparing for them and, most importantly, what is done with that final exam data. My key question would be: What is the point of these exams and how are they going to help my child progress?
How much technology might my child use on a daily basis?
This is a thorny one, and a topic that many parents have strong opinions about.
Some international schools have 1-1 iPad or Macbook schemes, but most try to balance the use of this technology with plenty of opportunities to handwrite, paint/draw, brainstorm on paper etc. Some international schools offer almost no technology access, especially in the younger years.
If this is something important to you, definitely ask about it and push for details - what sort of specific activities might my child be doing with the iPad?
You may also wish to ask about their policy for device (phone, iPad) use during break and lunchtimes. Some international schools ban them to try and encourage students to socialise and get involved in other activities - others don't.
What co-curricular and leadership opportunities are offered for my child’s age group?
Don’t let a school wow you about their prefect system in the Sixth Form if your child is only 10! The best schools offer leadership opportunities throughout both Primary and Secondary, and extensive co-curricular cultural, artistic and sporting activities too. Most should be free, and should only come at an additional cost if the school is hiring external coaches or specialists to work with the children. Again, keep your focus on your child's age and ask what activities they could participate in.
What to Ask about: The Teachers
What qualifications do your teachers have, and do you offer any additional qualifications/training for teachers without UK-standard teacher qualifications?
First thing's first: a Bachelor’s degree in any subject, even Education, is NOT a teaching qualification.
The most common internationally-accepted teaching qualification - covering effective pedagogy, lesson planning, behaviour management, assessment, data analysis, basic child psychology and so on - is a PGCE or PGCEi (Post Graduate Certificate of Education), a demanding qualification which takes at least one year after graduation and usually comprises assessed practical teaching components. Some teachers may hold a Bachelor of Teaching and/or Masters of Teaching, which are 2-3 year specialist teaching programmes.
What sort of ongoing training do you offer your teachers?
You want to hear they are offered some good quality professional development at least once per term. In some international schools, teachers are offered professional training every week.
What percentage of your teachers are native English speakers?
I find that this is a more useful question than, 'How many expat teachers do you have?' Why? The term 'expat' is a loose one and schools use the term to refer to any teachers not originally from Malaysia, not just the conventional British/European expats. While Nationality is no indication of teacher quality - if having native English speakers is important to you, ask about this.
What is your teacher retention rate - ie, how many teachers renew a contract and stay more than the standard 2-3 years?
Of course, expat teachers come and go - but the best international schools have retention rates of 70% and often higher. In these schools, broken contracts are very rare and teachers staying for as long as 7-10 years isn’t uncommon.
I can’t speak for all teachers, but in my experience, international teachers that stay in a school for more than one contract do so because they feel professionally fulfilled and valued. This suggests the school is ‘doing things right’ in many respects - and therefore makes it one indicator of school quality. High staff retention is also important because it allows schools to make meaningful, long term improvements. If staff are constantly coming and going, it is hard for schools to make real progress.
What to ask about: Parent Involvement & Communication
How do you communicate children’s learning to parents?
Most international schools now produce a half-termly 'short report' with just scores or grades, often focused on work ethic and attitude rather than academic achievement. Longer, end-of-term reports usually contain achievement information and teacher comments. Parent-teacher conferences usually happen twice a year, but parents should feel they can arrange a time to speak with their child's teacher/s about any issues or questions they may wish to raise, at any point in the year.
In addition, most international schools have an App or online 'learning journal' that they use for younger children. Teachers photograph their work and make comments about their learning, for parents to easily see.
At Secondary level, students usually have some sort of homework diary or logbook that parents and teachers can write comments in. Email is also frequently used for home-school communication.
How can I, as a parent, get involved in wider school life? Do you run parent workshops, events or volunteer groups?
Hopefully they do! Many international schools now offer weekly or fortnightly free workshops for parents covering a range of topics to do with children's learning, psychology and wellbeing. Most also have active Parent Community Groups which help liaise with the school leadership team, volunteer at events, support new families and help raise money for charities. You may not personally have the time or inclination to be involved in these things, but it is nice to be aware of what is offered.
Secondary: who will be the primary point of contact for my child, and how much time will he/she have with my child each day?
Most international schools offer a 'tutor group' or 'form group' system which groups children into classes that are supported by a Tutor or Form Teacher. This teacher is there to support the children emotionally, oversee their academic progress across all areas and at as a central point of contact for families. In the Sixth Form, tutors also play a huge role in assisting with university applications and guidance. Students usually have 20-40minutes per day in these groups.
Hopefully these questions act as a good starting point for some interesting and productive discussions on your international school visit/s, and help you to determine which of your shortlisted schools is the ‘best fit’ for your child.
Have I missed a question you think is important, or omitted an answer you think should be on here? Let me know! firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you visit an international school here in Malaysia, why not share your experiences with our ad-free parent support group on Facebook?