How international schools can relieve transfer stress

International schools often cater for families on the move, so how do they ensure these transient pupils are well looked after? Eloise Barry spoke to some leaders to find out

Eloise Barry

Family at an airport

As parents working for global companies move around the world following their careers, their families move too.

Moving to a new country can be an incredibly stressful and complicated time for families, as parents have to organise changes to housing, jobs, visas, and unfamiliar environments. School transfers of their child only add to that stress.

Of course, international schools are keenly aware of parents’ worries. As hubs of global communities, they are accustomed to the ongoing movement of pupils through their doors and work to minimise this disruption.

What's more, with many schools part of large groups that have locations around the world, it is possible for pupils to stay within certain educational groups - making it easier to move pupils within a setting with similar approaches to education and school life. The same holds true for staff. 

Even so though, there is a lot to consider when a pupil or teachers faces the prospect of moving their life halfway across the world - so how can the process be as made as smooth as possible? 

We asked senior leaders across the international school sector how they approach this situation.

Staying in touch 

A key message was that successful pupil transfers rely on direct, consistent communication between international schools, something which should be straightforward within a group.

According to staff at NLCS International, Nord Anglia, and Cognita groups, student transfers are usually managed at the school level: headteachers from the origin and destination schools will discuss the educational and social needs of a pupil, while the respective admission teams will coordinate the administrative logistics.

Andy Harrison, headteacher of St Andrews International School in Thailand (a Cognita school), says it’s important that senior leaders and admissions departments meet in person – Covid allowing – to understand each other’s policies, approaches, and best practice.

“We actually have real human connections,” he says. “When staff across schools know and trust one another, it makes it much easier to establish how to support a particular child in their transition.”

Challenges arise when transferring pupils out of the group, either when there aren’t any schools from the group in the destination region, or when there is not enough space. “We don’t always have the same level of knowledge or confidence in schools outside the group,” Harrison explains. “Not every school has the same proactive approach.”

Nonetheless, all the international school leaders who spoke to Tes say they assist where possible. “Our vision is that every pupil remains part of Cognita even if they've left us,” says Harrison. “They may be going elsewhere, but we want to make sure we're still looking after them the best we can.”

Keeping it in the family

On the logistical side school groups usually share infrastructure, software and processes which cuts out many of the logistical complications inherent to a pupil transfer, ensuring files can be shared with ease and parents are not grappling with new platforms.

Perhaps more fundamentally though many international schools within a group will share similar values - something that Gwen Byrom, Director of Education Strategy at NLCS International, says is essential to help new students settle in to a new school - and parents to feel reassured.

“A student, a member of staff, or a parent walking in any of our international schools would recognise it as NLCS,” she says. “They always know what they're getting.”

A feeling of familiarity is especially important for children who may have moved several times across the world, and may feel out of place. “We see it as part of our job as a school to make pupils feel part of the NLCS family, part of our community,” she says.

Schools within groups often share the same curricula which helps to minimise any educational disruption. Darren Nicholas, Head of Nord Anglia’s British International School of Boston, remembers a group of students left his school on a Friday and picked up exactly where they had left off on Monday in Singapore.

With over 70 schools in their group, however, Nord Anglia’s schools follow a variety of international curricula. What helps, in this case, is continuity in “the rationale, the philosophy, and the ambition of the education” across the group, according to Nicholas.

“The skills-based approach to learning means that students can navigate a new curriculum very quickly.”

Supporting pupils 

The social element of moving between schools cannot be overlooked either - after all, leaving behind friends is always a tough experience, let alone when moving countries.

This is why at Nord Anglia, student ambassadors will contact pupils in advance, helping to acquaint them with daily life at the school in advance. Cognita does the same, connecting students with an “electronic friend.”

“We find in this day and age that our students are very proactive and only need a quick introduction,” Harrison explains. “They can find out a lot about their new environment well ahead of them arriving.”

Helping a new pupil settle into a school can make their transition to an unfamiliar country that bit easier.

Buddy programmes or extra-curricular activities all help new pupils establish themselves. Byrom remembers a student who joined the NLCS Dubai school from another country and was encouraged to join a drama club.

“He was very shy and his spoken English wasn’t great, so he was hesitant about the idea,” she says. “Quickly, his confidence in the language grew which he didn’t expect. He speaks very highly of the experience.”

Supporting parents

Transferring schools is only one complication faced by parents moving their entire family abroad. Often changing jobs, moving house, and having to settle in themselves, parents appreciate a smooth educational transition for their children.

According to Nicholas, Nord Anglia “take the onus of the transfer away from the parents,” whether logistically, administratively, or educationally. When moving within the group, for example, Nord Anglia waives many of the admin fees and shortens the admissions process.

Another way to support parents is to personalise the approach based on individual family’s needs. “Families have different needs and we have to be mindful of that,” Nicholas says.

Susan Burke, Director of Business and Finance at Nicholas’ school, agrees: “We know what it’s like to make a big move to a new country, and we think how would we want to be treated in that situation?”

They explain this may be done through the aforementioned ideas around buddy scheme for pupils or connecting families with others, or help to put sort necessary administrative issues like housing, finding a doctor or dentist.

"For those coming internationally we also link them to members of our community or the wider community and the BISB Parent Association to assist them with all of the logistics of an international move," adds Nicholas.

Parents’ Associations are also a good source of help and support, especially on the practical side of things, helping new families find doctors, dentists, and uniform suppliers. The school community benefits parents as much as it does pupils.

Staff transfers

It's not just pupils and their families that can move between groups either.

Teachers and senior leadership staff are drawn to large international school groups, in part, for the huge scope to move around the globe while staying with a single employer.

Indeed, according to Harrison, Cognita actively encourages staff to move around: “It’s in our interest to attract and retain the best quality teachers we can, and we’re happy to see them take on a challenge in a new country.”

It’s particularly common for teachers and senior leaders to move for a promotion. To ensure fair hiring policies, all job vacancies are advertised externally. Background and reference checks are carried out for all candidates, regardless of whether they already work for the group.

However, according to leaders at NLCS International, Cognita, and Nord Anglia, recruiters’ familiarity with a candidate can influence their decision.

As Harrison explains, “it’s a very powerful thing when I get a positive reference for a candidate from another headteacher who I know and trust.”

And if the move does go ahead, then as Nicholas explains it is about then helping make that change of location as seamless as possible. 

"For staff moving from BISB we link them to the logistical person in their new school to organise the move. For staff coming to us we have a person who will help as little or as much as needed with finding a place to live, furnishing the apartment with what they need, picking up from the airport, buddying them with other staff members, creating social media groups before the move, assisting with setting up bank accounts, cell phones, social security and so on."

Byrom from NCLS International says their group does this too and this can even become as specific as informing staff about the nuances of their new location compared to where they may be arriving from: "In previous years we have even given advice on matters such as buying plenty of tights before you arrive because of the prohibitive cost of such items in some countries."

Ultimately, it's clear that listening to parents' and pupils' needs is key to the success of an international school transfer.

Every pupil is different, and the school’s response should be tailored as such. Attention to detail, direct communication, and strong support networks are remembered by parents and staff alike when choosing their next destination.

Eloise Barry is a freelance journalist

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Eloise Barry

Eloise Barry is a freelance journalist and English Language Assistant based in Spain

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