And the kids came too

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Jobs abroad are not always easy if you have a family, but the expatriate lifestyle does accommodate children, who can learn a host of multicultural lessons, writes Martin Whittaker

Working in schools overseas can offer varied and rewarding careers, but is it family friendly? Last year, Stuart Dennis put this question to the test when he gave up the headship of Kingsbury Episcopi, a small village primary in Martock, Somerset, and headed for the sunshine lifestyle of the Middle East. He is now principal of the 800-pupil British curriculum Jumeirah primary school in Dubai. His wife Kate teaches English there, and their children Hannah, six, and Toby, three, both attend the school.

Mr Dennis is confident that the expat lifestyle will be good for his children, ultimately giving them a much broader education than they would have had in England. "The school has about 40 nationalities and my children already have friends from all over the world," he says. "For me, that's the greatest joy of being here.

"We have a theme of world citizenship running through our curriculum. It's the idea that we'll be providing a higher standard of education if we understand what it means to be a world citizen, understanding other cultures and being tolerant of other people. I can see a difference in my children already. They're open-minded and tolerant. They don't see colour in people, which is fantastic."

The phrase "third culture kids" was coined in the 1950s by Dr Ruth Useem, professor of sociology and education at Michigan State University, who did pioneering research into the effects of global lifestyle.

And according to Robin Pascoe, a Canadian journalist and expert on expatriate life who has raised her children abroad, there are enormous benefits to being third culture children. They grow up mobile amid constantly changing scenery and culture, they can become proficient in languages, and a good percentage choose to become expatriates themselves as adults. "Children do mix more in international schools, which truly are cross-cultural," she said. "This makes expat kids colour blind and open to greater understanding beyond their own passport culture. We often think of third culture kids as the future diplomats of the world - they grow up without borders."

Russ Law, head of the British International School in Jeddah, says it can be an advantage to a school to have staff with their own children attending, as it makes them stakeholders in the quality of education provided. "Here in Saudi, as in many countries, children are adored," he says. "Living in the sun can be fun as long as there is plenty of sun cream and, unlike the UK, the option to escape from it into your air-conditioned school-provided apartment, or into the pool a few metres away. We try to make the transition as painless as we can and the children are invariably the most ready to slot into their new setting."

But while expatriate heads may be offered a good package including education and healthcare for their children, how easy is it for expat teachers with families? According to consultant Peter Gummer, former director of recruitment with international education consultants Gabbitas, expatriate teaching today is orientated more towards young people without children, particularly to childless couples who are both teachers. "They can have a jolly good lifestyle, and certainly a very exciting life," he says. "But schools abroad, as in England, have to watch their pennies and they're not quite so keen to employ families as it can become expensive. A few do so in the richer places, such as in Dubai."

But for those who do make the leap, the rewards can be great - including the children's education. "The quality of education that's handed out nowadays in British independent schools overseas is superb," says Mr Gummer, who was head of an international school in Argentina until the outbreak of the Falklands War in 1982 forced him and his family to leave. His children were pre-teens when they went abroad and have grown up bilingual.

Which countries are family friendly? He says before the collapse of the Argentine economy, South American countries with their Latin culture have traditionally been good bets. He suggests Kuala Lumpur, parts of Malaysia and Dubai as well.

But those taking families abroad should pick their location carefully. Where Dubai is very open and cosmopolitan, in Saudi Arabia, for example, restrictions could make life a dull one for teenagers. "It's actually illegal for a teenage boy and girl to be walking around the street together holding hands. Girls have to be very careful about what they wear. And they have to go out with their parents, or not at all.

"You can't have youngsters going out to cinemas and discos by themselves in Saudi Arabia - it just doesn't happen."

There are also downsides to being a third culture child. "Personally, I wouldn't take a child abroad unless that child was a fairly adaptable type, somebody who'll make friends quickly and easily. One of the difficulties with any child who lives abroad is the transitory nature of friendships. Even if they themselves are there for a number of years, many of their classmates move on," says Mr Gummer.

Another potential issue is university fees. If you have been employed as a teacher by a non-British based organisation, and if the children have been out of the UK for two years before going to university, you're liable to pay full-scale university fees.

How do you prepare children if you are going to relocate for the first time? Expat expert Robin Pascoe, who runs a website and writes on the subject, advises groups of parents in overseas schools. "I tell them that despite servants, cocktail parties and the expat social whirl, the children who do best in their adjustment have at least one parent keeping a close eye on them, being available, and being more proactive as a parent than you would be at home in the UK," she says.

"Children need their parents more when they are living and working overseas. It is a new, unsettling place. Sometimes the parents are fighting, too, over the move, and having to face settling in. The kids need to know that the parents' relationship is solid, that it's nobody's fault if something goes wrong, that someone is there for them.

"I could give a list of do's and don'ts, but the best piece of advice is to be there for the children before, during and after the relocation. Children need to feel safe, protected and loved in order to thrive."

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