1. What Should You Do and Consider When Choosing an International School for Your Child?

What Should You Do and Consider When Choosing an International School for Your Child?

Published on 03 Jul 2023
Choosing an International School
General Article

Article by Choo Li-Hsian.

Credit image: iStock 

Whether you are an expat parent moving to Malaysia or a local parent looking for alternative schooling options, you will be spoilt for choice. According to ISC Research, a British company that has studied the global international school industry for more than 25 years (with a specific report for Malaysia), there were 287 international schools located in Malaysia in 2020 with over 107,000 students. At that time, the number of international schools had grown by 43% in just six years from a previous base number of 96 schools. 

According to the ISC Research website, the number of international schools and students enrolled in these schools in Malaysia has grown by 15% and 11% respectively between January 2018 and January 2023. This growth has occurred mostly in the Klang Valley region and Putrajaya, with the demand, particularly for the mid-priced international schools. This rise is expected to continue.

So, if you are a new parent navigating through a decision on which international school to choose amidst this wide selection, what considerations should you keep in mind when making your choice? Here are some tips based on my family’s personal experience that will hopefully help you, too.


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1. Come up with the Selection Criteria and Your Top 3 Factors

Different families prioritise different things in terms of their child’s education. Some families look for schools that emphasise academic achievements, whilst others prefer schools that nurture the whole child and provide a well-rounded education with a good balance involving academic work, character building and extra-curricular activities. Some parents like schools that focus on parent-school type partnerships where parents are encouraged to actively participate in school life as parent mentors for school projects, volunteers for school trips or co-organisers for school performances and events. Certain parents may want a school which places greater emphasis on facilities related to areas like sports, music, performing or visual arts, especially if their child has a special talent or ability. Children from a non-English speaking country may need a strong English immersion programme or a dual language approach to teaching. Parents of children who learn differently will seek out more inclusive systems. There will be people who prefer schools closer to home and those with fee structures suited to their budget. Most families usually have a preferred educational pedagogy. So, decide first on your selection criteria and the top three or five factors that are most important to you and your child.

My family looked for a school that could provide a well-rounded education emphasising core skills that would prepare our children for the future. We realised that content changes but good core skills are always transferable and relevant). We also wanted a school that, promoted inclusive education (as we had a child with special needs) and which encouraged parent involvement and collaboration.


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2. Conduct Online Research on Your Pedagogy of Choice and Other Factors 

Next, do research on your educational pedagogy of choice. Understand how the learning is structured and delivered as well as how educational success is measured. Compare the different pedagogies and ask yourself which pedagogy will suit your child’s learning style and situation, as well as what you want for your child’s future. 

Consider also if the type of education your child will receive is universal and sustainable in the long run. A change in future economic or family circumstances may require you to make unexpected changes to your child’s education. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the education your child receives in your chosen international school is transferable to another institution or country. So that your child does not need to repeat a school year or start again from square one.

Next, research online into the specific schools that meet your selection criteria. Our Education Destination Malaysia website is a good place to start as we have a comprehensive list of schools and ample information and articles on our blog section relating to this topic. Be sure to try out their useful School Finder and School Comparison tools. This first level of research will help you create a list of international schools you can do additional research on or consider visiting in person.

Here are some suggested questions you can answer through your research:

  • What is the school’s mission or educational philosophy?
  • Is the school accredited, and, if so, by which accrediting body?
  • Where is the school located?
  • What educational pedagogy is practised at the school? American / Canadian / English / Australian / French / Japanese / Malaysian curriculum or International Baccalaureate?
  • How many students does the school have? How diverse is the student body? Is it multicultural or more homogenous in the ethnic composition of the student population?
  • What is the average classroom size?
  • What is the student-teacher ratio?
  • What are the qualifications of the teachers? Do the teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach?
  • Is the atmosphere competitive or more nurturing?
  • Is the school inclusive?
  • What is the school’s policy on bullying?
  • What do you see as the school’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would you most like to see the school improve?
  • What kinds of students do best at the school?
  • What types of learning experiences are available - in class, on the playing field, in extra-curricular activities, in leadership programmes and community service?
  • What kind of special programmes are available if my child is good at or passionate about sports, music, the performing or visual arts?
  • How does the school get parents involved in school life? What do parents typically do to support learning?
  • How much are the tuition fees? What is the annual fee increase (in percentage) that is anticipated each year?
  • Are there any additional charges, such as for books, lab fees, transportation, school excursions and other things?
  • What are the financing or financial aid options available at the school? What is the financial aid application process?
  • Are there scholarships offered by the school? Or discounts for siblings attending the same schools?
  • What is the process for applying to the school?


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3. Conduct Research in Parent Groups and Forums, Talk to Other Families

One of the most critical things you need to do is to reach out to families with children already attending the schools you are interested in and to talk at length with them about their personal experiences. You may personally already know such families, but you can also typically find these families through family, friends, the schools’ admissions teams or international school related parent support groups and forums that are available offline and online. If you are open-minded, you can also look into negative comments from parents who have been unhappy with a particular school. Sometimes, these comments can give you a different (and sometimes sobering!) perspective though it is important to keep in mind that each family’s expectations and experiences are unique. An excellent place to start and connect with other parents is the Malaysian International Schools Parents Support Group (MISPSG) Facebook Group. You can look out for previous posts, comments, and feedback on your school of choice within the group and stay updated on events related to international schools in Malaysia through this group.

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4. Visit the Schools with Your Children! Talk to Teachers not Just the Admissions Staff

Schools usually look impressive and shiny in official brochures and website photo galleries. Make time to visit your final list of preferred schools. An in-person visit during a school day is very important as it will reveal more about student life and the actual environment. You will be able to see real students in action, how they interact with each other and with their teachers in class, and discover what and how they are learning. You will also get a clearer picture about where everything is, whether the facilities (even if basic) are functioning and well maintained, and some understanding about the size of the campus. Knowing the kind of environment that your children will be learning in is extremely important since they will spend a large part of their day at school.

Your initial dealings would probably be with the admissions staff. So, do ask to speak to some teachers (not just the head teachers but the regular ones). It is not enough to study the professional credentials of the teachers. It is also important to assess their personalities. Teachers who are interested in interacting with people, enthusiastic about their work, and show genuine concern for their student’s personal growth, development, and wellbeing, are a good indication of the school’s positive overall work culture and environment.


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5. Sign Your Child Up for a Trial Session

Some schools offer trial sessions that span one or a few days. Do sign your child up for this as you will be able to personally experience the classroom and overall school culture. When my twins attended a three-day trial session in their current school, we found the classroom welcoming and inclusive. The teacher encouraged interactions, and the children in the class made genuine efforts to get to know our children better and to draw them into classroom activities. By contrast, at a trial day in a different school, we found the children in the classroom very competitive, cliquish, and reluctant to welcome newcomers. These experiences were very revealing.

There is no perfect school, but with an open mind and heart, you should be able to find a school that is perfect for your child and your family. Good luck!

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