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Keyword: ‘expat family matters’

Re-visiting education (Q&A, part 2)

September 25th, 2008

Continuing our Q&A exercise, in which I successfully engaged one single person to ask me questions, let’s address another one of Jeri’s queries. (Part 1 is here.)

I’m assuming your children are in British schools – what are the advantages and disadvantages of American vs. British school systems?

I did, in fact, produce a rambling essay on this very subject more than a year ago. It is worth to briefly restate it here.

Becky attends an independent – British equivalent for private; in other words, fee-paying – girls-only school that is reportedly one of the top schools in the country. Kimmy goes to a regular co-ed state school, one that is rated as “good” – but not exceptional – by the Ofsted.

After close to two years of experience with British schooling, I firmly hold that, if taught right, British approach to school education is both wider in its range and deeper in its substance than American schooling approach. The simplest example of greater depth is the fact that pupils actually learn how to prove mathematical theorems as opposed to just checking them off as “facts”; the former trains the mind, while the latter is pretty useless on its own merits, in my humble opinion.

The greater width is best characterized by the existence of more diverse subjects, as well as the social sciences curriculum that is balanced enough to teach children about the world, not just the country that they live in.

If taught right is a very important qualifier, though. The quality of schooling varies from area to area and, as you might experience in the US as well, tends to be worse in urban areas and better in more affluent suburban ones. Moreover, state schools are unflinchingly egalitarian, in that children with different abilities and attitudes are taught in the same classroom; the pressure on even the best teachers to dumb down the instruction to the lowest common denominator is too great – the student mix becomes a dominant factor in the level of schooling that your children obtain.

Having said all that, I have no doubt that, all other things being equal, my kids will end up more well-rounded and open-minded individuals than their American peers because of the years they will have spent in British schools.


Selecting where to live (city-vs-suburbia expanded)

January 7th, 2008

A leisurely perambulation along neighborhood streets on Sunday has provoked additional reflections on the topic that I started to scratch earlier and also cursorily mentioned towards the end of this recent post: Living in city versus living in suburbs.

Coincidentally, a fellow American [prospective] expat has emailed me earlier today asking for an advice on this precise topic. That was more than enough for me to realize that I was long overdue to expound my theories on selection of residential area.
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Relocation, Schooling

On relocating with kids

July 27th, 2007

In my posts, I occasionally touch upon subjects that could be collectively described as Things You Tend To Not Spend Time Thinking Seriously About When Making Decision To Relocate. Since I’ve gathered a few of those after all these months, I figure I can devote an occasional post to such a topic exclusively.

So, what about relocating with your kids?

First of all, why the question?

The reason is fairly simple. I know many expat couples that have kids – and they are all faced with similar kid-related logistic problems. And while every one of those families obviously spent considerable time figuring out how to set up said logistics, nobody actually goes far enough to think of the overall implications. Until it becomes a nuisance, that is, at which point changing it may be an undertaking of the same magnitude as the original relocation…

I am not going to give you any advice here, just some food for thought.

There is no argument that bringing your kids to live abroad is a stupendously positive experience. Okay, let me qualify that. No argument, unless your destination is of an oppressive, authoritarian or otherwise inherently dangerous to foreigners type. But with relocating to Western Europe, the benefits of exposure to different cultures and places and of expanding children’s horizons cannot be underestimated. (And if you happen to disagree, I am sorry to say that that is the thinking of a stereotypical narrow-minded and ego-centric American – I did not come up with the stereotype, mind you, I am only borrowing it from some America-bashing Euro intellectuals).

But you would not move half across the world just to expand your offspring’s horizons, would you? No, for most of us, a professional opportunity is the big part of the picture. And chances are, the adults in the family are themselves keen to experience different people and places and a different lifestyle. The kids will simply tag along.

Not so simple, unfortunately.

Let’s see. We came to Europe because we like to travel. But anybody who’s ever went with the kids to something other than a beach or the Disneyworld will know that you end up adjusting your plans around children’s stamina, or lack thereof, as well as their attitudes towards playgrounds and souvenir stores (cool!) and museums and idle walks (bo-o-o-o-ring!).

Oh, we certainly considered it beforehand. And overrode our own concerns with Well, we’ll do our best. And if you have been following our adventures, you’d agree that we’ve done reasonably well thus far in satisfying our wanderlust and keeping the kids happy at the same time.

Of course, I have two bright girls, who are normally receptive to the idea of a museum visit and sometimes even surprise me with their appreciation of what they see. And they can always be negotiated with, even on their most restive occasions.

But suppose that they were less curious. Or less amenable to spending time on what the parents like to do in exchange of a promise of following that up with something that they would enjoy. (How about we go to see Van Gogh for a bit and then hire the water bike? And we’ll let you pedal!)

Or suppose that the kids are simply too small to be travelling and sightseeing. Do you forgo your travel plans? Do you always go only to leisure destinations? Do you leave the child(ren) with the nanny and spend your getaway constantly feeling pangs of guilt and worrying about the neglected little one?

Travel, after all, is just a discretionary pleasure. School is a whole different matter.

You see, in England, living near a good public school does not guarantee that your child gets into it. It certainly improves your chances, but a good school is likely to be a popular choice of many, and if it happens to be oversubscribed – or already full when you apply – then your child may end up being “invited” to another school in the same district (called catchments here). Quite possibly, no longer within walking distance.

You may get lucky and get into the school that is your first choice. Or you may decide to go for an independent (that’s private in American) school right from the start, and that will allow you to look for a permanent accommodation after the school situation is cleared up (which is not really possible with public schools since you normally cannot apply to one without having secured a residence in the catchment to which it belongs).

But it is very likely that you’ll first find yourselves a suitable house or an apartment, and then realize that your 12-year-old daughter will have to take two connecting buses to get to the school which is a couple of miles away. And there are no school buses even as a concept.

A braver parent might just let the kid travel on her own (and surely I did so at an even younger age myself), but I am not that brave. So, instead, I drive Becky to school every morning, which takes me over half an hour since I have to come all the way back to the house. Natasha then picks her up in the afternoon, occasionally spending well over an hour in the car on the account of traffic. Talk about different lifestyle! My morning commute, which I was so keen to reduce compared to what I used to have in New Jersey, is pretty much stuck at the same hour-and-a-half.

So, there you have it. The questions of school and travelling with kids did not get enough of consideration when we were considering relocation. And they certainly should have.

Now, in truth, it is unlikely that we would have changed our minds even if had the foresight of my morning school runs. But who knows?

Relocation, Schooling

Putting your kids in school: American versus local education

July 3rd, 2007

The American School in Central London costs around £20K per child per year. Unless you receive on-going subsidies as part of your expatriate package (see my treatise on relocation packages for further reference), you would probably be put off by this price tag. We obviously were, although the cost was only one of the reasons why we put our girls into local schools in England.
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