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On relocating with kids

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?


  1. Heather

    I read your article with interest which was referenced on a UK/USA Expat Forum. I am interested in knowing what you think of education in the UK, how it compares to what you might have experienced in NJ. I am talking about state schools NOT in the London area – which I am not sure is your situation. And I also wanted to know – if you were an American family planning a possible relocation such that the kids would start school at the beginning of the school year starting ’09, what steps would you consider taking? if place of work is resolved by then?

    We are in a highly rated public school district, but the kids can’t write (in middle school now), and No Child Left Behind Act has mandated lots of mindless testing here. I have four (ages 8-13) who have been raised with Jeremy Britt, the Lynley series, (they are enthusiastic fans) have traveled twice to the U.K. for extended holidays, with my 6 year old boy sitting willingly and interested through the whole of A Comedy of Errors on a really hot day at the Globe in the summer of ’06. By any stretch they are anomalous American children.

    I will confess that England is a big draw for both my husband and myself. His dearest friends live there, and he as an experienced psychiatrist who could get work there with the NHS. Any insights would be appreciated.

  2. Ilya

    Heather, thank you for reading and apologies for the delay in responding; as you may have gathered, we just came back from a holiday.

    I responded in a personal email, but figured it makes sense to post my response here as well.

    The easiest way that I can offer my insights on the subjects of your interest is to direct you to the trio of articles on my blog that I collectively call “Family Matters”, found either via a link on the navigation bar on the left or directly here.

    In brief, I do not have any firsthand knowledge of the level of state education outside the greater London area, but I doubt that it could be vastly superior to what I am familiar with. There are certainly better scores on GCSEs when you move further out of London, but to me it hardly indicates better education – rather, a better student mix.

    And as I stated in one of those three artciles, I do not think that British education is decidedly superior to the American one, although I would certainly not go as far as to suggest that it is inferior. It is different, both in system and in emphasis, and theoretically is both broader in perspective and deeper in specific knowledge on various subjects than what I have seen in the States. But I have to reserve my judgement on whether it succeeds in making children truly better educated, since nothing definitively points to that. (Of course, my overall judgement is largely speculative, since my older daughter attends one of the best independent schools in the country, where the level of instruction is entirely exceptional and cannot be compared with any state school in the UK or public school in the US, and my younger one is in a state grammar school, which I do not find much distinguishable from the elementary school that she attended in NJ).

    As far as steps to take ahead of time, in theory, you first identify a good public school with vacancies in your target grades, then find a place to live that is practically on the doorstep of that school and then apply to the Local Education Authority specifying the school of your choice and hope for the best. This is a devious Catch-22 with the British public education system: Your chances of getting into your preferred school are greater the closer you live to it (and you need to reside within its “catchment” to apply), but you are not guaranteed a spot no matter how near to it you are.

    In other words, you can’t get accepted to a good school until you reside close enough to it, but once you do reside close enough to it, you still may not get accepted… The ideal approach is to establish your residence in a catchment with several good schools as early as this fall, but don’t move the kids until summer ’09; with early application, your chances of placing all of your kids into good and, hopefully, conveniently-located schools will be much greater.

    I’m sure I’ve heard your derisive snort at this suggestion all the way from here. Yes, it is largely unrealistic. But unless you settle in an area with plenty of available spaces at good schools, you will run into a possibility of being turned away at the school of your choice. Especially, when having to do it four times over.

    By the way, if one of your middle kids is 11 when the school starts in ’09, that will be the most problematic. It is the age when the kids in England enter Year 7, which marks the start of the “senior” school. The application process, not unlike in the US college education system, takes place the previous fall. In other words, all Year 7 places in your catchment for the start of school year ’09 may be allocated by November ’08…

    It all does not sound very positive, I am afraid. On the other hand, you sound like you have close friends – supposedly, parents themselves? – in England, who may be able to help you on various levels. You are ahead of our situation two years ago, in that regard. All we had was a professional
    education advisor, who was patient in explaining the specifics to me, identified for us schools with vacancies (the option for my older girl was rather uninspiring) and was hardly useful beyond that.

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