Unless you are already homeschooling, the chances are, when you think about moving abroad with children one of your biggest questions is going to be what you are going to do about their education.
For me this was probably the most worrying part of this huge life change. If living in the country of your dreams doesn’t work out for every single member of your family, none of you are going to be happy.
It is impossible as a mother to have a happy day if you have dragged a tearful child to school that morning, whether you are living in your home country or a different one. If you are anything like me, a big part of the motive for this experience is to enrich the lives of your children, to give them positive experiences they could never have imagined having.
When it comes down to it there are 4 main options that you have when looking at how to educate your child in your new country or while you are on your big tour of the world.
1 Home Education
A lot of families – including those whose children are currently in full time education decide to home educate when they take a sabbatical to live in a different country or to go on a grand world tour. There are plenty of benefits to this option – one of the things you may well want to do with your new found freedom is to say, “This morning we are going to jump in the car and drive to Barcelona and see the sights for a few days,” or, “Why don’t we drive to Madrid and then catch a train to Rome.” or maybe, “We’ll set off for a few days skiing in Andorra.” If you child is in school this is only really possible on weekends, bank holidays and school holidays.
If this is a total life change for you – and one of the things you don’t like about your current life is the fact that you are working long hours and you don’t see enough of your children – then the opportunity to take a year, or 6 months, or however much time you have, re-bonding as a family can be a gift for all of you.
One downside to home ed is that you can be missing an opportunity for your children to really immerse in the culture and the language (and opportunities for making friends for life, in a remote rural village school, could be missed!)
Another thing to consider is that home ed can be either illegal or a bit of a grey area legally in a number of countries in Southern Europe – not that I would let this hold you back, as I have said somewhere before I have a real problem with any government trying to tell me how to live my life or educate my children. (Huge legal disclaimer here!!!!) The downside to this though is that tracking down home ed groups can be hard because they aren’t always keen to make their existence too public. (I do have a contact for a home ed association in Spain and I received an email last year about a summer camp for Spanish home edders – I will try and track this contact down and find out more for any of you who may be interested – it could be a great opportunity for fun, friendships and language learning.
We went down the home ed route when we had 2 or 3 months to spend travelling last year. I tracked down a School of Robotics – (which is actually an out of school activity open every weekday afternoon and on Saturday mornings) in a city in a remote part of Western Spain.
Our two went there several times a week during our stay and we did some other activities with them outside of this. It was a life changer for our son – I knew he was into robots, ICT etc before he went, which is why I chose this experience, but he now knows that Robotics is what he wants to do with his life.
Depending on the situation it can take longer for children to form friendships when they are still learning a language and haven’t reached fluency. If they are only spending a few hours a week with the children in an out of school activity it may take a long time to really get to know the other children in the group.
2 Attending a standard state school in the region of your choice.
My last comment in the previous paragraph leads me on nicely to our experiences of this option. Nearly 3 years ago we got our life and business to a place where we felt we could take the plunge and book our first sabbatical. With huge excitement we took out a 6 month rental in the most beautiful mountain village in Spain that you can imagine. (I will write another post about how we found and chose this place and the surprisingly low cost of living in remote rural areas).
We had looked around the tiny village school a few months earlier and so of course everyone knew who we were as soon as we arrived!! It didn’t take long until the friendly gregarious children in the village came to our door to invite our children to play in the Plaza. Sometimes, if they were playing football nearby, then our house would become media tiempo casa (half time house) and they would all come in for a drink of water at half time. The village also has a huge 100 year old spring fed swimming pool and during the summer months the village children play together there until the sun goes down.
The village were thrilled to have a new family with young children in the community, they were so pleased to have more children in the school. I think it would have been very hard to live in the village and not use the school. I know they were threatened with losing funding for a teacher during our time there and I sensed that there was concern that one day the school may have to close if numbers fell lower.
The families we met there, and the teachers, were without exception warm and lovely people. The friendships made and the cultural experiences were incredible – more about that for another time.
The whole experience felt a lot like going back in time, about a hundred years, to a time where people lived a simpler, slower life in a Garden of Eden paradise.
The downside to this on an educational level is that the school system was also like that experienced by our grandparents (without the strict discipline). My 7 year old (who is dyslexic) spent a lot of his days doing line after line of loopy handwriting practice, (my daughter then aged 11 and also dyslexic) learned all her subjects from standard text books.
I feel guilty criticising the teaching in the school that made my children so welcome. This is not a criticism of any individual but rather the general education system in many European countries. I have to be honest and say that long term I don’t think the school would have been a fit for my 2 creative dyslexics and the remoteness of the location made it hard to add in many extracurricular activities.
The village, and the people there, will always have a piece of my heart and I feel quite emotional as I write this.
As an EU citizen – enrolling your child in school anywhere in Europe is totally straightforward – I don’t know how this works if you are from another part of the world such as the US and have a visa to live in Europe for a while. If you do want to homeschool while living in a welcoming village community like this you may have an opportunity to opt out of the system while still enjoying the other benefits because your child or children wouldn’t be eligible for state education funding anyway. I would be interested to hear from you if this is something you explore.
Both my children are currently attending the local state schools in Portugal at the moment – I have negotiated a situation where my daughter who is now 13 can go into school for a cultural and language learning experience but is going to sit her exams in the English system.
Local schools can be a great way to get under the skin of the place, immerse in the language, make friends etc even if you don’t think they are going to be an educational fit for your children in the longer term. The experiences my children have had here in Portugal have been SO different to anything they could have experienced in the UK and there are parts of education here that have a ‘fact is stranger than fiction’ quality about them. I will write soon in more detail about this. All I will say at this point is that if my goal in educating my children were to broaden their minds then I could consider this a resounding success!!!!
3 Private Education / Alternative Education
I have put private education into two distinct groups here. We haven’t tried standard private education but my general understanding is that here in Portugal, in Spain and also in France and Italy standard private schools tend to run along similar lines to the old fashioned state education but with more pressure. I am sure there are some good and some bad like anywhere else. If you don’t receive funding to put your children in school in the EU and you want them to have a total language immersion experience in their education maybe this is something you could explore.
The area of private education that I have looked into mot in both Spain and Portugal is the Alternative Education Sector including Steiner Schools, Montessori, and other alternative independent schools that run with a philosophy of child led learning and fun. There is an independent alternative school, nicknamed The Hippy School about half an hour or forty minutes from where we lived in Spain.
When we looked into living in the area I contacted the school but they had no spare places….. and this seems to be the story you will get from most alternative schools in Spain, they are very popular. They don’t publicise their existence too widely – you may need a qualification in detective work to find out about some of them. I found out about The Hippy School through a friend of a friend.
Steiner schools are fairly easy to track down with a quick google search – but I must have contacted nearly every Steiner school in Spain before one of our trips and no joy. If you are already in the Steiner system or you have contacts I suspect it may be easier. This feels somehow wrong for an education system with an inclusive philosophy. There is only one Steiner primary school in Portugal and if there are other alternative schools hidden away here I don’t know about them. That is the problem when you have a system where non standard education is a legal grey area.
I would also add that I didn’t allow much time to find an alternative school – we set off with only fairly short notice the year I contacted the Steiner schools – if you plan well ahead you may have more success. I think this could be a fantastic option and experience so definitely worth putting some effort in to find.
4 International Schools
I’m only going to touch briefly on these because we all know what they do. I know they can be a life saver for families who are trying to make their lives in another country when the local education system isn’t working. Part of my mission is to try and encourage you to have really vibrant cultural experiences in off the beaten track places. We tend to love living in the countryside but for those of you who prefer urban life there are plenty of cities in Europe which rarely see more than a handful on international visitors at any one time. The thing is – these are the kind of places where you are unlikely to find an international school!
That said, we haven’t discounted the international school option for our children. Our children’s happiness is the most important thing and keeping an open mind and staying flexible is the only way to make international life work for everyone. My inclination would be to look for international schools in capitals or regional capitals to get a truly international experience from this type of school.
I would love to hear your thoughts and any questions around travelling with children. This is a huge subject and it can be tricky to find information to plan your travels around your children without inside knowledge. So please share and ask away!!!