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Does working abroad have unexpected benefits for you and your children?

The Summer holidays are long over and the children are settling into the new school year. Nothing extraordinary about that. Except this is the Middle East, temperatures are hovering around 45ºC, the humidity is very unpleasant and it is Ramadan. Like elsewhere, parents are mainly concerned about uniforms, class lists, extra-curricular activities and getting back into the common round.

One of the greatest concerns for families about to move abroad, because of work placements, better opportunities or perhaps with the British Army, is how it will affect their children's education. English independent schools are expanding in the Gulf. Repton has already opened in Dubai and Oundle is opening an offshoot there in September next year. Wellington is considering a sister school in Bahrain in 2010 and Brighton College has earmarked Abu Dhabi. Tradition and “Englishness” would appear to be the selling point and there is a huge demand from the rapidly growing number of wealthy expatriates and locals.

John and Jill Hudson have lived and worked most of their lives abroad. John is a geologist with an oil company and Jill currently teaches kindergarten in an international prep school in Kuwait. Here, they each give their own view on life in the Middle East, the choices for education and how a life spent abroad has affected their children.

A father’s perspective

“On accepting employment in Kuwait and faced with choices of education for your child, perhaps the first consideration is to assess what life is like for expatriate families in Kuwait. If the media is one’s only source then one would be forgiven for thinking security is high risk. It certainly has had more than its share of conflict in the recent past and this is what colours most peoples’ impression including those left behind.

It’s in the Middle East, two words that conjure up visions of political tension and unrest but from the safety aspect there is little untoward to be concerned about. As with most countries, travelling on the roads is perhaps the greatest risk one faces and the Kuwaitis have taken this risk to new levels, the high quality road systems are sadly not matched by driving ability. Otherwise it’s a modern city that caters to consumerism, with numerous shopping malls, plentiful places to eat out and various retail outlets. Kuwait society is strongly family oriented and manages to successfully blend modern affluence and conservative traditionalism.

Expatriates are politely welcomed but tend not to integrate with Kuwait society. That said, expatriates have plenty of freedom compared with neighbouring countries, some restrictions apply, in keeping with the cultural traditions. Expats can live freely in the community, not in compounds as in Saudi Arabia. Women are respected, can drive and move about freely with little hassle.

Living is “easy”. Maids, drivers and the level of service in general is high compared with the UK for example. Expat accommodation is all rented so few maintenance worries or chores and no need for DIY to take up spare time. Commuting distances are short so it all adds up to more time to spend with family. Of course the climate needs special mention. It’s a hot desert setting and so everywhere is air-conditioned, except the great outdoors, which for seven months is pleasantly warm but for five months it is oppressively hot. Most Kuwaitis and expats will leave the country to some bolt-hole for July and August when schools are out. June and September have to be endured.

So, what are the choices for education?

Some opt for boarding at an early age but primary school education is of a reasonable standard and many choose to place their children in Kuwait schools. There are state schools for Kuwaiti nationals and many private schools that cater for everyone and most expatriate nationals. There are French, American, Italian, Indian, Philipino schools and so on. The English curriculum is popular and taught in many of the private schools. Most UK expats seem to narrow the choice down to half a dozen of the English schools that broadly follow the National Curriculum. These schools have a multi-cultural mix of nationalities which is a strength of the system and they are mostly co-educational. Whilst many people are happy with primary education, come the age of 11 to 13 when difficult decisions on secondary schooling have to be made, many will opt for educating their children back in their home countries, by boarding their children, or ending their work contracts to move elsewhere.

How do the children fare?

There is generally a high turnover of teachers each year but this does not seem to be adversely detrimental, specialist subject teachers get through the curriculum. The school day is generally 8am to 2pm for most. Working hours for the parents in government or military related employment tends to be 7am to 3pm so plenty of after school hours for other activities.

The combination of multicultural classrooms and the long holiday breaks providing opportunities for travel in the region give the children a good outlook on cultural diversity and awareness of other countries and traditions other than their own

For the sporting-minded there are within short distances facilities for football, rugby, tennis and swimming coaching, but surprisingly for a warm climate with a long coastline, water sports are very limited. Music and drama is also well catered for both in and out of school. Outdoor activities are limited but the more intrepid may go desert camping or sea fishing, at certain times of the year, but generally weekend activities tend to be focused around socializing within the expat communities, BBQ’s with family & friends, sleepovers for the children and such like.

The world is a small place as far as my daughter is concerned and she is independent enough to explore new horizons on her own. If we had stayed at home, would she be the same person? I don’t know

The combination of multicultural classrooms and the long holiday breaks providing opportunities for travel in the region give the children a good outlook on cultural diversity and awareness of other countries and traditions other than their own. Immersion in the country also provides the opportunity to learn the Arabic language however few seem to become proficient as English is widely spoken as the second language of most people.

Unlike Britain, for example, where working parents tend to be at work for long hours, or commuting, or shopping and fixing the house at the weekends, children in Kuwait probably spend more time with their parents, both during the week and at weekends. All in all, the children benefit from a strong family oriented society wherein time spent with family and friends is valued in timehonoured tradition.”

A mother’s perspective

“Looking back over the last twenty years, as the mother of three children who have travelled around the world, I can see all the pros and cons. Every child is unique. Each child will take away different things from experiences. My eldest had five primary schools and lived in six houses before the age of eleven. She went to senior school anticipating her next move to be, as usual within two years and was disappointed to find she had to “stay put” for six. She coped well, settled easily, and was, by necessity, very adaptable. She was a popular girl and finished her school life as Head Girl.

She was a good friend to many but would always start to back away if they tried to get too close. Was this a defence mechanism? I have often wondered. She moved to Scotland for her university life and “embraced” Edinburgh as home for the next six years. The following year, the family moved to the Middle East. Another guilt trip for mother - leaving a seventeen year-old to go off to university.

Home has always been wherever we are living at a particular time

She has always been a bit of a free spirit - planning every long university holiday to exotic destinations - Mexico, Caribbean, Kyrgyzstan. What benefits has she gained from travelling? She is a confident, outgoing young woman enjoying life to the full. The world is a small place as far as she is concerned and she is independent enough to explore new horizons on her own. This is, of course, what we want our children to become. If we had stayed at home, would she be the same person? I don’t know.

Home has always been wherever we are living at a particular time. The family is based in Kuwait but both my older children are living and working a long way from here - my daughter in Australia and my son in Norway. My younger son who is in Year 8 will return to England next year for his secondary education. He says he is bored with basketball and is very much looking forward to playing rugby and cricket!

All have had opportunities to travel extensively, experience new cultures, learn other languages, develop confidence and become adaptable but we have all missed being away from our extended family. We try not to get too close to people as we know they will move on - our friends are constantly changing.”

The Road Less Travelled can be exciting and rewarding but children living abroad for a long time can become part of a “Third Culture” where they don’t belong at home and they don’t belong in the host country either. But there are huge compensations.

We try not to get too close to people as we know they will move on - our friends are constantly changing

The Middle East is a very safe environment and children educated here are less streetwise than their peers in England. One can even find thirteen year-old girls playing skipping games in the playground! There is a slower pace of life - despite the fast cars, glitzy shopping malls and every fast food chain on the planet. Censorship is not pleasant either but empathetic young people develop more cultural and racial awareness. A step on the ladder to becoming a truly global citizen . . .

The names have been changed at the request of the writer.

How to Make your Choice?

  • Like elsewhere, good schools are oversubscribed so check if there is a waiting list.
  • Be aware of those run primarily as a business. Those that are not for profit deserve more serious consideration. All IAPS schools are non-profit making.
  • Is the school chosen by Embassies and British Military Mission personnel? This can be another useful indicator.
  • Talk to others who have to make these difficult decisions but remember you will always find those who like to moan!
  • Look closely at the school's academic record.
  • Is English the language of the playground?
  • Is there a high staff turnover? This will always be higher in international schools as some teachers will be “company wives” and the young staff move around the international school circuit.   
  • Is there a wide range of extra curricular activities and do they all have to be paid for? 
  • Are classes small and facilities good and up to date? In many schools in the Middle East, facilities are excellent.
  • Is the school a member of BSME (British Schools of the Middle East) or the IAPS (Independent Association of Prep Schools)?

Which School to Choose?

  • International Schools are often the first option considered. They are designed to ease transition from one country to another and are a good choice for parents staying for a relatively short time in the host country.
  • The head teacher and most staff, apart from those teaching local languages, will have qualifications recognised by the DCSF in London.
  • State schools often aren't suitable. In the Middle East, they cater for locals who share culture, language and religion.
  • The main problem in the whole area is the lack of school spaces. It is becoming increasingly difficult to place children in good schools.
  • A child's secondary education may be better provided for in its own country. Some parents feel it is important for older children to be aware of their national culture and environment.
The English School Kuwait: IAPS prep school
Council of British International Schools:
British Schools in the Middle East: