Jakarta Intercultural School head of admissions Kathleen Ngkaion offers her professional and personal insights on what parents can look out for when searching for the ‘perfect’ learning environment
More and more parents are recognizing the benefits of a globalized education, and with international schools mushrooming across the globe in the past decade, they now have more options than ever. This greater variety of opportunities and possibilities, however, turns into a paradox of choice, leaving families confused and frustrated over what to look for when choosing the right international learning environment for their children.
As a longtime traveling expatriate, a mother of four third-culture children, and now the head of admissions at Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS), Kathleen Ngkaion is very familiar with the struggles and anxiety parents go through in their search for that so-called “perfect” school. She recently spoke on the JIS Podcast to give families some insider advice on what to look out for before making their final decision.
According to market intelligence firm ISC Research, the number of international schools around the world has increased from 7,655 in 2011 to 12,373 in 2021, representing a remarkable 62 percent rise in just a decade. Nearly 200 are in Indonesia, added Ngkaion, and of that figure, over 60 percent are located in Jakarta, “so that’s a lot of options!”
“There was a time when choosing schools was easy, and for some families, it's still easy; maybe you came from a small town where going to school was a legacy, like maybe your parents went there; or maybe it’s geography and there's no other school in that area,” she said. “But now we live in a world that's a lot more complex and there are so many different schools to choose from, so thinking about schools can be very overwhelming to parents.”
These complexities — in an increasingly demanding, as well as digitally connected and competitive world — are compelling parents, both local and expatriates, to lean toward schools that use English as the primary language of instruction and offer globalized curriculums, such as the Cambridge IGCSE, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB). According to Ngkaion, about 80 percent of students attending international schools around the world are local, meaning that they were born and grew up in that country.
“That's a complete shift from the international schools [of] many many years ago. There is this desire to be globally competitive, and with that comes language exposure to different cultures, learning to work with different cultures,” Ngkaion explained. “Parents see international schools as an ideal ground for raising children who will be competitive in university education and in their careers, so it's become very desirable for parents to send their children to international schools.”
Like any decision-making process, the search for a school will start with research. And with the world wide web literally at their fingertips, the first places to look would be the school’s official website and social media accounts. What subjects, extracurricular activities and facilities does the school offer? What are the school’s core values? Do they align with your own values and priorities as a family? Where does the school get its accreditation? These are some questions parents can ask themselves in their online research.
Once they’ve narrowed down their list of potential candidates, parents will need to see the schools for themselves — compare the real thing with the glossy, edited pictures curated online.
“It’s very important that you go straight to the source, so go straight to the school. If a school interests you, arrange an appointment [...] so that you can hear from them firsthand and get a feel for what the school is like,” Ngkaion suggested. “Even if you have an education agent already giving you information or maybe your company's [human resources department] is helping you with your search, it's very important that you connect with a school directly.”
Of course, with many schools in Jakarta — and across the world — still taking part in online learning or only just starting to reopen as part of a hybrid study method, it may be difficult to gain access to their campuses. In this case, virtual Open House events are a great opportunity for families to get to know a school and its administrators. But don’t just listen to their explanation about how many subjects they provide or how many hours of math and science students get, Ngkaion warned.
“Really listen to what the administrators, principles and teachers are saying about their teaching and learning practices, their philosophies about teaching and why children at their school learn the way they do,” she said. “Listen to these beliefs and philosophies and see if they align with your expectations. You can get information about the curriculum and the schedule through printed material, but the interaction [with educators] and hearing them speak about what they do — something magical happens.”
Ultimately, when deciding on an international school, she urged parents to think about what’s best for their children, including their passions, what they’re good at, what brings out the best in them, as well as the entire family.
“At the same time, they should also be thinking about what their family needs and what their family wants [...] because the school becomes your community. Think about the school’s ethos, the people that you meet. Do the parents share your values and what's important to you?” Ngkaion said.
“There's no such thing as a perfect school, but with a lot of research and a little bit of time, you will find a school that is the perfect match for your child and for your family.”