Choosing an international school: top tips for parents

This article was first published in December 2018.

Parents in Malaysia are lucky. While a few years ago we were restricted to a handful of school choices, now there are more than 170 international schools open around the country! We are truly spoilt for choice.

But this choice can also makes things tricky. Judging by the schools’ websites alone, they are all fantastic! They all seem to offer a well-rounded education, amazing extra-curricular opportunities, great facilities, and well-qualified teachers – making it very difficult for parents to differentiate between international schools in a similar price range. Faced with so much choice, it’s easy for parents to feel quickly overwhelmed.

Once you’ve put together a shortlist of schools in your budget and in a suitable location, here are some tips to help you separate the wheat from the chaff (so to speak).

1. Look for accreditation

In a burgeoning international school market like Malaysia’s, accreditation is one of the ways you can assess a school’s credibility. ISQM, BSO and CIS are three of the most common accreditation bodies. They conduct extremely robust evaluations of every aspect of a school  – from the teaching and learning, to financial management, to community engagement. And accreditation isn’t easily won, often taking 2-3 years of hard work on the school’s behalf.

Being a member of a leading schools group, such as COBIS, AIMS or FOBISIA, is also a good sign that the school is offering high-quality education.

The best schools will often have accreditation from several organisations. Newer schools might not yet have any accreditation – but they should be well on the way to getting it. Make sure to ask.

2. Visit the school

It’s tempting to ask for other parents’ opinions on Facebook or other social media, and let these opinions determine your decision. But every child is different, and schooling is a deeply personal experience. The only way to know for sure whether a school might be a good fit for your family is to visit it yourself, preferably with your child(ren).

international schools of KL - Happy Go KL

Prior to visiting the school, do your research. Make sure your know the ‘nuts & bolts’ of the school before you: the curriculum, their exam results (if relevant) and their values. One of the best ways of really getting a feel for a school’s culture is by reading their weekly newsletters and social media posts.

Don’t be afraid to ask to meet with specific people during your visit: for example, a curriculum leader from your child’s year group/grade level, the head of the Sports programme, a Higher Education advisor. The school might not always be able to accommodate your requests, but I can almost guarantee they will do their best.

Throughout the visit, consider using a voice recorder to capture the conversations, so that you don’t need to take pages of notes. This will help you to be fully ‘present’ during the tour and more able to observe the school closely.

Finally – encourage your child to ask questions about the school too. In my experience, kids often come up with great questions that we would never think of, and notice important details that might pass us by. It’s also very important that they feel some ownership over the final schooling decision.

international school tips KL - Happy Go KL

3. Know what matters

It’s easy to be wowed by a fancy theatre, a lovely football pitch or fancy tech labs when you’re on a school tour. And of course facilities matter. But what really is going to have the biggest impact on your child’s academic progress and wellbeing?

In 2008, a Kiwi Professor of Education named John Hattie – often cited as one of the most influential figures in modern education – pulled together thousands of studies involving millions of students to try and answer the question: what has the biggest impact on learning? Is it homework? Class sizes? Ability streaming?

His answer in a nutshell: it’s the quality of teaching. When your child is in their classroom, and the door closes, who is with them? Are they passionate, skilled practitioners who will inspire your child, give great feedback and talk to them about their learning? Because that is what matters. Not the size of a sports hall, the number of CCAs or the cafeteria menu.

international school kuala lumpur - Happy Go KL

So when you’re visiting a school, slow down. Ask your tour guide to let you observe a classroom ‘in action’ for a few minutes – and try and do this several times during your visit.

  • Do the children seem on task, busy and interested in their learning?
  • Are all children doing the same thing, or can you see evidence of differentiation (different tasks for different abilities)?
  • Does it look like a nice learning environment? Do the children seem happy and comfortable asking for help? Are they keen to answer questions?
  • Is the teacher actively engaged (or sitting behind their desk uninvolved)?

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the quality of teaching and learning and the relationship your child has with their teacher.

When choosing a school, try and keep your eye on that prize, and you can’t go too wrong.

If you want to learn more, you can read more about John Hattie’s seminal ‘Visible Learning’ research here and some of the myths he dispelled about teaching and learning here.


Helen Prior spent more than a decade working in international schools all over the world. She is the proud founder of SchoolSelect Malaysia, Malaysia’s first specialised international school consultancy, and is passionate about helping families navigate the complex school selection process. 

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