It’s not enough to establish minimum and maximum eligibility levels. A sound policy accounts for the different challenges faced by students of different ages.
One of the more contentious elements of a mobility policy is the determination of the ages of eligibility at which assistance with schooling costs is provided for children of assignees. Setting the minimum and maximum ages can be more difficult than it might at first seem.
Practice differs widely around the world as to when children would normally be expected to first attend school. In some countries, it is normal for children as young as three to be bounding off to state-supported (public) pre-school. In other countries, children might be as old as six before they start attending school. Challenges arise when a family relocates from a country with free early-childhood education to a country where such provisions do not exist.
At the other end of the spectrum, some employers find themselves called upon to help when international assignments cause complications with families’ college/university planning. For example, a British family planning for their teenaged child to attend university in the UK at the end of secondary school faces a new set of questions and costs if they now must live in California. Of course, American universities are many times more expensive than British and European institutions. Should the employer subsidize a US education for this prospective college student? Or should extra air tickets be provided to the student to allow them to visit the family in California while they are studying in the UK? There are no straightforward answers, especially when making decisions that could create policy precedents.
And just setting the minimum and maximum eligibility ages is not enough. Especially when the employer is expecting a significant number of assignees to make use of host-location state schools, a fair policy addresses the varying circumstances children face at different points in their school journeys. Broadly speaking, the older a child is, the more challenging it is for them to succeed in state/public schools at the host location.
There are a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the biggest factor is what we might call “barriers to entry” at the secondary level:
· In most major U.S. cities, the most highly-regarded schools are not filled via a catchment area (i.e., taking students from the surrounding neighborhood). Rather, many have admissions processes that require high grade point averages, or high marks on standardized tests, or letters of recommendation, etc. The demand for seats is usually much greater than the supply. For example, assignees into the New York area are often eager to have their children attend one of the city’s eight specialized public high schools, which are regularly ranked as among the best high schools in the country. But the specialized high school entrance exam is only administered in the Fall, and the schools are usually full to capacity; entry into any of these schools after the regular entry point in the 9th grade is virtually impossible.
· In the English school system, the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) program is a highly structured, two-year program with both compulsory classes and electives that can eventually lead to A-levels and university. It is not at all easy for a student newly arrived from abroad to step into this system.
· In Germany, the most advanced and academically oriented secondary school, the Gymnasium, also has many admissions requirements that make it very difficult for newly-arrived foreign students to gain entry.
In addition to the barriers to entry for high school students, there is also the question of language. It is generally accepted that younger children absorb second languages relatively easily and can often do so via total immersion in the classroom. For older students, on the other hand, it can be an almost impossible burden if they are trying to master a foreign language while at the same time trying to learn advanced course material delivered in that language.
What does all this mean for policy designers and program administrators? In short, they need to make sure that they don’t just stop at establishing minimum and maximum eligibility ages for dependent education benefits.
They must also consider the impact a child’s age has on their ability to gain admittance to desired schools. The fact that a location has wonderful state/public schools means nothing if children of assignees cannot access them or are not adequately prepared for them.
Program managers should ensure that families have access to qualified education counseling for the host location so that they can understand the risks and the available options, and that their policies are sufficiently flexible to allow for schooling support to be provided when required for a dependent child, whether she be 6 or 16.
Timothy Dwyer, President
Over the years, Bennett International Education Consultancy has worked with hundreds of corporations across the globe, many of them Fortune 500 companies, providing domestic and international school advisement & placement services - preschool through university - to the dependents of relocating employees. In addition to education placement, our team provides customized consulting for corporations with a range of education issues: education policy writing & benchmarking, tuition studies, group move advisement & planning, and remote education solutions.