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A range of schools for foreign kids

Choosing the right school for their children is one of the toughest decisions parents relocating to Budapest must make. The big variants include the price of tuition and the level of Hungarian – or English – that students are expected to have.

For Kati Gerencser’s family, a language barrier that had developed between her English-speaking husband and their daughter decided where their child would go to school in Budapest. “My husband thought the best solution would be to send her to the British School. In his native New Zealand, he already knew the British education system and this was preferred, too,” says Gerencser, who now has two kids at the school. She adds that the school’s teaching methods are very appealing, but she misses the tighter-knit community at Hungarian schools. There is a lot of transition, with kids and teachers leaving and new ones arriving, so “there are too many teary good-byes”, she says.

Choosing the right school for their kids is one of the tougher tasks parents face when relocating to a foreign country. While there are special education consultancies focused on helping parents every step of the way, the final decisions are usually made after extensive “school shopping”, which cannot be done online.

Getting into some of these schools can be difficult, and they charge a range of prices. Tuition fees run from approximately HUF 500,000, at the lower end, to HUF 5.4 million per year. The British International School is on the more expensive end of the scale, but in exchange it provides modern technology, like personal iPads for each child, as well as a lot of personal attention, Gerencser says. Although parents grumble about rising fees, Gerencser says that the family also chose the school when their son reached school age.

Aside from quality and cost, another major consideration for foreigners choosing a school in Hungary is the language of instruction.

Hungarian may be required

Even many bilingual schools have a Hungarian-language curriculum and require some level of Hungarian from students. Some of these schools run a “zero-year” language program, to help kids cope with the language. In most cases the headmaster decides on admissions on a case-by-case basis, but it is rare that foreign pupils with no Hungarian background would choose this option.

“We take foreign students at our school, but they must join our regular courses, taught in Hungarian. The teachers are flexible and helpful to a certain extent, but our foreign students usually take extra tutoring in Hungarian, so they can follow the course material,” said Géza Barta, deputy headmaster at Közgazdasági Politechnikum, a foundation-financed school promoting entrepreneurship.

At the Lauder Javne Jewish Community School and Kindergarten, a popular Jewish school, the English Plus program caters to bilingual children who speak some basic Hungarian or are willing to learn. With oversubscription running at 200-300%, the school can be selective. Zsuzsanna Heller, elementary school administrator at Lauder, says the school is liberal with regards to religious views, but with competition to get in so fierce, it does give priority to students with a Jewish background when it comes to the English curriculum. “Since we’ve been getting so many applications, we had to start to apply this filter,” she said.

There are a number of schools run by foreign foundations or embassies that do not follow a Hungarian curriculum. These schools are different from Hungarian ones by offering competence in an international setting, multicultural attitudes, enhanced student support and close cooperation with parents. A lot of the best-known private international schools have been around for some time, such as the American International School in Nagykovácsi, the British School and Britannica International School. Along with being among the most expensive, these schools also have a waiting list for entry, which means they can be choosy about the students they accept.

The newest school in this group is the Budapest British International Academy, which will open its doors to primary students in August 2015. Its school fee starts at HUF 2.66 mln per year for the first two years and increases to just above HUF 3 mln in the higher grades. At these prices, Budapest British International Academy is in the mid-range among fee-charging international schools in the city. The school features small classes and qualified teachers who follow the English National Curriculum, according to its website.

More affordable alternatives

The International School of Budapest is a fairly small school that is open to students up to the age of 14 and is owned by a Hungarian training school called Számalk. Unlike the British School and the American School, it must follow Hungarian regulations. “At the moment, doing anything in Hungary on a bilingual program in grades 9-12 is difficult because of all the regulations,” an education expert for foreign schools told the Budapest Business Journal. Finding teachers for the school is hard because of the Hungarian regulations, which require a specialist teacher for each subject, rather than someone who specializes in a subject group, like the sciences or the arts. Most of the teachers at International School of Budapest are American, and the school pays just above Hungarian salaries for teachers, which makes for some fluctuation among staff, according to the education expert. At around HUF 2 million a year, the fee is high for Hungary but is lower than a lot of other English-speaking schools, the expert adds. That package includes food, teaching materials, day trips and supervision and extracurricular activities until 5 PM.

The SEK Budapest International School is another alternative, where Spanish is also taught to a high level, though the curriculum is more oriented towards the Hungarian system. Some British families send their kids to the French or German international schools, too, and the lower tuition fees at these institutions are part of their appeal.

Out in Budapest’s District X, the Orchidea Bilingual School offers tuition fees at HUF 900,000 a year and takes on the challenge of bringing pupils from varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds onto the same page. The school is run by a Turkish foundation, but children from many nationalities attend, and they tend to have highly involved parents, Zsuzsa Várnai, the school’s director says. Although the language of instruction is English, kids get tuition in Hungarian, too. The level of English and indeed Hungarian that they speak as they enter the school is extremely varied. “It is our job to bring them to the level they need, with support from parents for whom bi- or trilingualism is a priority,” Várnai says. She adds that the school is thriving, and expanded a few years ago to cater for all grades up to age 18.