Do international schools offer more teacher agency?

Working in an international school can bring many benefits, including a greater say in what happens in your classroom, finds Sian Williams
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Teachers put a lot of focus on student agency, empowering students to take ownership of their learning through active involvement in activities that are meaningful to them.

But what about teachers' own agency? How empowered are they to develop curricula and systems that best suit their students?

The National Education Union's 2019 State of Education survey highlighted accountability structures, and lack of trust and control, as significant sources of workload stress, suggesting that agency is an issue for many UK teachers.

But are things in international schools different? Mark Jones, director of teaching and learning at Dulwich College Suzhou, China, says yes.

"Essentially, it's a much more agentic environment internationally," he says. "And I think it's becoming increasingly more agentic as the international scene grows."

Claire Heylin, a primary English lead and Year 2 teacher at Deira International School, Dubai, agrees.

"There's so much scope to be creative and give really innovative and exciting experiences to students," she says. So, what are the factors that make this possible?

Staff diversity

Staffing in international schools is diverse, with teachers from all over the world bringing knowledge and experience of different cultures, education systems and curricula. This mix can be powerful, Jones says.

"Getting the opportunity to interact with teachers from extremely different backgrounds, and realising that there are multiple ways of teaching and learning, is an incredibly liberating experience," he explains.

Curriculum: structure and freedom

He goes on to say that teachers at Dulwich College Suzhou have "the freedom to change up the curriculum in the way they want to see it", offering a very different experience of agency than that of many UK teachers.

"Back 10 or 15 years ago you were 'the British school' and so you had a British curriculum," Jones continues. "But now, even in a British curriculum environment, the understanding of what that curriculum could actually be is very, very vast."

Niall Statham, head of PE at Hartland International School, Dubai, says that this means international schools "have the scope and freedom to pool elements and ideas from different curricula all over the world".

And, according to Heylin, even at classroom level, "there's more flexibility for learners and your delivery, and how you let the students learn". She gives the example of primary classrooms set out "like cafes".

"There would be students sitting on the floor, there would be students at standing tables, there would be students on the sofa," she says, leading to a more free-form and relaxed learning environment.

Respect and ownership

Heylin also praises the "valuing of each individual" in her school, explaining that all are appreciated and heard, "especially people who aren't in leadership are more than welcome to bring new ideas to the table", she says.

As a result, teachers feel more ownership over ideas and more responsibility to make them work because, as Statham reflects, "it's our thing that we're growing and developing together".

Opportunities for learning

It used to be that international school continuing professional development was predominantly delivered in-house, by travelling consultants. This meant that many people experienced similar CPD, limiting the cross-fertilisation of ideas. But things have changed dramatically in the past decade.

Jones says online learning has "really democratised CPD", noting that, as a result, "there are definitely a lot more grassroots projects happening". Hartland, for example, has a recording studio where in-house CPD podcasts are made, by teachers for teachers, about topics varying from curriculum and pedagogy to student wellbeing. 

International schools also have the freedom and resources to be responsive to these grassroots ideas and spread them fast. Deira has a whole-school weekly CPD slot and a "spotlight lesson" system; if a lesson goes particularly well, the teacher will repeat it and invite others to observe and reflect on it with them.


Beyond the school grounds, international networks are another source of inspiration to teachers, both in-country and beyond. These networks exist between schools, linking teachers who share the same subject specialisms, and on a larger scale. 

Dulwich College's Accelerate programme, for example, links middle leaders in its schools across the world. The result, according to Heylin, is "a huge community of educators, and everybody collaborates and shares best practice".

Innovation and collaboration

As the international school sector and competition within it grows, schools can no longer rely on their identity as, for example, a British or American school. Instead they must be "constantly working hard to be creative, and to be innovative," according to Statham.

"They need to have a USP," Jones agrees. But, he continues, this shouldn't come at the expense of relationships with others. "International schools realise that only through collaboration can we all get better at what we do," he says.


Many international schools have great facilities and funding that help to support innovation and respond to it speedily.

"There's less red tape here when it comes to things like that," says Statham. "You can do innovative things in the curriculum that you might not be able to do in other places." 

And it's not just access to cash, he continues. Increased time for collaborative planning, team teaching and reflection, and for supporting colleagues in the classroom, all add to possibilities for teacher agency.


The main challenge around agency seems to be the potential to overreach, perhaps more so for teachers on short contracts wanting to make a quick impression.

A subject leader on a short contract, for example, may feel that they need to make significant changes to curriculum and pedagogy quickly in order to prove themselves valuable, even if this isn't ideal for students or staff.

"The danger is if people think they have free rein," explains Jones. But the balance can be found "as long as things are managed, as long as there are expectations built in, and they've got supportive leadership".

And the benefits are clear. Increased opportunities and job satisfaction are plentiful, as Statham has found: "I always feel like I'm moving in my career and I'm happier as a result of it," he says. "I feel like I've got an important say in what I teach and the areas where I feel like I'm an expert."

Heylin agrees. "What I love is that you're never stagnant," she says. "You're always trying to learn more, and adapt and be creative. It's a constant learning experience."

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