How international schools can ride the political storms

Political upheaval can have a big impact on recruitment for international schools, as these school leaders explain
18th January 2021, 10:59am
Dan Worth


How international schools can ride the political storms
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"Everyone feels relieved."

The words of an international teacher working in the USA, reflecting on the election victory for president-elect Joe Biden, will resonate with many across the world.

Yet for international teachers in the USA, the election was more than just political preference - the future direction of their careers was at stake.

"The change for in-country teachers, myself included, is certainly positive. I remember, on the day the election was called, thinking how much more pleasant it will be now. I had doubts before about how long I would want to stay," the teacher says.

"Now, I would feel much more comfortable planning for living in the States much further into the future. The prospect of staying longer seems more possible but also more desirable."

Politics and international schools

This sentiment underlines a key component of the international teaching experience - political dramas can have a big impact.

After all, with Donald Trump as president, the rhetoric around immigration - which turned into major policy changes on visas during the pandemic - made it much harder to work in the country, or for schools to hire new teachers, as a second teacher, based in New York, outlines.

"In the US we have faced significant issues recruiting due to the presidential proclamation which saw the suspension of entry of immigrants who were deemed to present a risk to the US labour market during the pandemic," she says.

"The J Visa for teachers fell under this bracket, preventing new hires from joining us, in addition to delaying visa renewals for existing staff who are currently unable to leave the US until they can get an appointment at an embassy."

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However, the Biden administration appears to be much more welcoming towards immigrants - something that, while it may not directly change teaching visas overnight, will make the nation feel more attractive to potential candidates.

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"President-elect Joe Biden does present a more unifying rhetoric that we hope will attract international teachers," the teacher adds.

"New York, in particular, has faced very challenging times during the pandemic and we hope that Biden's election will go some way to restoring the appeal of living and working in the city."

Another nation where political changes are likely to have a positive impact is the United Arab Emirates, where a relaxation of legal rules put forward by the government has made it legal for non-married staff to live together, the rules around alcohol have been relaxed, too.

Teachers there have already outlined how they expect these changes to have a positive effect on recruitment in the future.

However, not all political events will necessarily be good news for international schools. For example, in 2019 numerous wide-scale protests took place in Hong Kong against the ruling Chinese government.

During this period applications to work in the region reduced, as Mark Steed, principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong, explains.

"Looking back on last year's recruitment round, which was at the height of the HK protests but before Covid-19 hit, we did see a different pattern of international recruitment. We experienced fewer applicants for roles than usual," he says.  

However, this did not mean they dried up entirely: "The ones that we received were more discerning. Most had some sort of connection with Hong Kong - they had grown up, lived or worked here before or had friends and family here," he explains.

"They had done their 'due diligence' and made a decision accordingly, and they knew that, apart from the odd day of disruption to travel, the protests posed no day-to-day threat to ex-pats."

Nevertheless, given the political fallout from the passing of the National Security Law, there could be further consequences for schools in the region.

"Looking ahead, its full implications are yet to be seen, but in all likelihood its impact is likely to be indirect in the form of the knock-on of large corporations deciding whether or not they are going to continue to have Hong Kong as their head office for Asia-Pacific," says Steed.

The impact of Brexit

And of course, closer to home, we cannot ignore Brexit, which has removed the previously easy free movement that UK teachers enjoyed within the European Union - making the administration of hiring a UK teacher potentially more burdensome.

"Teachers from the UK will require a much more specific work visa than the former situation of freedom of labour," notes Nicholas Hammond, the headteacher of the British School of Paris. 

"They will have to be approved by our local academie and, all in all, we would anticipate three months or so waiting for confirmation. 

"This makes hiring in the normal window for recruitment difficult - the various academies have promised us speedy scrutiny of applications as they recognise a need for UK-trained teachers."

Taking charge 

What can schools do in response to such huge political events? What they must do is ensure that they work with staff - both existing and potential new hires - to recognise issues that exist and provide help, information and guidance whenever required, as Steed outlines.

"Sweeping issues under the carpet only causes problems down the line," he says.

"The last thing that the school needs is for a new hire to pull out at the eleventh hour, so it is best to get the issues on the table, to outline how the school is dealing with them, and to allow the candidate to make an informed decision as whether she or he wants to make the move abroad.

"The interview and job offer process is always the start of a relationship between the school and the teacher and it is vital that this is done is an open and transparent way - especially when there is wider political context playing out on the national or international stage."

Hammond agrees and says that one impact of Brexit, for example, has been for the British School of Paris to increase the support it gives new hires around their legal status in the country.

"With new hires, we are offering a hand-holding service through our HR dept for those coming from the UK […] with a greater focus on visa and residence cards than simply finding a place to live," he says.

He also advises establishing a good working relationship with the local British embassy - noting that this is something that has become more established since Brexit: "The ambassador does regular outreach events and virtual cups of tea to let the ex-pat community know what is going on," he adds.

The reality is, however, that moving to work in another country comes with the possibility of political changes having a knock-on effect on your career.

Certainty for international teachers in America, the hope will be that a close relationship with embassy staff or costly immigration lawyers are not needed for a long time yet.

But then again, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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