4 red flags to check for in an international school

Due diligence is key if you’re a teacher thinking about signing a contract with a new international school, writes one headteacher and CEO of a school in Hong Kong

Mark Steed

Warning - international schools

Most international schools are highly professional, above board and are great employers – but, as with most industries, there are some cowboys out there who cut corners to make a fast buck.

However, unscrupulous schools are easy to spot if teachers do their own "due diligence" and check out their potential employer. Here are my four key red flags to watch out before you sign on the dotted line…

1. 'Visa runs'

Reputable schools will ensure that a work visa is in place before you start work – it will either be sent to you in advance or left so that it can be collected from the visa desk at airport arrivals. Sadly, this will not always be the case.

Some international schools expect new staff to enter the country on a tourist visa, which they will then change to a resident work visa in due course. A tourist visa is usually only valid for 30 or 60 days and there are per diem fines for staying beyond the allotted time. So, if the 30 or 60 days elapses before the work visa has been processed, schools expect teachers to go on "visa runs" – ie, to leave the country and re-enter on another tourist visa. I’ve heard of cases where teachers have had to go on visa runs throughout their first year working. Although the travel costs are usually picked up by the school, there is a personal cost in time (for example, a lost weekend) and in terms of settling in and establishing a normal life (a work visa is often required to get a local bank account).

In most countries, it is illegal to work on a tourist visa and, again, there are hefty penalties for both the employer and the employee if caught. This puts the new teacher in a very vulnerable situation.

One of the major reasons why schools are not able to process work visas promptly is that the school itself does not yet have all of its paperwork in place. New schools typically have to go through a long process of documentation involving several government departments before they can get the status to sponsor work visas. In their rush to meet a September opening deadline, many new schools are forced to cut corners – visa runs are a symptom.

2. Cash payments and employer shock

The norm in international schools is for your school to pay your salary into your local bank account. However, there are times when this is not possible because you have not been able to set up a bank account because your visa paperwork is not in place. In these cases, the school has no alternative but to pay the teachers in cash, which can be hugely inconvenient for the teacher.

In similar vein, there are many examples of it only becoming apparent at the first pay day that the de facto employer is not the school for whom you’ve been working for the past month, but some other third-party company. This happens because schools (particularly UK franchise schools) enter into partnerships with local companies who own and manage the school.

3. Accommodation anomalies

Many international schools provide accommodation to teachers as a benefit for the first part of their term of employment. Sadly, there are many cases in which schools do not deliver the type of accommodation that was promised at interview. In some cases, flats are smaller than expected or of a lower quality; in others, they are in a totally different part of the city, necessitating a lengthy daily commute.

At its worst, single staff are informed for the first time on arrival that they are required to share an apartment – or even a room.

4. Beware the scams: jobs that don’t exist

Check that the job actually exists. There have been a number of scams in the past decade in which scammers use the names of prestigious schools to con prospective teachers. The scammers send out job offers on amazing terms but to clinch the deal, the unsuspecting candidates are required to wire a few thousand dollars to a purported travel firm so that visa papers and work permits can be processed, money which they say will be refunded once they have joined the school. Suffice to say that no reputable school requires candidates to pay costs up front in this way.

“Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted”

Moving abroad is costly and involves making personal sacrifices (resigning a good job in the UK, relocation, etc). Because of this, most teachers are so invested in their move that they have no alternative but to play along when a bad employer moves the goalposts. In practice, when things go wrong it is very difficult for a new teacher to challenge a school over its poor practice during the first months of living abroad. The choice is binary: put up, shut up and stay – or quit. All this can be avoided if teachers do their own research before committing to a particular school.

Due diligence checklist

Contact teachers (via LinkedIn or other social media) who are working or worked recently at the school and ask them:

  1. How long did it take you to get your work visa?
  2. Did you or any of your colleagues ever have to go on a "visa run"?
  3. Did you or any of your colleagues ever get your salary paid in cash?
  4. Who is your actual employer who pays you each month?
  5. Did your school accommodation align with your expectations from interview?
  6. Are you planning on renewing your contract when it ends? If not, why not?

Look for the kitemarks

One way to identify the more established and reputable schools is to research the international organisations to which schools can belong. The international schools in the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), the Council of British International Schools (Cobis) and the Federation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISIA) have extensive inspection regimes, which will ensure that a high standard of best practice is followed in the schools that bear their kitemark.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong, and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

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