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Beware the delights of the Middle East

Tired of Britain and dreaming of Arabian nights? Steel yourself first with a cautionary tale... I have just finished a five-year stretch in the Middle East. If that opening made you think of a prison sentence then you would be partly right. I decided to write this after receiving a letter from my former head of department telling me how bad things were in Britain and how many colleagues were considering teaching abroad. Consider this a cautionary tale.

I worked in a well-resourced school in the Gulf. The money was good and the terms and conditions of the contract were amongst the best in the world. There was money for in-service training; county advisers and educational psychologists were flown in; I was able to attend professional conferences in the UK. Teaching was challenging but expectations were too high; children, aged 11, with no English and little home support were encouraged to think they could gain Oxbridge places.

There had always been a sense of great insecurity at the school. Staff were regularly sacked, at the end of term, the middle of term, in fact any time the headmaster thought it appropriate. In my first year the new head of department was sacked after nine-and-a-half weeks and three colleagues were sacked at noon on the last day of a term.

As I write, the staff are waiting for an announcement that will determine whether or not they have jobs next term. The head has decided to cut costs. He sees fit to announce this at the end of the school year. Many staff have families and financial responsibilities, but they are expected just to pack up and leave. There is no redress. You just go.

OK, I hear you cry, stop whingeing, you had it too good for too long. I agree - up to a point. In many respects, both personally and professionally, this was the good life. But I was employed under false pretences. I was led to expect a certain level of accommodation and a tax-free salary with annual increases.

I also expected to be compensated for living away from home and family, and for opting out of a pension programme. In reality, I have had no pay rise for five years, while inflation runs at 10 per cent and the accommodation I was offered was appalling. All this without any consultation or any sympathy from the head or my employers.

This is not a moan, I'm just trying to point out that there are two sides to every story. It is easy to believe that living abroad means a fabulous lifestyle without any drawbacks. I worked in potentially one of the best resourced schools in the world, with one of the best staffs I have ever worked with. I had some good years and I don't regret leaving England. But don't be lured into thinking all the answers lie in giving England up and working abroad.

You may have even less security, less job satisfaction and when you eventually return, heads may not value your experience. I am about to find that out, because I am back in England after resigning in February. I would rather have some control over my life than be ruled by the arbitrary, capricious acts of a head who is untouchable by any professional body or any law. And I am one of the lucky ones.

So, when you look out of your classroom on a wet Friday in November and wonder what the back pages of The TES hold in the way of sunny tax-free climes, just remember that things are not always what they appear. You may have to pay a heavy price for that tax free opportunity - a price that affects your health, your family life or your self-confidence. All these things have suffered in my case.

The bottom-line is this: if you are single and don't see teaching as a vocation, then take the chance and go. You might have the time of your life. But if you are a career teacher then think long and hard - especially about the Middle East. I had some good years of professional development, but there are many others who have not been so lucky. And there will be a few from my school who returned to England this summer with no job, a little money in their pockets but with little chance of getting a good full-time post. Spare a thought for them.

The writer lives in the Home Counties and now has a job in a London school.

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