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Five pitfalls to watch out for when working in an international school

One principal of an international school in Thailand warns teachers contemplating a move overseas that it’s not a working holiday

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In 1990, I jumped at the offer of a teaching exchange to Sydney, Australia. I enjoyed a year’s worth of professional development and because the year was advertised as "tax free", not only did I travel for free, but – for the first time in my career – I was able to save money.

I enjoyed working in an international context and went on to teach in the Middle East, Singapore and Thailand. But while the advantages of working overseas are numerous, there are a few things to consider before packing that suitcase.

1. Taxes

My experience of the "tax free" job advertised in the 1990s changed when I worked in Singapore for 14 months and returned to a large tax bill in the UK.  To qualify for a tax-free experience, employees must reside outside the UK for at least two years and can only return for a maximum stay of 90 days during that time. You may also have to pay tax in the country you have chosen to move to.

The government has made changes to the benefits that UK nationals are entitled to upon their return, such as healthcare, so research this carefully before anticipating a financial advantage in working overseas.

2. Contracts

These vary between schools but are usually for two years, with the option to renew at the end of the contract. Renewal will be subject to teacher performance (which can be entirely subjective), the school’s staffing needs and often whether one’s "face fits". 

This can put pressure on teachers and in some environments cause rivalry between staff.  The contracts may offer all sorts of benefits but it’s essential to research these prior to signing.

3. Rent

Unless the school is providing staff with accommodation, teachers must find their own housing. Trying to do this while starting a new job in a new country can be very stressful. Compounding this is most landlords’ insistence on taking two to three months rent in advance, at a time when the teacher may be on probation. If the probationary period is not successful then the teacher stands to lose their deposit, which could be a considerable amount of money, depending on the country’s cost of living.

4. Corporate organisations

Many international schools are now franchises of top UK independent and public schools or are part of large corporate international profit-making organisations.  Working for the former can be an introduction to the world of private education for teachers coming from the state system; and working for the latter can feel more like working for a business than a school, as the ethos is financially driven rather than educationally.

5. No unions

Working in an international school often puts you outside of union support. It’s easy to forget about the work of unions to ensure acceptable terms and conditions of employment, standards in the workplace and of course legal advice in times of need. In an international school you are on your own.

Louise Loxton is principal of an International School in Thailand

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