"Have you ever considering working in Dubai?"
This was a message I received nine years ago, completely out of the blue.
I was in a job I loved but it was a wet Thursday in late October and I’d had a tough day. I simply responded: ”Should I?”
This started 18 months of discussions, which resulted in my family and I moving to Dubai as I took up the role of principal in one of the city’s most established British curriculum schools.
We had intended to move for three years. Seven years later we are still here, enormously enjoying a very different life to the one we left behind. And although we have no immediate plans to return to the UK, one day we will.
Not a one-way ticket
At a time when UK recruitment is at its most challenging in the 25 years I have been involved in education, international schools are sometimes accused of making this situation worse.
But rather than a threat, the international sector should be seen as offering very different recruitment opportunities for schools in the UK.
Last year, a report commissioned by the Council of British International Schools (Cobis), highlighted how teachers felt they had benefited from their overseas experience, and such perspectives can bring a refreshing outlook when these teachers return home, bringing with them the following:
International schools often have incredibly diverse student communities. In Dubai, many schools have students from around 100 nationalities.
In order to be successful, teachers will have to be able to thrive in schools where English as an additional language and English language learners are common, and must be able to deliver their subjects while being able to refer to cultural norms. As a result, teachers with an international experience are often more flexible and adaptable in their approach.
A new energy
Two further statistics from the Cobis report are worth reflecting on here: first, that 32 per cent of British curriculum international teachers had considered leaving teaching prior to moving to an international context and, second, that 77 per cent were happy or very happy with their experience.
Teachers, therefore, generally return with greater enthusiasm for what they do as well as experience of different challenges. Wherever in the world you are, teaching is tough and incredibly draining. Over time, this becomes increasingly difficult to wind down from over a winter or summer break.
The retention problems in the UK are well documented, yet a period spent in an international context could provide some of the answers to this. It is not easier but teachers in international schools are challenged in different ways and, as they say, a change is as good as a rest.
Cutting-edge education research and practice
Contrary to some views, international schools do not operate in isolated backwaters. The nature of expat communities is that competition between schools is intense – as a result, schools and teachers have to be offering the most innovative practice.
Teachers are expected to be proficient in the use of technology in the classroom, but innovative practice is not confined to technology. Freed from the expectations of Ofsted and its curriculum requirements, international schools are far more able to embrace new approaches in pedagogy.
I work for a company that, in addition to the English National Curriculum, has schools offering Central Board of Secondary Education, International Baccalaureate, Primary Years Programme, as well as the US curriculum in schools. Working alongside these schools gives a greater understanding of your own curriculum.
The overwhelming majority of British teachers in the international sector do return to the UK, usually because of family commitments or simply because they feel it is time to return. There is no question that attracting such teachers can be a useful recruitment pool but also offer something different.
Appealing to international candidates
There are a couple of ways that UK schools can make themselves more attractive to such candidates.
First, be aware that international schools operate on a different timescale. Most work with a one- or two-year rolling contract which staff are asked to confirm by the end of January. As a result, those staff who are returning will be looking for new posts from the winter break onwards.
Schools should also try to establish relationships with their international counterparts (a disadvantage of working on the international scene is the disconnect from UK developments).
Therefore, schools are always looking for ways in which they can make links internationally, as well as with schools in the UK. It is no coincidence that the largest division of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference is now the international division.
In a recent conversation with the chief executive of a teacher training institution, it was suggested that links be made with international school groups to offer a two-year placement as part of the incentive for new teachers.
They return with an enthusiasm for teaching and experience of some of the most forward-looking schools in the world. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
Simon O’Connor is principal at Jumeirah College, Dubai