With everything that happened in 2020, you could be forgiven for missing the following: over a third of international schools have increased their recruitment of local staff in the past two years.
A report by the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), published in the middle of last year, showed that 34 per cent of senior leaders were now looking at local staff, compared with 27 per cent in 2018. That’s a sizeable jump in two years.
It would also seem highly likely that any future report will show this figure rising again – after all, hiring staff from the UK and flying them out, securing visas and overcoming quarantine measures is not easy, especially if you have a potentially good supply of candidates down the road.
International schools hiring more local staff
Colin Bell, the CEO of COBIS, says he believes these issues are certainly driving the trend.
However, he thinks one of the key motivators will be the growing recognition among international schools that a balance of local teachers and international teachers is important to achieve the right diversity and complementary fit of skills and insights.
“Local hires are attractive in the sense it can provide balance of diversity within workforce and I think that’s important, to have representation of the local culture,” he says.
“In the Middle East, for example, with Arabic teachers I think there is a strong preference for nationals from the host country to deliver language or other cultural classes.”
Rob Ford, director of Heritage International School in Chisinau, Moldova, agrees that this cultural balance is important – and has been a key part of its recruitment strategy for local hires.
“When we have looked at the skills and experiences the school needs from its staff, it hasn’t been a crude judgement that international teachers will automatically bring an international, outward-facing set of competences to the organisation.
“What can be often overlooked is the skills and experiences of local teachers, and in Moldova there is a very strong tradition of fluent English-speaking teachers who have been involved in global networks for a long time through groups like Etwinning, Cambridge and British Council programmes.”
The cultural benefits
He notes, too, that it can often be the case that there are teachers in a home country who have actually also travelled and worked internationally, too – a point that can sometimes be overlooked.
“The Moldovan diaspora, who have often spent a lot of time abroad working in international schools and educational contexts, have also been a rich source of recruitment, especially as it means they can come back home and still work in an international school offering an international curriculum.”
Another school leader in Africa makes a similar point. “I have one [local] member of teaching staff as she trained abroad and then returned here,” says the headteacher.
“Her input is vital in terms of the culture of the school, she's my go-to with regards finding out what is valued or tradition here.”
Everyone achieves more
For international teachers, working alongside local colleagues also helps them to learn more about their host country, as Clare Lambert – who has worked in several nations – explains, here with reference to her time in Thailand.
“Every day we sang the Thai national anthem before school, ate Thai food, the local staff organised cultural events for staff and it really felt like you were learning and becoming part of a wider community,” she says.
“I learned so much about the culture, traditions and country and made some great friends.”
And this focus on a local-international workforce extends across all schools levels, as the head of a school in North Africa – where they have a strong SLT split of local and international staff – outlines.
“That leadership experience and expertise between a more international and UK focus and the host country supports us in the decisions that we make,” he says.
“It’s probably easier as again we do adopt a ‘grow your own’ approach with leadership in certain sections of SLT but look for international hires for leaders in others.”
Are there other factors at play, though?
All of the above are no doubt strong reasons for local hires to increase but the data suggests there is more at play.
After all, of the 1,100 respondents surveyed – of which 234 were senior leaders – nearly two-thirds said they had actively worked to support local teachers to, “gain UK teaching qualifications through programmes such as PGCE, IPGCE, or Assessment-Only QTS in the past two years.”
Even more tellingly, many schools would like to do more to facilitate this, with 64 per cent saying the ability to act as a teaching school delivering school-based ITT would be beneficial and 50 per cent calling for more ITT programmes to train local and international staff to have the necessary qualifications.
Ian Thurston, head of secondary at Dr Al Marefa Private School in Dubai, is one such leader who shows this data in reality.
“There is certainly a move towards improving the standard of training and we've been in touch with local universities with the potential to set up links for training and potential recruitment,” he says, although noting for now that the school is always able to hire internationally for its vacancies.
Nonetheless, the focus on this as a growing area shows that, for Mr Bell, beyond the cultural benefits of more local teachers, there are other factors at play in this area of recruitment – not least the potential financial benefits.
“They [local teachers] are not necessarily going to command expat conditions of service: accommodation, medical insurance, not having to pay for repatriation once a year and so forth,” he says.
Does this help local families, too?
This, in turn, means fees can be made lower, helping to attract a new type of parent, which gives international schools a wider base with which to attract those with the budgets to finance an international education, as a senior leader in Malaysia outlines.
“This is a growing trend in some countries here in South-East Asia […] as there are local families who are seeing the importance of English for their children’s futures, and the ‘mid-range fees’ that certain international schools are pricing themselves at mean local families are able to afford this international experience,” they explain.
“The way they can charge a lower fee is by having fewer expat staff.”
Hiring more local staff for this purpose also has a knock-on benefit of staff “retention and consistency”, the leader adds.
The impact of the coronavirus
Indeed, this focus on retention by bringing in local staff is something that could become even more prominent as the long-term effect of the pandemic, and its impact on travel, plays out – as the head of school in North Africa outlines.
“Recruitment could be tougher this year, given the Covid issues [and] we do have a strong ‘grow your own’ policy so teaching assistants do progress through and do a PGCE and then go on to teach in school,” he explains.
This is an issue in China, too, where the need to ensure retention by hiring locally has become more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is definitely an increase in local hires as closed borders and economic pressures push schools towards looking more closely at domestic teachers. This is happening in many areas of China and across all educational sectors,” notes the vice-principal of an international school in China.
“Many schools have had to cast their net more widely and look for local teachers who have an appropriate qualification and a high level of English but not necessarily an understanding of UK/international curricula.”
A school 'growing its own'
Indeed, this issue of finding local teachers with the right skills to teach – let alone qualifications – is another major factor that impacts local hiring, as the leader in Malaysia also acknowledges.
“Disadvantages are the differences in the teaching qualification, some are not as practical and student-focused as international schools would want - lots of rote learning used, as an example. But this is supported with an outstanding CPD programme in my school”
This focus on training teachers up in-house is something the British School Muscat in Oman has already been doing for some time, as principal Kai Vacher explained in a blog post in April 2019.
“The international school market is growing rapidly, yet the supply of teachers who are qualified for international schools is not expanding,” he wrote
“Recruiting is becoming increasingly challenging as more and more hunters [schools] are trying to spear a limited number of fish [teachers], in a shrinking pond.”
Because of this, the school has already moved to start to offer staff, such as interns and teaching assistants, the chance to be trained in qualifications suitable to start to take on teachers' roles.
"As an inclusive international school, this offer is made to all members of our school community, some of whom we have trained up to Higher Level Teaching assistants (HLTAs) but not teachers yet; but that is the long-term goal.”
One such example is Suad al Busaidi, an Omani employee who was working within the EYFS department as a HLTA. Suad wanted to become more involved across the primary school in a teaching capacity.
To help with this, the school is supporting Suad through a degree which will result in her being ready to complete her teaching qualifications. She is currently gaining experience as the Arabic enrichment teacher, within the primary school, and continues to support the school during her career growth.
Jeni Delman, head of primary school, adds: "I am incredibly proud of all Suad has achieved since she took up the role within the MFL department. She has proven to be incredibly resilient and has thrived at a time when schools around the world were finding their feet in an online world."
An investment in the future?
Clearly, this can have benefits for all – but it is not an easy process, with staff almost always needing to undergo specific training to reach the required qualification standards.
Nonetheless, with many courses available, and more that could spring up if demand rises, this issue may dissipate.
If it does, though, it may bring another more prominently to the surface: many parents may expect – and desire – their children to be taught by "British" teachers, rather than local ones.
“Schools have to manage the expectation of parents and they often, rightly or wrongly, expect to see a teacher from the UK teaching their children – they will perceive that is what a British school is and does,” notes Mr Bell.
This is an issue the leader in Malaysia admits can crop up and can take time to tackle: “There has been a mindset change [and] parents would need to buy into the school model,” they say.
Keeping parents happy
One way of doing this is using data to demonstrate that the local staff in the school deliver results just as much as international staff.
“My maths department are all local and they are the most successful team in my school, with almost 100T per cent A*-C and VA as good if not better than some of the top schools in the world,” they say.
The leader from China also sees a similar pattern of initial consternation followed by acceptance: “There can be some resistance from parents but this is largely short-lived when it becomes clear that the quality of teaching is generally high.”
This issue around parental expectations is not confined to nations with an emerging middle class looking to international schools either.
Long-established schools in locations such as Paris see how important parents’ expectations of a certain type of teacher can be to the selection process.
“British-trained teachers tend to have a style of approaching work in the classroom that is recognised as different to that of some (but not all) French-trained teachers,” says Nicholas Hammond, of the British School of Paris.
“This often leads to parents sensing a different atmosphere in school and is cited as being one of the reasons for choosing a clearly British school as opposed to an international, local or bilingual school.”
He adds, though, that with the ability to quickly and easily hire British teachers likely to be curbed by Brexit, this could be a situation that changes in the future – which may mean having to look elsewhere for new staff.
“We believe that we will have to look at a wider range of teaching qualifications rather than our normal approach, which is to take colleagues with UK experience or a UK PGCE,” he says.
“We have Canadian, US, Irish, French, Australian-trained teachers on the staff at present but most are UK-trained [and] we are looking at recruiting from other countries where we can see there is a clear crossover/shared approach to teaching.”
However, he still believes it will be the case that, due to being a national curriculum, GCSE and A-level school, “we are always going to have a majority of applicants from a UK background”.
A complementary fit
And this is a key point, too – much as the demand for local teachers is rising, it does not seem that is diluting the global need for expat teachers.
For example, as a senior leader in Thailand says, the reality is that local qualifications are often just not suitable for an international school and changes to this are a long way from becoming reality.
“The local hire market here is not as well developed as others for now,” they say, noting that they are also more than able to source the teachers they need from the UK or other international schools, meaning the need for local teachers is not that high.
Another head in Africa also makes this point: “I'd love to be able to hire locally trained teachers. However, it's simply not viable. The level of qualifications necessary to be a teacher here is far below what we'd expect, so all recruitment is done from overseas,” he says.
A new era for all
It seems clear that it will not be the case that international schools become solely staffed by local teachers with the same qualifications as a UK teacher.
After all, even if the qualification issue was removed, there would always be the desire to have international staff in an international school – it’s part of the experience of the setting.
However, what does seem clear is where once international schools were a home from home for an expat community of workers and their children, things are now evolving into something more representative of the increasingly diverse community of pupils and parents found in international schools.
As Mr Ford from Heritage International School in Moldova sums up: “We need to make sure we immerse ourselves into our international context and even the label ‘local teacher’ needs to be dropped from the mindset so we think and develop in an international education setting.”
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes