5 pastoral care differences in international schools

If you take on a pastoral role in an international school, you need to be aware of differences compared with the UK

Liz Cloke

How teachers' pastoral care can differ in international schools

Taking on a pastoral role in an international school is a great career move – but one with its own unique challenges – even for a pastoral pro in the UK.

However, it is not simply a case of bringing your skills to your new setting and working as normal.

There are many differences in how pastoral care is delivered that are worth being aware of if you are thinking of moving internationally.

Pastoral care in international schools

Here are five worth knowing.

1. Cultural taboos

Depending on where you move to, there may be certain topics considered taboo: from the host country’s laws or culture to unusual requests from the school’s owners or parent.  

Mental health issues and educational needs can get swept under the carpet; students personally identifying as LGBTQ+ may not have acceptance or support from families, and sexual health education may not feature in the PSHE agenda.

There may also be teachers who need training, guidance or support from you in areas that you would have thought they were already trained in.

As pastoral leaders, we know that a thorough PSHE programme is essential to support young people and their development, so these hurdles can be hard to adapt to.

But it is important to accept this reality and be aware of the topics that could be sensitive or culturally very different to the UK. This is far better than trying to carry on as normal and potentially ending up in an awkward situation.

2. Agency support

Coming from the UK, you may notice a lack of external agencies that you would ordinarily liaise with. In some situations, it will be your pastoral and senior leadership teams’ input and experience that will be the only support available.

This can mean, for example, a student identified as having learning difficulties may be diagnosed through internal testing but it will be the parent who would need to visit the hospital to see the educational psychologist at their cost.

You may be fortunate to have a school counsellor on-site, and without a recognised external child and adolescent mental health services equivalent in many parts of the world, you may well be relying on their personal contacts to get specialist support when needed.

If you do need the police, they may not be interested, perhaps due to a lack of awareness or acceptance, or the systems needed to tackle and take action. These provide additional barriers and frustrations to school leaders.

There are different rules, regulations, expectations and exceptions from one country to the next. Make sure you call on your team, and if you are part of a group of schools, then reach out to make those difficult decisions together.

3. Behaviour differences

As a head of year or key stage coordinator, it will be rare that you will be sat after school phoning parent after parent to inform them of their child’s detention due to their unacceptable behaviour. The attitude towards learning in many international schools across Asia is outstanding.

Of course, there will be differences between schools and regions, but generally students want to learn, they have high aspirations, work hard and enjoy school.

Naturally, students can make mistakes and they will, but generally you will be sharing many successes and developing positive relationships with your students and their families.

If you aren’t supporting major behaviour issues, perhaps your time and efforts can be focused on building on parent engagement or introducing other initiatives beyond the academics. This can feel like a real perk at times.

4. Student turnover

In the UK new students arriving mid-year is quite rare. But internationally it is not unusual for some families to move regularly between countries, and it is possible that several students will have attended more schools than you.

Some students quickly adapt, accept the changes, and take it all in their stride.

Others will need that additional support to help with what we, as adults, consider a life-changing situation – finding our way, to be socially accepted and build new relationships, while adjusting to a new curriculum and school rules. Plenty for a young person to have to deal with.

Consider then how new families will settle and adjust, often arriving midway through the year and maybe with limited grasp of the English language, and how you will share the information about curriculum, assessment and your school’s philosophies along the way.

5. Safeguarding

Whether you're at a UK-based or international school, safeguarding is a priority and assessing a school’s safeguarding credibility is essential.

As noted, though, across the world there are huge cultural differences. Behaviours deemed as inappropriate or illegal in the UK can be judged very differently in an international community.

Indeed, according to the Council of International Schools (CIS), "cultural norms is seen as the #1 barrier to identifying and reporting abuse".

As such, a recognised accreditation such as CIS, BSO or ISQM, can show that a school is committed to the highest level of safeguarding standards and ongoing training, whatever its cultural setting, and that thorough and regular safeguarding training, structures and robust procedures and processes are in place.

Furthermore, being part of a larger schools’ group or international schools’ network in your host country will provide opportunities to connect, collaborate and develop safeguarding procedures.

Connecting with other pastoral and senior leaders helps us to protect the young people in our care.

Liz Cloke is head of secondary at Tenby Schools Penang, Malaysia, and tweets @misscloke

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