Burning passion: does it pay to teach abroad?

12th August 2011 at 01:00
With jobs scarce in Scotland, a lucrative post in another country can be tempting. But teachers fear a long stint abroad could leave them out of touch with Scottish education.

Scottish teachers are leaving the country for jobs in England and overseas - some driven by desperation, but others by a sense of adventure.

The number of Scottish teachers registered to work in England in 2010 was 347, a 13 per cent increase on the previous year, acccording to the General Teaching Council for England.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this trend is being mirrored in a rise in the number of teachers seeking posts abroad, drawn by better pay, fixed-term contracts and the experience of new cultures. The TES job section is advertising 64 international jobs this week alone.

Roddy Hammond is the founder and chief executive of Renfrewshire-based teacher recruitment agency Worldteachers, which finds jobs for teachers in international schools, mainly in the Middle East.

Many Scottish teachers are now making an "upbeat" choice to work abroad, he argues.

"Perhaps two years ago, people had no alternatives so there was an element of it being a last resort. But now more are choosing to do this as a positive career choice. A lot have no ties, so they are happy to go abroad - in fact it's often their first choice."

The internet is now a powerful force in the international education market, with interviews conducted by Skype and recruiters increasingly using social media to screen candidates. Applicants track down openings online "efficiently and easily", says Mr Hammond.

Last month, his company's website carried recruitment advertisements for an early years teacher, a primary teacher and a female biology teacher - all based in Doha, capital city of Qatar. The adverts offered a generous tax-free salary, furnished accommodation, flights and health insurance.

Mr Hammond estimates that the demographic of the teachers for whom his company finds jobs breaks down roughly as: 50 per cent probationers, 30 per cent qualified within two to three years, and 10 per cent qualified within 15 years. The remainder have retired early or are on sabbaticals.

"Older teachers are looked at with an open mind," he says. "They may be viewed as heads of department, or as class teachers if they don't want a promoted post."

He has no doubt about what is spurring teachers to look further afield: "We all know we've just trained too many teachers in Scotland in the past few years."

Some, such as Georgia Buchan, who worked in Dubai before finding a permanent post in London (see case study), are settling in the south, despite an apparent clash between her Scottish training and England's current educational policy.

"Lots of probationers are coming down to Luton and London now, because these are among the few places they can get a job," she told TESS. "Schools there are getting Scottish teachers trained in Curriculum for Excellence - though now that the Coalition government has ditched the creative curriculum, they're in a kind of limbo in England."

While some Scots remain in the UK, the supply of Scottish teachers abroad has been "steadily increasing", says Andrew Wigford, director of professional recruitment company Teachers International Consultancy, which operates from Penarth in Wales.

"There seem to be more Scottish teachers working overseas, possibly because it's one of the few options they have," he says. "But the international education market has grown significantly over the past few years anyway, so overall there is a much bigger demand for all UK teachers."

Scottish teachers may be in "particular demand", however, because it is widely acknowledged that they get high-quality training at university, Mr Hammond says.

"It's recognised that they get very good support through their probationary year in terms of CPD and mentoring, so the school know that they're getting a well-trained young teacher."

Mr Wigford agrees that this "real life" experience of the probationary year can make Scottish teachers more distinctive and sought-after than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

"Scottish teachers are highly regarded because unlike NQTs in Wales, for example, they have that one year of training in schools," he says. "There's a recognition that Scots travel well."

But do they, and what kind of experiences do they have once they have left home? Evidence from teachers to whom TESS spoke paints a mixed picture.

Janet MacGregor teaches French at the Saint George's School in Gerona, Spain - but she would prefer to be back in her native Glasgow.

Having travelled and worked teaching English as a foreign language in Spain and France, an advertising campaign for teachers lured her back to Scotland in 2003.

Graduating with merit from her PGDE course at Strathclyde University's Jordanhill campus in 2007, she spent her probationary year at Hillhead High in Glasgow. Like many other mature students who did the PGDE at a similar time, she had to take out a career development loan, which she is still paying off.

"It soon became apparent it wasn't the Holy Grail - there were just no jobs," she says.

"At least we had the probationary year, earning 70 per cent salary. My school would have loved to keep me but there was no budget. After that I discovered that financially I simply couldn't survive."

In 2009 she heard about a job through a friend who was teaching in Gerona. "I had been back in Scotland for six years, I had bought a flat and re- established my social life, and I had to uproot myself and leave," she explains.

Ms MacGregor now feels she has "missed the boat" in terms of teaching in Scotland. "I'm 47. In Scotland there is now Curriculum for Excellence and all these new buzzwords; I feel out of the loop and I don't think people value teaching abroad."

She is the only person in her department, teaching every French class from first to fourth year and Bachillerato (the post-16 stage of education in Spain, comparable to Highers and A-levels).

"There are no state exams in Spain - it's up to the head of department to decide them. But because I'm the only one in my department there are no other colleagues to bounce ideas off."

She sees some advantages in "doing something I would not have done otherwise" and having the experience of being in charge of exams, but is doubtful whether this would be of value if she were to return to teach in Glasgow.

The current crisis around job security for teachers is "partly about age", she says. "I have two friends in their 20s who've worked here and have now gone back to Glasgow to try to get jobs. They can take the risk because they don't have mortgages and can stay with their mums and dads. I can't do that."

To offer her a job in Scotland now, a headteacher would need to be "thinking outside the box". Going home to rely on a supply teacher's income to pay her mortgage would be "far too insecure", she says. "I think I'll go back to Glasgow - but not go back into teaching."

Janet's friend and fellow student at Jordanhill, Estelle Rourke, now teaches at the Cambridge English school in Kuwait but has also set her sights on returning to Scotland.

With redundancy pay from drinks firm Diageo funding her PGDE, she, like Janet, graduated with merit and did well in her probationary year, teaching at Holy Cross High, Hamilton. Ms Rourke, 45, taught supply for two years, bolstering her income teaching Spanish evening classes at Cumbernauld College.

"Doing supply was stressful and I had a mortgage to pay," she says. "When I had to pay pound;750 for my car to be repaired and had virtually no other money coming in that month I hit rock bottom financially. Then I got an email from a recruitment agency."

She was put forward for a post at the school in Kuwait and got the job within days, starting last September on a rolling contract. She teaches French to mainly Kuwaiti, Lebanese and Egyptian pupils, and is one of five Scots on the staff.

"It's a tax-free salary and I'm not paying any bills," she says. "The debt I ran up on my low probationer's salary and two years on supply has been more or less paid off in 10 months."

Being an older teacher has its pros, she says: "When I first arrived, they said a lot of the younger teachers would be here for a few months then head home at Christmas because they can't cope - they call them `runaways'. So being older can be an advantage."

But there are also downsides. "Kuwait is beige! It's flat desert, there's no scenery. And you have to be very careful what you say."

She has decided to stay for another year but "ideally" would be back in Scotland. "The problem is we're out here now and the whole curriculum's changing; if we come back for an interview, we'll have missed that."

Many younger teachers have a different perspective on working overseas.

Holly Johnstone, 25, who graduated in music three years ago from the RSAMD, starts teaching at a school in Luxembourg later this month and is sanguine about her prospects.

For her, teaching abroad represents "a chance to break away from the norm of the probationary year and then the endless applications and interviews, just to get on the supply list".

The thought of teaching overseas is "scary", she concedes. "You will be terrified you won't meet (your employer's) expectations and wondering how much they could really tell from a 20-minute Skype interview." But young teachers should realise that their degree has opened "a world of possibilities".

A substantial period of teaching abroad will be "more impressive" on a CV, she feels.

For some teachers, the CPD gained from working abroad pays dividends back home.

With the support of her headteacher at Winchburgh Primary, West Lothian, Caroline Ssentamu had a "life-changing experience" working in an education management role in Malawi as part of Voluntary Service Overseas from February 2007 to August 2008.

"From a personal point of view I gained a lot of experience in resilience, leadership and time management," she says.

Mrs Ssentamu returned to teach at Winchburgh "absolutely convinced" of the professional value of her stint in Malawi, and has enthused her pupils about the experience.

"It's very important that primary school children get a sense of global citizenship," she says. "My experience with VSO gave me a deeper insight into global issues and the importance of global education for all pupils. My classes have really responded to learning about Africa and lots of different cultures - and obviously there is a tie-in with CfE, so it's all been positive."

Andrew Wigford, who has also taught abroad in the past, argues: "Working with teachers from other countries, collaborating with colleagues who have had different types of training and are of different nationalities is one of the best CPD experiences you can possibly have."

Roddy Hammond thinks the outlook for Scottish teachers working abroad is sunny - and that they will come home primed to take advantage of a "demographic timebomb" in teaching.

"Ambitious, confident, self-motivated: these are the teachers going abroad, not the leftovers. And I think, as attitudes to working overseas change, they will come back equipped with these experiences and ready to be the next generation of school heads in Scotland."


Number of Scottish teachers registered to work in England in 2010: 347

Change on previous year: +13%

Teachers from outside the country registering each year to work in Scotland:

2006: 1128

2010: 364

Number of teachers from England registering to work in Scotland:

2006: 570

2010: 215

Decline in teacher population in Scotland:

2007: 55,000

2010: 52,000

Source: General Teaching Councils for Scotland and England


Comments from the TESS forum on teaching abroad:

"I'm in my second international school. I love the wages and the location (I'm in SE Asia), my children are great (they were great in the UK as well). I've just signed a new two-year contract. However, there are downsides. The workforce isn't unionised and it shows. Unprofessional behaviour by management is rife. My principal wouldn't last two minutes in the UK and neither would the principal at my last school."


"I'm teaching in Qatar and one of the worst things is not being able to leave. You need an exit permit, issued by your sponsor (which is the school). The exit permit is totally at the discretion of the school. Want to leave for good? Our school threatened people with debt, saying they'd have to pay for their visa, flight there, etc (even though that money was often more than earned by the crazy workload). They have refused everyone here a written reference. Check out the exit permit situation if you'd like to come out here."


CASE STUDY: `going to a Muslim country didn't bother me at all; you just have to accept the culture'

In January 2010, Georgia Buchan signed a three-year contract as a Year 5 (P6 equivalent) year group leader at a fee-paying primary school in Dubai.

Miss Buchan, 40, graduated from Jordanhill in 2003 and was principal teacher at Hyndland Primary in Glasgow from 2007-09.

"I basically saw it as a change of scenery - there's a whole world out there," she says. "Thinking about going to a Muslim country didn't bother me at all; you just have to accept the culture."

Expectations for pupil performance at the international school were "very high", she says. "Parents demanded that their children do well - I think that's the same at most schools abroad."

The school was following an English curricular model - "I had to get to grips with teaching the Tudors", Ms Buchan says - but management wanted to shift to a cross-curricular approach. The head and board of governors indicated that her experience in this at Hyndland, and her knowledge of devolved leadership, was among the reasons she was hired.

But she was immediately alarmed by the absence of any learning outcomes or school action plan. "They wanted me to make it cross-curricular, but there was no CPD to do it," she says. "I said I needed learning outcomes for literacy, numeracy, geography, history - everything I was teaching. No one said they didn't have them, they were just evasive. I was told to just make up activities."

At the same time, she was adjusting to a different lifestyle in Dubai. "The money was brilliant and the social life was OK - there are lots of young single people that go there and there's lots of partying."

After Easter it became clear to her that there was "very little understanding" of what was being taught or what the learning outcomes were - and little sense of staff being able to contribute to the direction of the school.

"There was no strategic management planning, no devolved leadership and no involvement in the decision-making process." The teachers were seen as "dogsbodies", she says. "I knew the country was a dictatorship, but I wasn't expecting an ex-pat school to be like that."

Other teachers at the school failed to voice their concerns. "In Dubai when you leave a workplace you can get a six-month working ban, so a lot of teachers put up and shut up."

In June last year, Miss Buchan discovered that she would not be paid her full salary over July and August. "The school's bursar said, `You don't get paid full salary over the summer holiday if you haven't done a full year', and I'd started in January."

But there was "absolutely no mention" of this in her contract. "I said I was resigning and wrote to the board of governors. They responded by saying `there's a book on a shelf saying there's an education labour law with a clause in it covering this'. I wasn't told about this and hadn't budgeted for it - it was unfair.

"There is no union - you're kind of on your own. Other teachers don't speak up. Most of them had husbands working in Dubai and weren't in a position to leave."

In the end, she decided to return after the summer break, but handed in her notice in October, and left at Christmas. "I didn't want to muck the kids about, so I went back. One of the other financial downsides was that my furniture allowance had to be paid back."

After heading home, she was unable to get supply work in Glasgow. She has since worked in a school in Luton and is about to start a permanent post at a primary in north London as an ICT co-ordinator.

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