Case study: Vicki Gilligan, Switzerland

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
I've been working in international schools for 15 years now and I can honestly say that I don't have any intention of returning to the UK.

Working abroad offers professional satisfaction and an enjoyable lifestyle.

I started my career as a primary teacher in Scotland, but then moved to Cyprus, where I taught for two years in a school for children of the armed forces serving out there. I returned to the UK with the intention of moving into educational psychology, but ended up taking a teaching post in Hong Kong. That decision was (sad to admit) man-related, rather than career-based. But I taught there for five years and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I then moved back and taught for a year at a school in West Sussex. It was a good school, full of very good teachers and in some ways I look back on it as an Inset year, because it brought me up to date with what had been happening in the UK. But I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to move overseas again.

There have been some great initiatives in recent years, but I still think teachers at home are overworked. In an international school you are able to take the best of UK practice, but without all the pressures of Ofsted and league tables. That's not to say it's an easy ride - I usually work from 8am to 6pm - but there is greater professional freedom.

After my year in Sussex, I moved to Malaysia. It perhaps wasn't the best school in terms of administration, but because I had already had good experiences in Cyprus and Hong Kong I didn't let it put me off. And Malaysia itself was wonderful. I then became head of a small school in Indonesia, before moving here to Switzerland.

I thoroughly enjoyed working in Asia. International schools there tend to be in the big industrial cities, which have large ex-pat communities. It's not difficult to find your niche, and there's a good social life. In some ways I think it can be harder to adjust to life in Europe, because people assume that it will be just like the UK, whereas there are very definite cultural distinctions between European countries.

International schools tend to have a high staff turnover, so recruiting is an important part of my job. We don't have any trouble filling our posts and get lots of good-quality applicants. That's not surprising, because this is an excellent place to work, with high academic standards, and we look after our staff. An NQT might take home around pound;2,200 at the end of the month, and we make pension contributions too.

When I appoint new staff, I look for a balance between those with international experience and those who are moving abroad for the first time. Teachers who come from the UK can often bring new insights and working practices, which can have a benefit for all the staff. My advice to anyone thinking of teaching abroad would be to go for it, but to choose their first move carefully. Young teachers set out with high ideals, and not all schools will live up to them. If it's a trust school, then the fees go back into the running of the school. The problems start when you mix business and education. If a school exists purely for profit then it will probably not be a good place to work. This school is not a trust school, but it might as well be; our aim is to provide the best possible education, not to make surplus cash.

If you do your research carefully, teaching overseas can be exciting and rewarding. It does also afford the opportunity to pursue a real career; you just have to look out for the right vacancy at the right time.

Vicki Gilligan is principal of the Swiss International School in Basel, Switzerland. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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