Dark side of schools in the sun

11th May 2007 at 01:00
The advert looked promising. A prestigious international school in a rich Arab state. A decent salary with accommodation thrown in. The prospect of permanent sunshine and tax-free earnings.

But Cheryl Meyrick's job in the Gulf state of Qatar did not go according to plan. Classrooms without desks, pupils without books, high staff turnover and a timetable that was in a "shambles" were just some of the things she discovered when she turned up at the Al Jazeera Academy in the country's capital, Doha.

Five years of teaching had not prepared her for the situation she found herself in, she said. After getting the sack for writing about the school in a local newspaper, she was left to fight for the rest of her salary and a ticket home in the local labour court. It did not help that the officials and her employer wrangled over the details in Arabic.

Ken Darvall, head of the Al Jazeera Academy, denied Ms Meyrick's account of events, claiming she had "committed gross professional misconduct" by writing about the school. He added: "My biggest thing I say to staff is: 'If you're not happy here, please go.'"

He said the lack of books and equipment was an inevitable part of working in a far-flung location. But desks were plentiful, the international primary curriculum was "in the process of being implemented" and the school (which is advertising 11 jobs on its website) did not have a high turnover.

The fact that staff such as Ms Meyrick had to share accommodation - she had been promised her own flat - was an unfortunate side-effect of the school's expansion, he continued.

With its leafy setting in a palatial building on the fringes of Doha, it is easy to see why it would be tempting to stay at the pound;4,000-a-year academy. But in the end, Ms Meyrick was given 24 hours to leave the country. "By that stage, I was glad to go," she said.

Despite Ms Meyrick's experience, it is not hard to understand why an estimated 50,000 British teachers are working abroad. The advantages are obvious. With more than 4,000 international schools worldwide and growing, it is a teacher's market.

An experienced teacher in the UK may earn pound;32,000, resulting in a take-home salary of below pound;25,000. But at schools in the Middle East, tax-free earnings of pound;15,000 to pound;26,000 - together with free accommodation, utilities and bonuses - leave plenty of scope for saving.

"I am definitely a serial international school hopper," teacher Ian Classey said. "I have taught in seven countries since qualifying, starting as a rather wet 23-year-old stuck in the west African bush. Now I'm 46, married with two young children and living happily in the suburbs of Istanbul."

Gavin Stone is similarly enthusiastic. "I had some bad experiences - major security worries during the second Gulf War while in Saudi; not being paid the pound;2,000 'gratuity' bonus at the end of my time in Europe; cronyism - but the good far outweighed the bad."

However, it's important when aiming to teach overseas to weigh priorities and choose the destination carefully. Life in a rich Gulf state has been described as "the death of the soul", with teachers housed in gated accommodation, overwhelmed by glitzy hotels and shopping centres and enjoying little contact with local culture.

Andrew Wigmore, director of TIC Recruitment, agrees that research is important. "In the Middle East, you'll often be in shared housing, sleeping and working with other teachers. In Asia, you might be expected to play a bigger part in the local community. Europe is popular because pay is high, but then so are living costs. The world is your oyster, but you need to look before you leap."

Graham Gamble, another well-travelled teacher, says: "There are challenges - different operating systems, the 'foreignness' of procedures abroad, apparently unscrupulous school management, homesickness, and the 'what am I doing here?' existential crisis." His nine years of teaching in Europe and America have included an anthrax scare at his Washington school, and the September 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

Most international school classes will consist of local children with a smattering of expatriates. Standards of English are sometimes weak, and implementing the English national curriculum or an international version of it can be a struggle. Some teachers report behaviour is superior to British comprehensives but, inevitably, it depends on the school and area.

The protections afforded to teachers are weak, compared with the UK. Only local language contracts are legally-binding and, if the school fails to honour them, you are reliant on the local labour courts.

David Cope, of staff agency Search Associates, said: "It can be a lottery if you go it alone. It's important to do your homework."


Seek advice. Employment agencies and website forums such as The TES online staffroom can give you an insider's perspective on local schools.

Is the school fully accredited? Organisations like the Council of International Schools expect their members to meet certain standards.

What are your rights? Get a copy of your contract in English. If necessary, get the original looked over by a native speaker.

Be clear about what is being offered. Is accommodation free and is it shared? Is dental and health insurance included? Will free tuition be provided for your children?

What will your salary buy you? Pay is higher in Europe but so are costs and you are unlikely to benefit from free housing. Watch out for warning signs.

Do they take a lot of new and unqualified teachers? Are they clear about pay and conditions? Beware of phrases like "seeking staff due to rapid expansion" which may be a cover for high turnover.

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