Exchange rate;Interview;Roger Harding;Career development

15th January 1999 at 00:00
The traditional job of the British teacher overseas is changing. Susannah Kirkman looks at who's now on the wanted list

Roger Harding is one of the new-style international teachers whom the Government would like to encourage. After six years teaching in Kuwait, Cairo, Bavaria and Madrid, he settled in Gloucestershire as a primary head. With the advent of three children and a mortgage, Mr Harding thought his travelling days were over, but he is now involved in a cross-curricular project with five other EU countries.

Instead of spending at least a year at a time in a foreign country, Mr Harding, who is head of Coberley Church of England primary school near Cheltenham, now puts in five packed days on study visits to his project partners.

"The visits are short, punchy and heavily focused; they concentrate the mind wonderfully," he says. "Not everyone can afford to be away from their school for any length of time nowadays. Even schemes where headteachers can shadow their European counterparts for two weeks are not as popular as they were."

Comparing teaching methods and materials is an important aspect of the study visits, which extend over three years. They are part of the Comenius project, an EU initiative to promote school partnerships. At present, the schools in Roger Harding's group are involved in a project on waste and recycling, allowing pupils and teachers an insight into the different priority attached to recycling in five countries. While Italians have their bins emptied every day, for instance, the Finns do not have dustbins at all and recycle virtually everything.

According to Mr Harding, the benefits of the short visits also include the opportunity to teach in the partnership school and help with the language programme. The chance to meet all the staff and pupils at the host school makes the concept of a school partnership far more meaningful, and enables Mr Harding to act as a courier between penfriends.

The millennium will see the rapid expansion of opportunities for teachers working abroad, but the traditional role of the British teacher overseas will change dramatically.

"Apart from schools in Buenos Aires, we're not going to see many adverts for cricket masters or stipulating O-level Latin," says Chris Graham of English Worldwide, which recruits more than 100 UK teachers a year to work abroad.

"Because of our shrinking international profile, British education is no longer seen as the best, so UK teachers are now competing with Australians and Canadians for jobs," Mr Graham explains. He warns that today's international teachers must be flexible. They must be able to teach the International Baccalaureate rather than A-level courses, which are in decline abroad.

British teachers contemplating a spell away are also hampered by the rigidity of our education system. Unlike their Irish counterparts, they cannot take sabbaticals, and many are afraid that schools will find them too expensive to re-employ on their return.

Growing student debt also discourages young graduates from heading off overseas, according to Melanie Butler, editor of the English Language Gazette. "Bank managers are unlikely to lend you pound;1,000 for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course so that you can earn pound;50 a month in Poland," she explains.

There will always be jobs for the backpacker end of the market, but anyone looking for a career in TEFL now needs excellent qualifications, including some expertise in a second language, according to Tony O'Brien, director of English language teaching at the British Council. "The monolingual British teacher no longer fits in. People must know enough of a country's language to understand the difficulties of their students," he says.

In fact, the supply of well-qualified, experienced British teachers is not keeping up with new demands from regions such as central Europe.

The emergence of a new middle class, the increasingly international nature of business, where the main language is English, and the decline of tertiary education in the countries of the former USSR are all reasons given by Nord Anglia for the huge demand for English-medium education. The company has recently opened six international schools in central Europe, including bilingual schools in Moscow and Kiev.

Another trend is the call for English at primary level in many parts of the world.

Computer literacy is another essential qualification for teachers working abroad. But it seems unlikely that teachers' jobs will be threatened by even the most advanced ICT.

"Computerised programmes are really a replacement for language labs, not teachers," believes Melanie Butler. "Until a computer can acquire the skill to listen to and correct speech, teachers have nothing to fear."

The English Language Teaching Guide gives details of training courses, visa requirements, terms and conditions for TEFL teachers. Available from Book Systems Plus, pound;12.95. Fax: 01223 894871.British Council, English 2000, 10 Spring Gardens, London W1A 2BN. Tel: 0171 930 8466. Fax: 0171 839 6347

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