Never mind the war

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Despite the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the Middle East is still the most popular destination for British teachers seeking posts abroad.

Martin Whittaker reports on schools in Kuwait

While post-war unrest in Iraq grows ever deeper, across the border in Kuwait the tensions seem to have eased for its large expatriate population.

"There are a lot of people who are working in Iraq who are effectively commuting," says Christopher Egerton Chesney, head of The English School in Kuwait.

"They have moved their families here, where the infrastructure is very civilised. And, to be honest, I feel a lot safer here walking down the street than I would in London. I think most people feel that."

With the lure of pay, perks and perennial sunshine, the Middle East is the most popular destination for British teachers choosing to work abroad. But has the war put people off? Not according to David and Rachel Howarth, who have returned to Kuwait for their second year working in a large British curriculum school. They are now settled and are starting a family there.

How does it compare to working in England? "We can actually teach here," says Rachel, a Year 2 teacher. "Most of the problems regarding discipline don't exist here. The overwhelming majority of students are friendly, confident, polite and want to learn."

Kuwait sits at the top end of the Persian Gulf, wedged between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Its recent history has been troubled - apart from this year's US-led invasion of Iraq, the country was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990 and after weeks of aerial bombardment was liberated by UN coalition troops.

Its climate is hot all year round and dry with occasional rain and thunderstorms. Because of the heat, the school day starts at about 7.45am and finishes at 2pm, although these times can vary.

The academic year runs from late August or early September to mid-June.

Expat schools usually have three days off in October, two breaks a year of a fortnight each, plus official holidays. The working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday; weekends are Thursday and Friday (the Islamic day of worship).

Kuwait is extremely wealthy. It has been described as "an oil well masquerading as a country". As a result, Kuwaitis are willing to pay for private education. Despite high fees, American and British curriculum schools are flourishing.

The official language is Arabic, although English is widely spoken. Kuwaiti children are taught English as a second language, so teachers can expect to have to offer plenty of explanations of vocabulary and grammar.

The English School is not typical of international schools in Kuwait, says the head. It is the only not-for-profit international school and is the country's longest-established expat school - it was set up 50 years ago under the auspices of the British Embassy.

A big attraction for teachers is the pay. Salaries are in line with the UK but tax free. The school also gives its staff free accommodation and utilities. Their biggest overhead will be the running of a car. Inevitably, for an oil economy, the car rules. Most expats have a rental deal for which you would expect to pay about pound;200 per month, although petrol is very cheap at 12p a litre.

At The English School, teachers also benefit from small classes of around 22 children. The British curriculum school takes pupils from pre-school age to 13. Some 12 per cent of its pupils are Kuwaiti, and the remainder are expats.

"One of the nice things about them is that they are colour blind," says Mr Egerton Chesney. "Although we are predominantly Western, we have around 40 different nationalities here. We have Christians and Muslims and people of all sorts of shades of colour and the children don't notice."

The school also employs maids as an extra layer of support: they take the pressure off learning support workers and teachers.

In terms of leisure pursuits, if you are hoping to flee Britain's growing shopping mall and fast food culture, don't go to Kuwait. It has more than its share of shopping malls with shops such as Marks amp; Spencer and Next, and food outlets including Pizza Hut and KFC.

Kuwait is a dry state, but expats tend to get around that. And it is not big on women's rights - two years ago it refused to grant women the vote.

Expats have the choice of a seemingly endless list of activities, clubs and societies, including drama, sailing, scuba diving, rugby, football, adult education courses and even, for the terminally homesick, darts.

When asked the downside of Kuwait, expatriates often point to expensive phone calls home, bad driving and an over-fondness for official paperwork that can make acquiring a driving licence or a visa for visiting family a frustrating and time-consuming business.

Of all the Gulf states, Kuwait has had mixed reviews from teachers working there. In online forums, aggrieved teachers have complained about their treatment at the hands of some of the country's run-for-profit international schools.

In the build-up to the Iraq war, some schools allegedly sacked British teachers when they left the country, despite their apparently acting on British embassy advice. The English School had no such disputes and evacuated all its staff. But Mr Egerton Chesney says the war inevitably affected recruitment in the last academic year.

"We start to recruit in February, and last year to say to people, 'Come to Kuwait, we're going to have a bit of a barney with the neighbours but it's an interesting place to be' - that was difficult. But, in fact, the vast majority of our staff stayed."

For him, the only downside is that he misses interacting with fellow headteachers. "You are a very long way from home and, for things like in-service training, support for staff, for education debate with one's peers, that's the missing factor. I do miss that.

"And yes it does get hot in the summer, but everything is air conditioned.

The other side is that nearly every day you wake up and it's a beautiful sunny day. Psychologically, it's so cheering to wake up to a sunny day, and I think that's reflected in the way people are. People here seem to be more positive."

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