Serbia? An oasis of peace without Ofsted inspections
Serbia's capital Belgrade is an unsavoury place to be - or so one might assume, given the notoriety it gained during the dark days of Slobodan Milosevic and warlords such as the dreaded Arkan. Such is the legacy of this violent recent past that some children are still accompanied to school by armed bodyguards.
But talk to some ex-pat British teachers here and you begin to form a very different picture. They are relieved to have escaped the Ofsted inspections, bureaucracy and discipline problems they faced in the UK.
Those who might not believe a school in Belgrade could ever seem idyllic should have visited one of the city's primaries on a Saturday last month. After walking through the gates - unimpeded by security guards - they would have seen pupils entertaining their friends, families and teachers with national dance pageants, while younger counterparts yelped happily on the bouncy castle just out of sight. Volunteers served home-made sangria and sushi to the adults, just as another tower of cans came crashing to the ground in the coconut shy fairground game that had been set up.
Such a fusion of culture, frolics and simple relaxation is not what immediately springs to most British minds when thinking of Serbia, a country which became the pariah of Europe during the 1990s as a result of the various conflicts that gripped the former Yugoslavia in that decade.
It is also fair to say that Serbia has found that negative image a very difficult one to shake off.
But this scene occurred last month when Belgrade's British International School (BIS) held its annual spring bazaar. There are ten teachers from the UK at the school, which has both primary and secondary sites, and the bonhomie on display during the fete is one of the many reasons why most of them want to stay put - at least for the near future. It is also part of the reason why the school is having to acquire new premises because more and more local parents want their children to be educated there.
However, for the teachers, the overriding cause for their commitment to BIS is the professional advantages it presents.
Ian Davies, 37, originally from Scotland, says that the less burdensome workload in Belgrade, compared with the Newcastle primary school where he had taught in the past, has made him happier as an employee.
"In the UK I was bogged down with paperwork and had about an hour free to myself every night," he says. "Here, you are allowed to develop the teaching style that you choose and you are also given credit for your professionalism. At home you weren't given too many opportunities to show your own character as a teacher."
His colleagues, such as 40-year-old Frank Morris, from Bolton, echo his views on why working in Serbia comes as a relief after the challenges of Ofsted inspections and poor discipline in England.
"I have a better quality of work-life balance out here," he says. "I don't do any less of a thorough job than I did in England, but I have smaller class sizes and I don't have any major issues with pupils' conduct."
While the teachers says they still feel a loyalty to the UK education system, the topics of behaviour and bureaucracy are mentioned often.
Neil Howie, deputy principal of the school, talking while a cluster of kids take turns throwing themselves around the bouncy castle, says that fun is a key element in the school's educational philosophy, for students and teachers alike.
He adds: "Here, we don't have the discipline issues, the drugs issues or the bullying issues (that you get in the UK). The children are very socially aware. You enjoy teaching them and the lower numbers mean you have a better relationship with them."
However, as Mr Howie himself remarks, old-fashioned wanderlust, rather than just a negative desire to flee the UK, is another reason why many of the BIS teachers find themselves in Belgrade.
A number do so as married couples, an arrangement that grants them a sense of security while going through the challenging process of settling down in a foreign country.
Kevin and Emma Bradley are one such couple. They have been at the Belgrade BIS since September last year and were appointed after leaving their secondary school in Maidenhead. Both had plenty of overseas travel experience under their belts and they decided that this was something they wanted to continue as a couple.
Mrs Bradley, 33, says: "We never actually thought that we were 'pushed away' from the UK because we hated teaching there so much - though it is intense and really hard work. We just wanted a change of lifestyle and living abroad has always been central to our plans."
But Mrs Bradley does admit, along with the other teachers, that the "freedom" and absence of major pressure at the BIS is something she has enjoyed since she began work there.
Her husband shares those sentiments, though he is less eager to emphasise the shortcomings perceived in the British education by some of his other colleagues in Belgrade.
"A lot of the demands (in UK schools) are necessary, in my view," 29 year-old Mr Bradley argues. "I worked in the private sector before I came into teaching and that was very much target-driven, and if you didn't meet your targets then you couldn't expect to keep your job. Teachers back home are, after all, accountable to the taxpayer."
But being answerable to the needs of fee-paying parents in Serbia is a situation he acknowledges is preferable to the paperwork deluge that often characterises a secondary school teacher's life in Britain. It is, he says, along with his wife, a genuine consideration for him delaying any return to the UK for some time to come - as is the fact that the Serbs have impressed the couple with their "pride, warmth and culture".
"We actually have no plans to go back and want to travel further and work in other countries," concludes Mrs Bradley.
AN EDUCATIONAL REFUGE
- The British International School, Belgrade was founded in 1997
- There are ten teachers from the UK at the school
- The primary school has British teachers for every year group
- Pupils study for IGCSEs, AS- and A-levels in the secondary school, though they also have the option of following an American-style curriculum if they prefer to leave with a recognised US high school diploma
- Class sizes range from four pupils to 15
- It is the only school in the Balkans offering the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award
- The school's mission statement declares that pupils are "fires to be kindled" rather than "vessels to be filled".