Sun, sea and cockroaches

24th February 2012 at 00:00
With the economy in the doldrums, it's unsurprising that many teachers are looking abroad for work - and adventure. Most schools are fine, but Richard Vaughan discovers what can happen if you join the wrong school

It was while standing in the arrivals hall at Doha International Airport that Michelle Holloway felt her first twinge of doubt about making the move to Qatar to teach. She must have counted at least 60 new starters while waiting to be transferred to her accommodation, all of them hired to work in just two schools and most barely out of school themselves.

And Holloway felt a larger pang of panic when she was shown to what would be her home for the next 12 months: dirty and infested with cockroaches, it was not what she had signed up for.

But what really rammed home the mistake she had made travelling 4,000 miles to the Middle East were the small but ominous lines scratched into the wall above her bed, counting down the days.

"'Fifty days to go', they said," Holloway recalls, ruefully. "That's what greeted me when I arrived. It was obviously done by the girl who stayed before me."

Having taught in England for 18 years, Holloway made the big decision to give another country a try and answered a job advert that was calling for teachers to join the Cambridge International School for Girls in the Qatari capital. Thousands of teachers make a similar move every year, anticipating sun, sea, adventure and a life without league tables.

But what Holloway hoped would be her dream move soon turned into a teaching nightmare. "It was like a prison," she says simply. "There were CCTV cameras in every room except the toilet. You were docked pay for anything, even for something as petty as leaving the classroom door open.

"I had applied to teach design and technology to the equivalent of pupils in Years 7 to 9 but, when I arrived, I was told I would be teaching PE, despite having no experience in the subject. I felt totally betrayed."

Holloway's experience of teaching overseas, while not the norm, is certainly not unusual. Indeed, education is littered with horror stories of teachers who thought they were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime only for it to go horribly wrong.

Big business

But despite the potential risks, every year thousands of teachers are being tempted by the offer of sunnier climes, smaller class sizes and the opportunity to travel.

According to ISC Research, a company that monitors international schools, the market has doubled in size in the past 10 years, and the boom is expected to continue.

With the cost of living in the UK at an 80-year high, a stagnating job market and the seemingly inescapable gloom and doom currently felt in Britain, it is unsurprising that so many teachers are looking for a better life in one of the 6,000 international schools across the globe. Late winter and early spring are the peak times for recruitment at these institutions - and never more so than this year.

"International schools are big business," Nicholas Brummitt, managing director of ISC Research, says. "They've attracted the attention of governments the world over as well as powerful commercial organisations. And they're no longer a small group of schools for expatriate families."

The most recent figures show that there are approximately 80,000 British teachers working overseas, making the UK one of the world's biggest exporters of school staff.

Furthermore, ISC Research anticipates that the number of international schools will rise to 10,000 by 2021, with British teachers undoubtedly taking the lion's share of posts.

Among the major growth areas are Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, where the number of wealthy families is growing, making the demand for British- and American-style schools ever greater.

But while many of these areas can promise year-round sun and little or no taxation, the culture shock of some countries, especially those that are staunchly religious and conservative, can prove to be devastating.

This was most famously illustrated in the case of Gillian Gibbons, a teacher from Liverpool, who narrowly escaped the death penalty for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad while teaching in Sudan in 2007.

However, the most tragic incident of recent times was that of Emma Jones, a 24-year-old teacher who, in 2008, moved from her hometown of Caerphilly, Wales, to teach primary school pupils in Abu Dhabi.

Pictures of the naked teacher were posted on the social networking site Facebook, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend. According to her mother, the photographs were seen by a colleague at the school who accused her of being a prostitute.

Jones, upset and afraid of being thrown into prison and facing extreme punishment, was found dead in her apartment after drinking corrosive cleaning fluid. A coroner's inquest in 2010 recorded an open verdict on the death because Jones' bags were packed and her passport was in her pocket.

It is essential, therefore, for teachers to research as best they can what customs and cultures lie in store for them before they set out on their travels.

Smoking behind the bike shed

Stephen Hall (not his real name) is a teacher of more than 30 years, the past 14 of which he has spent teaching in international schools.

His first job was in Nairobi, Kenya, which has provided him with some of his fondest memories, although he did contract malaria there, "which was not much fun", he says. He then moved around the Middle East, teaching in Qatar, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

It was in Saudi Arabia, Hall explains, where he taught one of Osama bin Laden's many nephews. Their relationship soured, however, after he caught the young bin Laden smoking behind the bike shed rather than attending Friday prayer. "It didn't make me very popular," he quips.

It is experiences like this, Hall says, that makes teaching overseas so interesting. But he is aware that it can be difficult for teachers to know exactly what they are letting themselves in for, especially when living in areas such as the Middle East.

"It is essential that you do your research," he says. "Teachers can get into serious trouble just because they don't know the culture. For instance, a Canadian colleague of mine was fired because she took a male parent's arm when trying to lead him away. He took exception and, as he was quite influential, he had her sacked."

According to Hall, the standard of international schools can vary enormously, and the quality of education can be "appalling".

"Some are just money-making rackets," he adds. "The problem is that there is no Ofsted, no central body that oversees the quality of every school."

One of the main difficulties, he observes, is that often international schools are owned by only one person. As a result, such schools are often run as personal fiefdoms, where teachers are recruited and then dismissed if they do not fit in.

Matthew Arnold (not his real name) worked in one such school in south-east Spain. Catering for both primary and secondary students, the school was run by a very wealthy family, at the head of which was a gentleman referred to as "the Don".

Arnold decided to make the move after growing tired with teaching in a quiet state school in Wales.

"I was one of 25 new teachers starting in the secondary school, out of a total of 40, which I thought was odd at the time," he says. "But I was naive and the prospect of teaching in a new school was exciting."

His first year went without a hitch, but after a brief relationship with another member of staff during his second year, he came to the attention of the school's owners.

It was not until his third year, by which time he had been made head of history, that he realised that the family who ran the school had taken a serious dislike to him.

"I began to experience some bullying and all the while I was hearing rumours of people being fired," he says.

He tried to keep his head down, but the situation did not improve. It all came to a head on the last day of term before Christmas.

"I tried to log in to the computer system, but it said I no longer worked there," Arnold explains. "Technical support said it was just a glitch and, though I thought it was weird, I just carried on with my day."

But a message from his principal later the same day, asking him to meet her once the children had finished school, soon had him sweating.

"I went to her office and she said flatly that the school didn't like me, they didn't trust me and that they didn't want me coming back after the holidays," Arnold says.

"I said that was ridiculous, that I hadn't received any warnings and that she couldn't fire me on the spot. Then she slid a cheque for EUR9,000 across the desk. She said that if I took the school to court, I would end up with less and it would take longer."

Realising that he had few options, Arnold took the money and left the school without being able to say goodbye to his pupils.

"About 22 staff left that summer," he says, before adding with a laugh, "They even went to the trouble of airbrushing me out of the yearbook. Although they didn't do a very good job - you can still see my right leg."

Recruitment fairs

Flagrant breaches of European Union employment law may be rare, but there is little doubt that the rights of individual teachers can be minimal at best, particularly if they take a post in one of the world's developing countries.

Because of the lack of a central body to oversee the quality of schools, it falls to a handful of organisations to try to establish a "Kitemark", with some companies being more reputable than others.

One of the biggest and most respected groups is the Council of International Schools (CIS), a non-profit membership organisation that boasts about 660 institutions on its register. But even the CIS covers only 10 per cent of the market, and just half of those schools are actually evaluated and accredited.

Each year, the CIS stages two international teacher recruitment fairs in London, attracting hundreds of teachers from all over the world.

The job fair is a peculiar fixture in the international school calendar. Usually staged in one of London's many soulless business hotels, it resembles a very unsexy version of speed dating.

Headteachers from about 100 schools, representing countries around the world - from Azerbaijan to Zambia - literally set out their stalls in a bid to attract new staff.

Each fair is usually attended by more than 300 teachers and, if they like what they see, they leave a note in a school's mailbox. If the school is impressed with the teacher's credentials, then an interview is arranged in the headteacher's hotel room. If they hit it off, a job is often offered on the spot.

"All the candidates are screened before they are invited to attend one of our fairs, to make sure they are all properly qualified. And we require all the teachers to have CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks," says Jane Larsson, executive director of the CIS.

"There has been an explosion of international schools in recent years and teachers can be exploited. That is why events like these are so valuable, because they give the teachers a chance to speak to the head of a school and make a more informed decision," she adds.

Sitting in the grey, windowless conference room of the Tower Hotel is Steve Eckert, a teacher with 20 years of experience, who has flown over from New Mexico to try to land a new job overseas. He is waiting, anxiously, for interview number five of six.

"My kids have grown up and left home, and my wife and I have always wanted to live abroad," he says. "I didn't think I was nervous, but my hands won't stop sweating - I thought I was over this kind of thing."

Eckert has already agreed with his wife which jobs he can accept on the spot, and they have ruled out certain areas such as the Middle East and Africa.

"We have read all the blogs - we've read everything we could to try to give us a better idea of what we're letting ourselves in for, but we have no idea where we'll end up," he says.

According to the CIS, it is not unusual for a teacher to have interviews lined up with schools based as far afield as China, Uganda, the Middle East and the US.

"Some will have no clue where they will end up, but that is part of the appeal," says Larsson.

But the 320 teachers who attended the CIS job fair in January represent a drop in the ocean when compared with the 280,000 teachers in international schools.

All that most teachers have to go by is the job advert they have replied to, the school's website - if they even have one - and their own intuition.

Colin Bell, executive director of the Council of British International Schools - another membership and accreditation organisation operating in the market - says that teachers have to look out for certain telltale signs.

"One giveaway of how reputable an international school is, is the size of the job advert," Bell says. "The more disreputable schools tend to go for the cheaper adverts as they are penny-pinching.

"Teachers should also look out for schools that only conduct interviews over the phone," he adds. "In an ideal world, you want a face-to-face interview or, if that's not possible, Skype.

"There have been many instances where a teacher will accept a job over the phone then receive the contract in the post, written in the host language. They sign it and, when they arrive in the country, they find they are tied in to a contract that is nothing like what they thought."

Use your initiative

But primarily, teachers must use their own initiative, Bell says, and remember that any interview is a two-way process.

While this may be the case, relying on your instincts is often easier said than done. Many teachers looking to move overseas are inexperienced and recently qualified, and are only too eager to please.

Even those with years of experience can fall foul, however. Sally Matliss (not her real name) also spent a year teaching in the Cambridge International School for Girls in Doha, a period of her life that she would rather forget.

"The whole time we were there, we were terrified of stepping out of line," she says.

In fact, while researching this piece, TES was contacted by four separate sources in regard to the Cambridge International School for Girls, with one teacher refusing to speak about their treatment for fear of having their pay docked or not being allowed to leave the country at the end of their contract.

The management of the school told TES that it demanded "very high standards" of its teachers and that it "made this clear on recruitment and induction".

A statement issued by the school's management added: "Teachers are living here in a Muslim country, where expectations of social etiquette and moral behaviour are set much higher than in many Western countries.

"Any actions that might be taken by the management of the school are to ensure that these high standards are consistently and necessarily met, and that children receive the high-quality education that they deserve."

The statement gives a glimpse of what teachers should expect when working abroad - that these schools answer to no one bar the parents of the children they serve. And that there is no union protection, but nor is there government intervention.

However, for many, that is the attraction of these schools. The adventure and thrill of a new country is a big part of it, but it is also the freedom to teach as they see fit, without the fear of league tables and without the meddling of government ministers.

As such, there is no danger of the flow of teachers seeking sun, sea and adventure abroad drying up. After all, as Hall says, "There really is nothing to compare. If you don't have a good experience, you just see out your contract and move on to the next country - ready for the next adventure."

Survival guide

- Always check immigration rules - some countries do not allow you to leave the country without an exit permit.

- You may want to carry a $100 bill in your passport. If you are travelling to places where it is well known that officials expect a cut, it can help you through customs and red tape. But if asked what the note is for, never admit that it is a bribe.

- Check the medical provision - it may be wise to take out private health cover in some countries. And always check the health insurance the school provides.

- Try to learn the local language and eat the local food as soon as possible. "Delhi belly" is often an issue for Brits working abroad, but it is not usually a result of bacteria or bad food but because it takes time for the stomach to acclimatise to the local delicacies.

- And never ignore local customs and beliefs, particularly if you are in a strictly religious or conservative country.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today