There are some international teachers who have not been back to the UK for two years.
After all, when they flew out to start teaching for September 2019, no one knew that a pandemic was on the horizon and international travel would be heavily restricted.
Many have since braved restrictions and quarantines to get back home – whether for good or just to see family and friends – but many have yet to touch down on home soil.
We all know that teachers and school leaders are a resilient bunch, who continue to demonstrate strength and deep commitment for the benefit of children and young people worldwide.
International school teachers desperate to get back to the UK
However, the toll on teachers’ mental health will have been enormous and many will be hoping to finally get back home as soon as possible, as Simon O’Connor, director of Deira International School, Dubai, can testify.
“In regular surveys to staff, returning home has continually been the largest source of anxiety. Of course, online platforms enable regular communication, but it is not the same,” he says,
However, the rollout of vaccines has given us the suggestion that normality is returning and, for those overseas, there is the prospect of once again travelling back to the UK.
Of course, things are slightly more complicated for those abroad, as they will not be receiving their vaccines through the NHS but instead from their host country's health providers.
As such, the question was, how will the government recognise UK nationals vaccinated abroad?
Difficulties with Covid vaccine registration
An apparent answer came on 22 July when Nadhim Zahawi, then in the role of vaccines minister, announced there would be a system in place by the end of July to enable UK nationals who had been vaccinated abroad to register this with their home UK doctor.
This would ensure that if they travelled home they would still be able to get into the country without the tough restrictions they may otherwise face. This was definitely a positive move.
Sadly, though, I have heard from numerous school leaders in COBIS that this has not happened and UK nationals who are fully vaccinated still face the same restrictive processes to enter the UK. This is taking its toll on staff.
For example, Abra Stoakley, head of school at Grange School in Lagos, Nigeria, says that without overseas vaccines being recognised, any vaccines received abroad are “effectively worthless” and this leaves many UK nationals unsure if they can return home this Christmas.
“Most international schools have about three weeks’ holiday over Christmas. In Nigeria, passengers arriving from abroad must quarantine for one week upon arrival," she says.
“If, in addition, I am forced to quarantine on entry into the UK, this will impact significantly on the time available to spend with family and friends. If I was coming from a red [Covid list] country, and had to spend 10 days isolating in a hotel, the trip would be unfeasible.”
Many others are in a similar position, such as in Thailand, Brazil or Mexico.
Working to fix the situation
Since discovering this, I have been in close conversation with the Department for International Trade on the issue and wrote a letter to it on 14 September outlining this concern.
I have shared this letter with other international school associations, too, as issues connected to the support and wellbeing of all members of the school workforce affect us all.
The response from the DIT has been positive – it has heard about the issue and understands that ensuring that UK nationals can get home without issue if they have been vaccinated needs to be a priority.
Indeed, Graham Stuart MP, former minister for international trade, remains in close contact with COBIS on this issue.
The DIT is taking this seriously and its support is appreciated. Representing not only COBIS member schools but also the wider international schools sector, I will continue to make it clear to government why further delays to this cannot go on.
Clarity a must
After all, as I wrote in my letter to the DIT, teachers across the world will already be thinking about whether they will have to have a second or even third Christmas away from their loved ones.
Removing this concern would have a hugely positive impact on staff wellbeing, as O’Connor's insights make clear: “The relief when it became clear those of us vaccinated in the UAE would be able to go home was palpable.”
However, for those in many other nations the reality is that any trip home may still requires quarantine for 10 days in a hotel that they must pay for – an onerous cost that seems unfair if they can prove vaccination.
This will put many off returning and will be tough to bear. As such, providing a clear system that ensures that people can return home would have a huge impact on staff wellbeing.
Furthermore, this would have a huge impact on the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers and school leaders, at all stages of their career, that are so important to the delivery and export of high-quality British education worldwide.
“Action really needs to be taken as a matter of urgency, so that teachers may return to see their loved ones at Christmas,” says Stoakley.
I could not agree more.
We must recognise that across our high-value education export sector, our most precious cargo are the people, adults and children, who make our diverse and vibrant school communities so strong.
Colin Bell is CEO of the Council of British International Schools