There’s a ‘gold rush’ underway. Not to California this time but out to the Middle and Far East where growing numbers of the top British independent schools are piling in to open potentially lucrative international schools, exploiting their prestigious names.
Harrow, Dulwich, Malvern and Brighton College are among the renowned UK schools dominating the overseas market, while Westminster School is setting up six offshoots in China, unusually teaching the Chinese curriculum to children from six upwards, though students aged 16–18 will study the English national curriculum.
The 4,300 British international schools around the world – 45% of the international schools market – are now a leading UK export, valued at more than £1bn together with the crucial ‘soft power’ and influence they generate, through educating tomorrow’s global elite and highlighting the value of British culture and education worldwide.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) is well aware of the sector’s huge importance in boosting trade links through strengthened bonds, mutual understanding of different cultures and the provision of a top-class education to ex-pat and local families. At the recent [May 2018] conference of COBIS, the organisation which accredits reputable British International Schools abroad, International Trade Minister, Graham Stuart, announced, “In 2017/2018, DIT helped 12 UK school groups achieve 15 export wins valued at £170m. This Government will work hard to ensure that British education continues to shape the world.” He cited Brighton College and Lady Eleanor Holles among the well-known schools which the DIT has helped to open overseas campuses.
Amid the euphoria, however, is growing concern. The entire sector is growing 6% a year with 450 new schools opening annually, boosting demand for high-quality staff: in the next decade, British international schools will need an estimated 230,000 more teachers. So where will they come from, particularly given teacher shortages in the UK with pupil numbers predicted to rise by 530,000 over the same period?
COBIS has just undertaken a major survey analysing the flow of teachers in and out of the sector. The data, based on more than 1,600 responses from international school leaders and teachers on the move suggests that although many schools find recruitment ‘challenging’, the overall picture is complex. New initiatives are underway to make up the shortfall: increased marketing, portraying teaching as a high-flying international career, enhanced professional development and greater training of local teachers, to boost supply in Britain and abroad.
“Almost a third of British teachers moving into the international sector had been considering leaving the profession beforehand,” explained COBIS CEO Colin Bell, “and over 70% of those who go abroad return to teach in Britain within 10 years. High-quality teachers are the most important resource in any school. We’re talking about a precious cargo: children’s lives and futures and we’re devising innovative solutions to ensure far greater numbers of teachers are trained in the British system to supply the entire profession.”
Michael Wilson, soon-to-be-head of the fast-growing Cranleigh, Abu Dhabi, has been involved with recruiting its teachers since late 2013. He believes the overseas sector offers opportunities to bring in talented graduates who might not normally come into the profession.
“I’m convinced that offering tax-free salaries together with accommodation and training could actually help showcase a profession that is struggling to fill teacher training places,” he said. “When we initially began our recruiting, we brought in a specialist to help us. He said that if you look at a candidate’s CV and ring their referees, they won’t say nasty things. Instead he recommended asking the applicant which people have inspired them in their career to date, then contacting them. If they say ‘Yes, huge potential,’ that’s great. But if they say ‘Who?’ you need to do more work on checking out the candidate. Speaking to these people after the interview gave us a much clearer view of who we were dealing with. I’ve also noticed that candidates who were described, or described themselves, as conscientious, ‘working hard with a purpose’, have been the ones who have stayed and risen to the top.”
Anne Howells, Headmistress of the British International School in Stavanger, faces entirely different obstacles, relying on quality of life to offset Norway’s cripplingly high taxes when recruiting staff.
“It’s frustrating and time-consuming,” she explained. “I’ll often get six or seven good people applying but my heart sinks as I get call after call saying, ‘I’d love to come but I’ve worked out what the tax is!’ The only thing not taxed here is fresh air but the lifestyle’s fantastic. I can see boats sailing up the fjord from my office. Those that come here love it. I pick up people who are looking abroad because they’re worn out, disillusioned with teaching in Britain. We give them a better experience. We have really robust standards and are inspected but that obsession with OFSTED inspections doesn’t exist in our schools so we can teach from the heart, experiment, do things a bit differently not slavishly follow the curriculum. Teachers come to life here, which is a joy to see and our kids out-perform their peers in literacy and numeracy.”
The distinctive qualities of a British-style education are attracting huge interest further afield, in China where the number of international schools – now 530, mainly in Shanghai and Beijing – is expected to double over the next decade. One driver is the growing number of Chinese parents rejecting the narrowly academic, high-pressure ‘funnel’ system, which eliminates pupils through a system of increasingly competitive hurdles en route (for the lucky and driven few) to a coveted place at an elite university.
Steve Allen, currently Head of Senior School at Shrewsbury International School, Bangkok is about to become Head of the Lady Eleanor Holles School, Foshan, which opens in September 2019. It will be the first international school in Foshan, a major Chinese industrial city the size of London, with HSBC and Volkswagen among the major employers plus a strong reputation for ceramics and kung-fu expertise.
“Places like China and Singapore look to Britain for a more joyful, creative education,” explained Steve. “Parents appreciate our high academic standards but also want their children to learn the ‘soft skills’ – creativity, collaboration and communication – realising that in real life problems are solved by working together. Foshan wants our school as a beacon to attract more international businesses by providing a top-class education for families working here.”
“It’s a problem finding outstanding teachers but quality schools attract quality staff by word of mouth and starting on the ground floor of a new school gives our people exciting opportunities for rapid promotion,” continued Steve. “We offer good salaries, free accommodation and free places to teachers’ children – a better package than in British schools – and we also develop a real family community.”
Ian McIntyre, Director of Schools at Brighton College’s International Schools division, has played a major role in recruiting staff for Brighton’s three UAE offshoots, in Abu Dhabi and nearby Al Ain, both among the top-rated schools in the region, and in Dubai which opens in September.
“Getting inspirational, dynamic people to engage with children is hard enough in the UK,” he admitted. “It’s doubly hard internationally but if you get it right, good teachers will apply because of your strong brand and the support you offer. It’s important, as it will enable us to keep taking children from a range of abilities and deliver the results we’re renowned for. Expat parents want authenticity, not fake branding with little beyond the name.
“When our deputy head joins Dubai in September from Shanghai with his wife and toddler, it’s crucial we support them carefully, like making sure they have working mobile phones and can get straight into their apartment when they arrive. Our UK school with its strong leadership is closely involved in helping our international schools recruit top-level leaders. In the last three years we’ve introduced a senior leader development programme. Senior members of our UK staff go out three times a year to work with our UAE leaders, helping them to develop themselves and their careers. When Dubai opens it’ll be exciting to visit after the first term, see the children sitting in school and the whole process getting underway.”
“Happy schools keep their staff,” added China-bound Steve Allen, “so in a competitive recruitment environment, looking after them well and providing an enjoyable, positive learning environment is key. Setting up schools in places like China means huge challenges – but it’s hugely rewarding to be teaching kids who really want to learn, among motivated colleagues who really want to teach.”