International Schools: Brain drain or Letters of Marque?

International Schools: Brain drain or Letters of Marque?

This week in education has been a further reminder of the attractiveness of working in a top class British International School.

Following Sir Michael Wilshaw’s identification of “brain-drain” in UK teacher recruitment – given without a shred of irony about the part Ofsted may have played in this over the years – I would roll the argument forward and say that the UK should be working harder to court International schools’ professional capacity.

Dan Roberts has written about the experience of teaching abroad (here) and he is right to encourage UK colleagues to have a discerning eye.

But the UK education system is undoubtedly undergoing its own migration crisis. This may be because teachers’ sense of purpose, or vocation, has been denuded by a plethora of non-teaching issues and drivers. Government rhetoric appears driven by an obsession with measurement and structures rather than an obsession with getting things right or implementing change in a strategic manner. There were excellent pieces in Schoolsweek last week about this from Ros McMullen and David Laws and Martin Robinson wrote a helpful historical / political perspective here.

Unfortunately the school-led system, of which I was a part as a National Leader of Education, Inspector and Teaching School executive member, seems to be fracturing the UK education system, leaving pockets of excellence and swathes of territory without the quality support children need.

It doesn’t feel as if anybody is really listening, or responding, and there is no prospect that they will. There probably isn’t a proper “they”. In fact, the future looks bleak with predictions that finance and recruitment will be even tougher over the next 5 years.

And teachers are leaving.

Sometimes they’re taking a huge personal and professional risk to reach uncertain contexts in foreign climes – anything being better than remaining where they can no longer believe in what they do.

I hear many of these stories.

And International Schools can be something of a promised land. Not for profit schools with classes of 20 in which you are often more fairly paid, freer from interference, freer to innovate, freer to focus on people and teaching are immensely attractive.

International schools, led well, could be the DfE’s Letters of Marque. Representatives of the British system’s values and structures, licensed to further its interests abroad and in support of the profession at home.


Picture ref –

Strange then, that despite the market choosing these schools – parents and teachers – that International Schools can feel as if they’re held aloof, somehow “not quite the thing” and better off in someone else’s waters. Some examples below:

  • An EAL colleague returned empty-handed from an interview in the UK after having to justify 5 years of experience in an international setting teaching EAL – as a basis for being recruited to the appropriate level on the pay spine;
  • Initial Teacher Training and Qualified Teacher Status routes are complex. There is tremendous capacity to feed the system from the best International schools; it’s still far too difficult;
  • British Schools Overseas standards are not always applicable in International settings and there needs to be more understanding and flexibility with context in order to maintain the focus on excellent schools’ quality of teaching and learning as opposed to regulatory compliance.

The truth is that these excellent enclaves should be finding it easier to support the system back in the UK.


The British School in The Netherlands – ‘excellent’ in all categories ISI 2015

In response to Sir Michael’s comments, Trevor Rowell, Chairman of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) wrote to The Times on 29 February, 2016.

Teaching overseas: our proudest export

Observations about teachers going overseas (`Golden handcuffs´ to stop state teachers going abroad, 27th February) can too easily become caricature: 44 toff school branches lure teachers with fat salaries and damage Derby. Whereas the picture is overwhelmingly positive: British school education is one of the UK´s most valuable and influential international exports.

The 44 (good luck to them) are a drop in the ocean: around for years and still growing, there are some 4,200 British schools overseas. With 46%, we lead a competitive world market. They earn billions in fees, millions for the UK in educational supplies and services, and attract crucial student support and investment for our world-class universities. This is well understood by government (the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and UKTI, and the DfE which offers a regime of standards and inspection).

British teachers who work there in their thousands don´t all earn riches (salaries are generally on a par with the UK or lower, and often lack pensions). Pay – according to a COBIS survey – ranks 5th in the list of motives, below motivated students, supportive parents, good leadership and first class professional support.

And there´s already a strong moral purpose: these teachers and schools educate tens of thousands of young people in British values and in international understanding. Thirsting for advancement through British education, these students (80% of them local not expatriate) go on to become world leaders in every continent and profession. The ´soft power´ and positive influence for the UK is incalculable.

I´m truly with Sir Michael Wilshaw in striving for improvement for children in our UK schools: I´ve led an outstanding UK comprehensive and also a sixth form college, as well as several world-class British schools overseas. But please, let´s take a broader and a constructive view. Teachers work overseas and also return – enriching schools with international experience, skilled in EFL, pupil transience and cultural diversity. They have worked in schools which (as the PISA tables show) know that constantly measuring, testing and inspecting everything doesn´t always improve quality. And the answer to successful teacher supply is (not in talk of punitive handcuffs but) to promote the richness of this wonderful vocation, and to plan to support British education seamlessly.

British schools and teachers overseas are world beating. Ofsted already knows: it monitors some of the inspection reports. So let´s be immensely proud of them.

I agree and I don’t think the UK can afford to miss this opportunity. Instead of imposing more regulatory structures on UK schools during a time of recruitment and retention crisis, the DfE should be focusing on the issues that professionals tell them will make a difference. Unfortunately the school-led system doesn’t appear to be working this way.

A quick win would be to view International Schools as Letters of Marque – not buccaneers.

They can provide much needed capacity in the coming years.

We appointed a fantastic Deputy from the Seychelles at Devonport High School for Boys a few years ago and he now runs the place.


4 thoughts on “International Schools: Brain drain or Letters of Marque?

  1. Liz Jones

    It’s also curious that the ‘brain drain’ is suggested now as if it’s a newish thing.
    I left UK teaching almost 20 years ago as a result of disillusionment. I served six years in greater London and saw a bleak future. The school I was in was underfunded and conditions were frustrating then. Many of my friends did the same. The ongoing negative climate for teachers won’t be fixed overnight.
    And lack of acknowledgement of responsibility from politicians won’t help.

    1. Kieran Earley

      Agreed. The White Paper was an opportunity to unite and excite people about teaching and I don’t think it’s done that,sadly.

  2. Rebecca Van Homan

    I think what is most poignant in Trevor Rowell’s comments are that teachers are not leaving the UK for the proverbial gold at the end of the International School rainbow. Teachers are leaving the UK because they want to teach. We go into the profession for the love of learning and inspiring thinking, not instructing children about subordinating conjunctions or fronted adverbials; then having to tick boxes to document this parsing of grammar achievement.
    The statistic reported in The Guardian that 4 in 10 new teachers quit within a year (31.3.15) is alarming, not only for the sustainablity of the profession, but also for the quality of the workforce in the years to come.
    I have taught in some good schools, but the quality of teaching and the emphasis on learning at the BSN is truly outstanding. This has been enabled by the leadership which not only values the role of the teacher, but develops it through ongoing training and a high level of support e.g. full time teaching assistants in the classroom.
    One of my favourite quotes from Frank Serafini, who is one of the speakers at our upcoming conference, is ‘It’s the magic of the teacher, not the wand’ because it’s not even about the resources we have in a well-funded school, it’s about the expertise and energy of that special person facilitating and inspiring great learning in the room- the teacher.
    Unless the UK gets that right, the ‘brain drain’ will only increase exponentially.

    1. Kieran Earley

      Thanks for the comment and the insight. Totally agree – love that quote.

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