'What is universal, whatever country you may teach in, is the desire of each and every parent to want the best for their children; just as we, as teachers, do'

Posted on: 08 Jan 2018
Posted by: Alistair Bond

Alistair Bond, headmaster at Park Hill Preparatory School and Nursery, discusses his experiences as an overseas headteacher - highlighting differences in standards and philosophies between the Middle East private sector and the UK.

Time and therefore life, as a teacher, is largely defined by terms. The year sliced into three, punctuated by events, occasions and memories that all of us who work in education enjoy and reflect upon.

Life as a teacher and head working overseas has the added thrill of flying home at the end of the academic year, or as was our case (wife, daughter and cat) just under two years ago, packing up your home and belongings at the end of 16 extraordinary years working overseas. In that time, we had lived in four different countries, worked in a variety of schools; one that had 68 children on roll and one that had 1200+ children on roll. We had many extraordinary adventures and met people who spoke not a word of English yet enjoyed spending time with us – including in the middle of the Sahara enjoying a mug of sweet tea. We also, during this time, had a daughter, enjoyed promotion, worked with many talented colleagues and escaped a war; the latter being a blog for another time perhaps…

The excitement of stepping foot on the flight back in August 2000 bound for Bahrain remains tangible. Whilst not necessarily in the footsteps of Thesiger, the adventure of exploring a new part of the world, learning a new language and working in a new school is a thrill that never subsides. This wanderlust led us on to enjoy life in Libya and the United Arab Emirates over the subsequent 16 years.

Now, despite being 'home’ in a rather wonderful part of London, this sense of exploration is as strong. Although being a proud son of our second city, I fail to see how anyone can grow tired of discovering the tales and streets of our capital.

So, a question that featured in my successful interview for my repatriation headship: what have I learned from my time overseas?

Having married a third culture kid and now raising one, the flexibility and adaptability of international school children to a range of social situations is universal. In most international schools that I have worked in you will have most continents and languages represented in a class. Children learn very quickly how to find commonality and a shared interest. It is, and I will keep out of politics, an international world our children will ultimately find themselves working in and I do believe that they can have an advantage as a result of having lived overseas. These same skills are also acquired by teachers and leaders in international schools. You can find yourself meeting ambassadors, Secretaries of State, His and Her Excellencies as well as members of the royal or ruling family. The ability to manage potentially difficult situations with such figures, they want the best for their children too, is technically no different to managing relationships with any other parent, however what can be at stake is your visa and therefore livelihood. You can be vulnerable working overseas.

It has been interesting to observe and experience first hand the development of the respective national education ministries. These countries have rapidly implemented inspection frameworks and some inspection bodies inspect all private schools on an annual basis. Carried out with the philosophy that annual inspection will by default raise standards, these four or five day visits from teams of six or more are arduous and do not necessarily appear to have school improvement genuinely at heart. Whilst the scars of these visits do heal and new ‘negotiation’ skills developed, I do not have fond memories of these visits. Having already received an Independent Schools Inspectorate regulatory compliance inspection, it was a refreshing experience and an absolute pleasure to work with the team; done with, rather than to.

I have enjoyed working with many colleagues who are utterly committed to their vocation from a range of countries. A number of superb teachers of Arabic, for example, who captivated their class with engaging and thoughtful lessons. In the Middle East, there is a justifiably strong emphasis on the teaching and learning of Arabic for all children. This ranges from five to six hours per week of Arabic for both native and non-native speakers. There is an explicit expectation that the standards of teaching and learning in Arabic is equal to those in the core subjects, regardless of starting point. With varying degrees in quality of teaching training provision, raising the standards of Arabic was a target on every school improvement plan I saw. It was a most rewarding experience to work with many Arabic and MFL colleagues in devising and delivering professional development courses to support them. I will confess that it has been enjoyable having far greater flexibility in determining curriculum content and time allocation without this significant timetabling demand.

There is an enhanced sense of pastoral or even paternal responsibility for colleagues when working overseas. This was often at the forefront of my mind when welcoming new colleagues off the flights from Heathrow or Manchester into the desert heat. There was always a sense of trepidation when handing over the keys to what will be their new apartment or home for the next two years, hopefully to their satisfaction. I would like to think that this sense of enhanced responsibility is one that is still part of my leadership DNA.

Perhaps most rewarding of all in returning home has been seeing it through the eyes of our own daughter. Not having ever lived in the UK, and rarely visited during school holidays, she has grown up accustomed to the sight of camels on the back of pick-up trucks yet still marvels at the sight of a squirrel scampering around Richmond Park or the deer making their way across the space we spend all seasons in. I should confess that the British Museum is a more than adequate resource and school trip for a Roman topic, but nothing can quite beat taking a class to the ancient cities of Sabratha or Leptis Magna in Libya, quite literally walking in the footsteps of Marcus Aurelius.

Whilst working overseas may not be attractive to all, assuming you choose the right school and country, you can experience and enjoy opportunities that may not otherwise be available. I will never forget meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury in Tripoli, enjoying Iftar in Bahrain, exploring the Straits of Hormuz or crossing the land border between Libya and Tunisia. It is just as important to balance that against certain restrictions in the host country, curricular or otherwise. We would long for fresh air in the last few weeks of term and then find ourselves thinking about England’s green and pleasant land as our aircraft circled over Kent and proceed with its approach over London; a place we are delighted to now call home.

What is universal, whatever country you may teach in, is the desire of each and every parent to want the best for their children; just as we do.

About Alistair Bond

Alistair Bond is headmaster at Park Hill Preparatory School & Nursery in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey.