The following article comes from Robert Ford, Director at Heritage International School.
“A community is a group of people who agree to grow together” Simon Sinek
As I finished listening to my colleague speaking online, a principal from Argentina, I reflected upon how fortunate I was to be in such a supportive network of global school leaders as the Varkey Foundation/UNICEF group from around the World that I have been working with throughout the pandemic in 2021. Certainly, a lot more that united us than divided us.
We have collaborated so much this year, supported one another, shared our stories, ideas and thoughts, as we draw upon a myriad of experiences of school leadership and diverse communities from every corner of the globe. It is a real source of strength for me, and pride, that we can be authentic, open, honest and learn from each other as a group of very different international school leaders. Fewer differences than you can imagine looking at the day today.
One of my frequent reflective thoughts as I travelled back to the UK to see my family from my current school in Moldova this year, is how I would have managed the crisis differently and what different systemic challenges I would have faced had I stayed a school leader in the UK and not made the switch to be an international school leader.
I know that many UK based teachers have a number of questions about making the change to working an international school especially around the possible differences in terms of school culture, a more diverse, challenging and globalised environment and a set of parameters that look similar but often can take us out of our comfort zone in reality. The same is true of school leaders who travel a similar path and I was no different when I made my decision after deciding enough of too many daily stressful drives back across the Severn Bridge and home to Bristol after another frustrating and long day.
My desire to “work in the field” was borne out of a long career, mostly through opportunities with the British Council, that has seen me work with school leaders from Tomsk to Hanoi, to Bandung to Mumbai to Montreal to DC and a lot in between.
I always felt my authenticity came from the very fact I was a school leader in the UK but I also knew the powerful pull factor meant I was fascinated in looking at how my colleagues in schools in Indonesia or the US managed their budgets, their staff, their curriculum, their community and their KPIs/outcomes.
The “push factor” was equally as powerful and the dramatic, chaotic, politicised and capricious last decade in the English state system as a school leader played a huge role in my decision to take the position as director of the first international school in Moldova and a part of the World I have had close ties with for some years. I have looked back on some of the most dramatic days as an English school leader which has included foreign exchange students in danger on a mainline rail track, anthrax culture plates being found in an old science cupboard, numerous horrific child protection cases as well as threats of violence from members of the local community for daring to keep students safe.
Taken altogether, the chronic underfunding, the narrow curriculum, obsession with high stakes accountability, a MAT system that I just don’t believe in as a way to deliver the 21st-century education our children need for the 2020s and a school that ultimately turned down the opportunity to be an IB school in a fight I knew I wouldn’t win with my own team and the governors, the opportunity to lead an international school was a godsend.
Some of the most important and useful skills I found that transferred over to my new role from the UK were around school policies and systems, approaches to teaching and learning, approaches to more collaborative and less authoritarian leadership, school improvement and the overall quality assurance process.
The decision we took at Heritage to go through the tough COBIS compliance accreditation process was very much part of ensuring we were benchmarked as an international school against the high standards of the COBIS framework and global network. Achieving the membership of COBIS in June 2021, after a full year in the pandemic, was a truly celebratory moment for the young school community of Heritage and Moldova.
The same is true of being the 1st and only Cambridge School in Moldova and the familiarity of IGCSEs and A-Levels keep a sense of oneness and perspective especially against a national system dreadfully in need of reform and explains why we have grown by 200 new students in just 2 years as local and international families want the Cambridge curriculum. The same is true of our ties to the British Council and the Global School Alliance and a lot of the projects and networks we are involved in with them. The best of both worlds, home and away combined.
What I have found different, which may come across as odd especially when we don’t have a large number of international schools in Eastern Europe compared to the Middle East or China and SE Asia, is the strong collaborative networks between international schools. It can feel isolating and I am very grateful to my colleagues in the COBIS Black Sea Schools network for their support and the school to school curriculum opportunities they provide. The competition culture of the English state school system in the last decade is in stark contrast to the power of networks that existed previously in England for schools to collaborate together and to bring all parts of education sectors together across all educational topics.
Navigating the new educational landscape in a new national context, especially in a post-Soviet society as Moldova has often left me spitting feathers at self-serving bureaucratic nonsense on more than one occasion as director of Heritage.
But also, one of the proudest moments occurred when the then education minister and his team wanted an urgent meeting with me and my team to see how our online learning worked and we gave all that we could to ensure our national education community navigated the first stage of the pandemic in early 2020.
The business leadership side is much more acute in international schools and even though the academy system in England also demands a similar set of skills from schools, they are still receiving their funding from the taxpayer. The CEO role of a medium-sized company, which is effectively an international school leader, operating in a foreign country, demands very quick adaptability and willingness to learn. It also means having an astute finance team in support and I cannot ever overemphasise the importance to the success of Heritage these last couple of years through the chief financial officer and the COO equivalent, to ensuring the schools here run efficiently and effectively.
Although communication with families and the community is very important in the UK I have found in the international education sector it really does have to be much more targeted, serve many different constituencies and to be innovative, constant and consistent in a way I didn’t have to think about in the UK.
In conclusion, the ultimate test would be to measure the success of an international school leader, without a UK based experience, navigating the UK’s education systems. I believe the success of so many great international school leaders is down to the fact they have experienced leading in the UK and taken the very best of that abroad and combined it with the new opportunities and challenges of leading an international school community.
What would be a good direction for “Global Britain” and education for the 2020s would be to see more opportunities and schemes for both national and international school leaders to collaborate and learn from one another more effectively. For me, for now, I walk out of the Heritage school gates and although days can be tough, it is education after all, I go home not missing for one second the drive back over the Severn.