A broader perspective: headship abroad

Tim Wilbur, Director of School Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, looks at why school leaders are moving abroad

With the recent announcement by the Knowledge and Human Development Agency (KHDA) in Dubai that they are targeting the creation of another 120 schools by 2026, the inexorable growth of schools overseas looks set to continue. Although only a third of these new schools may favour the British curriculum, this generally reflects a worldwide trend of similar proportions. 

It would therefore be easy at this point to reflect on some of the challenges this will create, but it might be wiser to look at the opportunities afforded to the key leaders that will operate within this space.

The international market attracts but also demands that its leaders reflect what is outstanding about British education; equally important is the heart and soul of a cultural appreciation that lies within the individual.

Working overseas gives one a different perspective on a whole host of issues

At Gabbitas Education, we have worked with numerous experienced school leaders who have opted to move abroad. These include Jonathan Ullmer, MBE, who we recently helped appoint as Head of Haileybury, Astana in Kazakhstan. Jonathan is a good case in point: he cites his desire to transition students into the modern world as being based on his own international education, his previous leadership of an international school and the merits of educational philosophy that underpins the International Baccalaureate (IB). 

There is also no doubt that there is a profound sense of adventure in taking a leadership position overseas. If it is said ‘travel broadens the mind’, it must be equally true that working overseas gives one a different perspective on a whole host of issues. For me, as with Jonathan, having worked with large numbers of overseas students and staff in this country I was fascinated by their adaptability and ambition. Somewhat humbled by this, I felt I had to try it for myself. And with two international headships now under my belt, I would not trade the experience for the world.

So, what were the positives for me? I have always held to the fact young people are the same the whole world over until they are mysteriously corrupted by adulthood. Therefore, the joy of being a small part of their development remains the same. In one of my schools, although in essence very ‘English’, the indigenous national curriculum was taught. This was a positive experience, not only because of the intellectual challenge of learning something new but also because it allowed one to challenge certain long-held assumptions and methodologies that had percolated through the brain for far too long. Cultural nuance was also truly fascinating; many teachers would profess to being ‘people watchers’ and therefore there was plenty of scope here for one to have any received truths questioned. 

The other great advantage is the chance to meet new people and make new friends, and perhaps to have a more realistic perspective on some of the global issues that are too often stereotyped in the press.

The world that awaits Jonathan, and the many like him, is not for the faint-hearted. However, these leaders have been selected for their ability to meet opportunity and challenge in a flexible but principled manner. Indeed, they invariably come from a rich tradition of thoughts and experience that can be a force for good. And in a world where there is a danger that nationalism is on the ascent, there may well come a time when a stint overseas is a necessary career path for the benefit of all. 


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