Leading an international school - interview with headteacher Robert Graves

Robert Graves is an experienced international headteacher who works with the Nord Anglia group of international schools. He and his wife Sarah (Head of Learning) were placed at an international school in Al Khor, Qatar several years ago. Now they are moving to China to set up a new Nord Anglia school in Shanghai.

What have you and Sarah found as the overarching benefits of working internationally?

We genuinely feel we are an international family. We are international professionals. For Sarah, that's been an easy thing – Sarah was an expat. For me, coming from a family where my parents didn't have a passport until they were in their 50s, to genuinely feel as though I can fit into an international setting is great. I'm a mono-linguist who is opening a multi-lingual school. I couldn't tell a violin from a viola and we are having a Juilliard collaboration. The ironies are not stopping! But I genuinely feel I fit into this lifestyle.

I don't think we would return to the UK. We call wherever we live home. We have a holiday home in the UK and we love going back to Lyme Regis, but that's a holiday. Maybe we will retire back there, but equally we might retire in South Africa, or go back to Qatar.

That genuine feeling of being an international citizen is incredibly empowering.

Sarah and the curriculum

For Sarah, it's all about the curriculum. Of course we have restrictions, but the last two years we've spent designing the curriculum. Although we are a private international school, so there are more resources available, we don't feel like we are selling out.

The curriculum we are putting together is incredible. We are looking to teach in a multi-lingual environment. It's brilliant. Sarah, as a learning leader, has had freedom with the curriculum that she wouldn't have had in the UK. Whether that's about the UK, or state systems in general...I don't know.

At the moment we are having very interesting conversations with our Chinese teachers who are coming to work with us – lots of them are also leaving the state system. And they have the same nerves about leaving. But we reassure them and say 'Look, we did the same thing. We left the state system, we left our pensions behind'. They have to have the mindset that they are becoming an international teacher - and everything that affords.

Sarah's had her own consultancy for a year and a half now. That couldn't happen in a state school where you are always thinking about results.

We were young teachers when we started teaching overseas, and the accelerating progress we've had in our careers is all because of working in an international school. If you're an ambitious young teacher, you have more opportunities working at an international school.

Mind Shift

There has definitely been a recent mind-shift. Just 7 years ago there were travelling teachers – teachers who went abroad, didn't talk to the locals, earned tax-free salaries, and got out.

There's no doubt that now there's a young breed making a lifestyle choice – that international teaching is what they want. They have made the decision say, to move to the Middle-East.

For others, they want a 5 year stint, to get to a leadership position, and then perhaps leave.

There are also travelling couples doing it as a way of getting some money behind them. They can be creative in their vocation by going to an international school.

Chinese Parents and Universities

If Chinese people go to international school, they can't go to a Chinese university. They want to go to America, Uk, Australian universities. But it's clear – it's liberating.

We don't do the Gaokao, which is the university entrance exam and this is what prevents them from going to Chinese universities. Lots of Chinese families know that Chinese universities are not the future. They did the Gaokao themselves, did the 50 hours of study a week and know it's not the world. We have talked to a lot of Chinese families. They are educated – they know about Nord Anglia. They are affluent. They are genuinely considering international schooling and universities. They know they want something different for their children.

Are you seeing teachers return to the UK?

Not many. Most apply to other Nord Anglia schools. The youngsters, want to move on to another international school.

It shows what we’ve done with such a young team. They have such character and such commitment. We are on such a journey together. This idea about young teachers needing more experience - actually it's not the case. Teaching is not rocket science.

Are you having to coach the Chinese teachers?

We are coaching the Chinese teachers in a different way. We are identifying teachers with ambition and character and we are taking them on, and then we will be able to coach them. Having the right personality is most important.

Sarah works hard to get the correct framework with the curriculum. The curriculum is only organic. If you come in with the structure, then they can have the freedom. You have a safe environment where teachers can be creative.

The difference between international and national schools

There's so much more security at international schools, and so much more support. There are smaller class sizes. This is the same with private schooling. It's so different to a state environment.

International schooling doesn't feel like you're selling out. It's different from going to teach at a private school in the UK.

Our daughter is growing up in a class with 30 nationalities. She does not know colour, she does not know language differences, she does not know social backgrounds. Her friend Ayesha, is a multi-millionaire. Her other friend is from rural India. They all go on play-dates together.

What the UK government should be thinking is that if teachers go out and get these experiences abroad, some are inevitably going to go home. If they do go back to the UK they will take back a wealth of understanding. I can't remember the last time I heard the word racist in an international context. Yes, there is prejudice, but when it's labelled as racism, it's hard to break. It's divisive. Like I say, I can't remember the last time I heard the word racist.

What would discourage you from returning to the UK?

Why would we? We have so many benefits here. I'm now an international principal. I'm a school developer. My job exists overseas. Would we like to return to rural England and run an international school? We have that conversation sometimes. But it would be as a career choice. To go back there is a step down. Then of course there is a lifestyle option. But while we are on a career path, no.

I'm vehemently against academies. I'm not comfortable in the state system. The beauty of Nord Anglia is – the bigger we get, the better we get. That's the beauty of being a school principal – each school gets to run individually. Each school gets to embrace its individual community. Each school exists as its own microcosm. Al Khor and here are completely different. But we are taking the same model and moving it.

I could go back to a private school...but at the moment, this school is going to be 2500 children. There's that growth gain ability. There's not that opportunity in the UK.
What Sarah says is that she's going to change Chinese education. China is at that place – ready to look out, ready to be international. Their education system has to change. Shanghai is THE city to be in. Being an international educator means you're able to move, to widen your opportunities.

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