When Tess St Clair-Ford first left Cambridge University with a degree in social and political sciences, she was desperate to travel.
So, like many young graduates, she found herself teaching abroad as a means to see the world. On her first day at an international school in Sri Lanka she was plunged in at the deep end, taking an A-level English class on her first day.
It was a challenging start, but teaching quickly became her passion.
“It was international travel that came first, but I loved teaching,” she says, “Having discovered it, I stuck with it”.
She returned to the UK and taught in independent schools, including Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire and The Harrodian School in London. In these schools she was “hugely impressed by individual international students”, particularly some from China and Hong Kong.
“One of my students said to me, you should really go and teach in China, you’d love it and that planted a seed really,” she says.
In 2020, she left her post as head of Year 11 teaching English and global perspectives at Epsom College and moved with her three children and husband to Harrow International Shanghai. She taught English and was head of the senior school.
“One of my students said to me, you should really go and teach in China.”
“It was a great move and we had a fantastic couple of years,” she says.
She says: “Part of my motivation to go and live in China was the fact that there are such strongly held and inaccurate views about what China is and it is propagated by the UK media.
She says she found it hard to reconcile the “incredible students” she taught in the UK from big Chinese cities who would chat about politics and had “fascinating views about things” with “generalised media statements” about China.
She says: “I was thinking these two things can’t possibly be true, you can’t have these really bright articulate, open-minded young people coming from China if China is what we think it is.”
All this perhaps makes St Clair-Ford uniquely qualified for her latest role as founding principal at OIC Brighton, which opened in September with 170 students. The 13-18 international boarding and day school is a sister school to Oxford International College in Oxford, which was ranked the second highest performing independent school for A-levels in England in 2023.
“International education is lighter on its feet, it responds to changes more swiftly.”
She took on the role which would allow her to work with students of 25 nationalities – including those from Hong Kong and China – in order to return to the UK at the same time as enjoying the “agility” of international education.
“International education is lighter on its feet, it’s more agile, it responds to changes in education more swiftly, so it’s a pretty dynamic environment in which to work. The same cannot sadly be said about some more traditional UK independent schools,” she says, recalling a previous job in a UK school where one member of staff “still raised an eyebrow about women in trousers.”
She says you “can’t get away with” old-fashioned thinking in international education because having many cultures interacting forces leaders to “constantly think” about what their values are, how initiatives will be received and how they communicate things.
But she stresses at OIC Brighton, part of Nord Anglia Education, she hasn’t had to start from scratch.
“We have schools in Oxford including the original OIC, so we have a ready-made model, it wasn’t a blank canvas. We had lots of existing expertise and documentation and support, that’s been a huge help.”
Setting a “clear vision” for the culture of the college was challenging before the pupils and staff had arrived, she says. “It is a difficult thing to do in vacuum, but we had the curriculum and the structure from OIC which is very clear and unique and that’s the starting point.”
Recruiting staff has been a “privilege”, she says: “Recruiting teachers and support staff was something I was nervous about, gratifyingly it attracts people who have that sense of adventure and excitement…people who were attracted to the challenge.
“There’s this sense of staff thinking they have ownership over what they are doing.”
“In terms of recruitment it was about really ascertaining whether people had the energy and enthusiasm and the flexibility and the imagination to be able to do what they needed to do. I’m happy to report that they are, they are a fantastic team and there’s a lot of energy.
“Again there’s this sense of people thinking they have ownership over what they are doing, people coming from well-established schools might feel suffocated [there] by not being able to make the kind of changes they’d like to make.
“To attract people who really want that and make that happen is a real privilege.”
She says she has been happy with the numbers of pupils they have attracted – her Year 10 daughter is among them – and UK education is benefiting from a shift towards UK universities and away from the US. The school is expected to grow to around 500 pupils on the site.
But she is aware of the potential fragility around these trends, and how politicians can help or hinder recruitment.
She says: “You shouldn’t underestimate the effect that politics can have on what happens internationally and politicians should be quite mindful of what an important industry this is and how they can promote it.
“Rishi Sunak made a statement about reforming A-levels, I heard about it via Hong Kong before I’d read anything in the morning news, I had parents and agents immediately asking what does this mean for A-levels and our students?”
“You shouldn’t underestimate the effect that politics can have on what happens internationally.”
Families and students are particularly attracted to UK-based international schools because of the degree of flexibility they offer that they might not get in a standard UK independent schools, she says.
At OIC Brighton, students don’t have a strict cap on how many A-levels they do and are not obliged to play hockey, for example, although balance is encouraged.
The school stresses wellbeing, and works hard to ensure students’ are not doing more than they can handle.
“We attract the kinds of students who will put themselves under enormous amounts of pressure who are at risk of getting themselves stressed or not paying attention to their wellbeing,” says St Clair-Ford.
“We recognise that young people need a lot of guidance around balance and wellbeing and we give them that support in balancing it.”
The importance of wellbeing or developing soft skills have to be presented to high-powered international families in terms of how they can help a student to succeed in study or work, not as values in themselves, she says.
St Clair-Ford doesn’t teach as part of her role but says she is a literature specialist who is “crazy about reading” and talks to students a lot about books. In addition to her social and political sciences degree from Clare College, Cambridge, she has a masters degree in creative writing from the University of Chichester.
She runs a political philosophy club and they are currently doing a chronological review of European political philosophy. “We’ve got up to Marx,” she says, “It’s great, it’s my Friday afternoon, my favourite time of the week.”