A short adventure to the Middle East turned into a career where the focus on education, rather than bureaucracy, has proved rewarding
Years before the internet, Facebook and Instagram opened our travel horizons, Mark Leppard saw a small advert in the TES for a job at Doha College in Qatar.
“I always wanted to go overseas so I looked at different jobs… I’d never heard of Qatar,” he says.
“There was nothing in the local library, but I thought ‘that sounds really interesting.’”
Having completed a gap year playing a rugby season in Argentina and a degree in sport and education, Leppard already had a taste for adventure.
So he set out to the desert city hoping to broaden his horizons, thinking he would work abroad for two years.
And 26 years later, he is still in the region, and has been head of The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi since 2015.
His three children have all attended the school – one is still in the sixth form – and his wife Paulette teaches there too.
“Coming to Qatar and coming to the UAE, it’s felt extremely welcoming, I’ve found the culture here to be embracing.
“People said ‘welcome to our home, you are our guest’, it wasn’t a case of ‘you’re an expatriot, you’re separate.’
“You have to come open-minded, show tolerance, embrace the culture rather than say ‘I want to retain my own culture and be isolated from anywhere else.’”
“I’ve found the culture here to be embracing.”
Clearly, one of the things keeping Leppard in the Middle East is the school itself.
One of the oldest in the UAE, it predates the foundation of the country and celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
Pupils are 67 per cent British passport holders, 13 per cent Emirati and a mix of other nationalities.
“Our school has developed as part of the fabric of Abu Dhabi,” says Leppard.
“We are the only British embassy status school in UAE and we have educated many of the UAE’s current leaders.”
The school, one of the only not-for-profit schools in the UAE, has a very low staff turnover, he says, something that helps the non-selective school achieve exam results on a par with selective schools in the UK.
Staff, he says are highly motivated, seeing the job as a vocation.
“They live and breathe the school,” he adds, “everybody is proud to be part of the schools.
“Teachers are always asking how can we make students do better.”
“Working overseas you are actually able to focus on education.”
Like many international school teachers and heads, Leppard also enjoys the freedoms offered by working in an international school.
“When you are working overseas you are actually able to focus on education, it’s very much child-centred, you have fewer distractions and influences on the day- to-day teaching and I loved being able to come into work and just focus on the children and I think that’s still the case.”
He says in normal years, the school is free to “cherry pick the best bits of UK education” without interference from the UK government.
“Overseas school leaders can be very creative without much bureaucracy,” he says.
Of course this year has been blighted with Covid-compliance considerations and the like, and Leppard fears the chaos around GCSE and A-level results last summer has “tarnished” the premium branding of UK education abroad.
“It looks like it wasn’t joined-up thinking, that looks inconsistent and ill-planned.
“In any business, if something is ill-planned, it reflects badly on that business.
“If you consider UK education as a great PR opportunity for the UK I think it only harmed that.”
And there is still confusion and uncertainty around next summer’s exams.
“If you look at it from outside, if you consider the UK as one country, there’s a mixed message which is going on for someone outside.
“The real victims there are the students because they don’t have a clear message about what they’re doing.
“That causes even more anxiety at a time when exams cause anxiety in general.”
“A new approach to parents’ evenings could be a positive of coronavirus.”
Despite this, coronavirus has brought a few advantages, including a new virtual approach to parents’ evenings that Leppard is very hopeful about continuing in future.
The school has been trialling software that allocates parents with five minute time slots, and a counter on the screen tells them when their time is up.
“Both parents and teachers said that it worked really well, you didn’t get the drift into the next meeting slot, we’re thinking we’re going to carry that on after Covid, it’s one of the positives to take away. It just worked really well.
“For 20 years I’ve been trying to look at how parents evenings can work differently but Covid has made us do something unique and it’s worked and we’re quite comfortable with that.”
Leppard believes that the virtual parents’ evenings could also reduce the schools’ carbon footprint. The UAE is extremely car dependent, and not coming into the school will mean hundreds of parents no longer contribute to the extra emissions and road congestion.
So how will he give parents the chance to meet teachers face-to-face?
“I’m looking at when we go back to normal, if we take that opportunity away at parents evening, we’ll have some coffee mornings that are more informal, not about your child, just come in and see the teachers, heads of year, we’ll replace that social aspect of it with another opportunity to bring parents into school.”
“Taking a job abroad does have its challenges and it does need to be well-researched.”
Away from school, Leppard is a big advocate for teaching overseas, and is chair of British Schools in the Middle East, which supports schools across the sometimes volatile region.
“I’m always pushing for teachers who are interested in working overseas, wherever that is, in the Middle East, South America, Australia, Far East, it doesn’t matter where, it’s a fantastic opportunity to broaden your horizons and support education beyond your normal realms,” he says.
“But it does have its challenges and it does need to be well-researched..because you can fall into poorly managed schools that could really put you off teaching, but you can also come across some of the best schools in the world and they’re looking for teachers all the time.
“My life has definitely become richer for making that move overseas and professionally I have absolutely gained by broadening that outlook.”