Some years ago, at a dinner during a conference of leading heads, I found myself amidst a mix of newly appointed principals from the UK and overseas.
Seated next to me was a contemporary with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a polished English accent. He promptly initiated introductions, circling the table, and asking us to share our names and the schools we were set to lead.
Upon reaching the colleague to my right, who was taking over the headship of a British school in Greece, and then addressing me, about to embark on leading Dubai College, he wryly announced to the table that he likely wouldn’t be seeing us again.
“Did he think I had been banished to the edge of the educational empire for wrongdoing?”
This comment, made during our welcome dinner, felt unnecessary, and yet the rueful agreement from fellow attendees confirmed a truth which is seemingly universally acknowledged: once you depart the UK, reintegrating into its education system can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.
This outdated perspective persisted despite the fact modern boards of governors recognised the value which international experience can bring to traditional British schools.
Unfortunately, the degree to which this viewpoint remains ingrained was confirmed shortly after I began my headship, when a visiting deputy head from a UK boarding school came to do a reccy before establishing one of the now ubiquitous UK independent schools overseas.
“Modern boards of governors recognise the value which international experience can bring to traditional British schools.”
Tasked with competitor analysis, he questioned my education background, which until that point had been exclusively within HMC schools in England. “So, what did you do to end up out here, then?” he asked, genuinely concerned, as though I might have been banished to the edge of the educational empire for wrongdoing.
Both these incidents occurred 12 years ago, and since then, I have indeed never seen my Teutonic dining partner again, nor has the proposed boarding school ever materialized.
Despite the protestations of every educational headhunter, whose role is a to provide a diverse applicant pool to UK schools, a myopic exceptionalism still prevails in UK schools. They continue to view international heads either as damaged goods or question the relevance of their experience.
Hearing such judgments can make the transition to international headship feel like voluntary exile, with no guarantee of a return ticket.
However, despite the detachment from domestic UK heads, various membership organizations, networks, and friendships provide international school leaders with support which far exceeds that of UK supper clubs.
In the Middle East, for example, the British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) regional conference plays a pivotal role. With 157 school members, 105 partners, and 193,000 students, BSME promotes inter-school collaboration and healthy student competition.
“A myopic exceptionalism still prevails in UK schools.”
It offers over 166 professional learning opportunities yearly, alongside prestigious events like the Young Musicians of the Gulf competition and the BSME Games. Many members highlight the annual conference, where international heads, distant from their UK counterparts, gather for a stimulating and non-judgmental opportunity to share and support each other.
Relocating abroad for leadership roles is a significant life choice, with unique challenges which are often difficult for domestically rooted colleagues to understand. And yet, once bitten by the bug of international headship, many school leaders opt not to return home.
This is where global rather than regional membership organizations offer further support to international heads. The Council of Overseas British International Schools (COBIS), for instance, boasts 271 member schools, making it the largest premier global association for British schools abroad.
The chairs and CEOs of both BSME and COBIS maintain regular contact with the UK government, engaging with the schools minister and education secretary alongside representatives from HMC, GSA, and UK teaching unions, while offering timely advice, support and lobbying which is relevant to the British schools overseas.
“Once bitten by the bug of international headship, many school leaders opt not to return home.”
However, beyond formal affiliations, the most significant bonds forged in international headship are with local peers who serve as both great friends and rivals. These relationships have allowed me to confidentially navigate various challenges with experienced, empathetic, and supportive peers.
There is an unfortunate and growing tendency for international school leaders to cultivate overly self-congratulatory profiles on LinkedIn as they promote themselves as thought leaders in the education field. While the need to raise awareness of the schools we lead is a critical task of any international school leader, excessive self-promotion can create barriers between international heads who would otherwise benefit from opening up about the similar challenges we all face.
“There is a tendency for international school leaders to cultivate overly self-congratulatory profiles on LinkedIn.”
If, however, you are fortunate enough to be able to befriend the kind of understated enablers of others who have become my close confidants, then the camaraderie you will experience will certainly erase any other sense of isolation which may come from international headship.