What’s so challenging about leading an international school?

Posted on 6th Jun 2017 in International Schools

Barry Speirs, from RSAcademics, answers questions about its recent research project – 'The Art of International School Headship’...

What did the research involve?

The analysis of over 100 questionnaires from school leaders of international schools in Asia and the Gulf region. This included the views of 76 current heads, as well as board members and deputies. We asked them to describe their school context, the particular challenges of leading an international school and what they saw as the characteristics of the best leaders. We gained additional insights from follow-up conversations with a selection of participants.

What’s different about leading an international school?

As well as the usual challenges of school leadership, international schools are often seen as having far greater complexity and diversity. For example, take parents. Although managing parents’ expectations is nothing new for a school leader, many international schools will have 30+ nationalities of parents with significant differences in their expectations. What a typical Chinese parent sees as a good education might be very different to, say, the perspectives of a Dutch expatriate. International schools may also experience far greater churn among staff, students and parents – often 20-30% per year. This puts much greater pressure on all systems and communications. If leadership is about bringing people together to make progress towards a common goal, then this is particularly challenging given the diverse and changing school community.

Can you really talk about ‘an international school’ – aren’t all international schools different?

Schools are indeed very diverse, and a key theme to emerge from our research is that a significant success factor is finding a good fit between the head and the type of school. Consider, for example, the difference between a start-up school in China which is run as a for-profit enterprise with a bilingual curriculum for Chinese students, and a well-established, oversubscribed not-for-profit school in Singapore with expatriate families and parent trustees.

Many respondents talked about the importance of prospective heads and boards undertaking the necessary due diligence to ensure the right fit. Having said that, in responses from very different schools there were many common themes. Our report identifies these and illustrates how they apply in different contexts, with many examples and verbatim comments.

What are the top leadership challenges at an international school?

We identified seven main categories summarised in the figure above. What follows is a series of verbatim quotes from participants in our research.

Parents: As well as managing diverse expectations, there are all the language and cultural communication challenges to be managed, as well as the particular characteristics and idiosyncrasies of expatriate parents – for instance that they are often intensely involved with school life:

“International communities are easily subject to bouts of paranoia; add in the on-site coffee shop and you create the perfect storm for school-focused anxiety.”

“There is often very little tolerance for mistakes and experimentation, which is contrary to what we are trying to instil in our learning programme.”

“The polarity between expat and local parents’ expectations can be extreme.”

“Due to cultural differences it can be very difficult to get to the heart of an issue.”

“Sometimes expectations are crazy, literally”.

Students: Integrating students with varying English ability, transience, curriculum requirements and SEND issues:

“The biggest challenge is trying to provide an international standard curriculum at all grades while the majority of students enrolling have limited English language skills.”

“Students can become very isolated and the school needs to take the necessary action to try to create an inclusive environment.”

“The transitions must be paid attention to, otherwise we run the risk of eroding educational opportunities or, worse yet, leaving individuals scarred from the experience.”

“SEND is often not declared, or is presented as a problem of language”

Staff: The challenges of remote recruitment, skills shortages – especially in IB, retention, managing a diverse workforce and all the issues associated with mobilising and managing expatriates:

“Staffing is the biggest challenge facing international schools today.”

“Recruitment is the most important thing I do all year.”

“The main challenge is to bring a common sense of purpose across such a diverse group of staff.”

“My pastoral challenges are staff issues, not student matters.”

Governance: often seen as the number one issue by heads, who comment on the complexity of governance structures, dysfunctional operations, cultural dissonance and some specific challenges of proprietor boards and expatriate parent boards:

“I have 5 different groups that I report to and communication between those groups relies on me.”

“85% of my teachers are international but 100% of the board are local.”

“I am the 6th Head in 11 years!”

“Monitoring of performance is too close, delegation of authority is too slow, and “audit” is valued over innovation.”

“Between my appointment and start date, 75% of our parent board had changed!”

External local environment: the pace of change in many markets, dealing with local regulations and legalities:

“The political world is unpredictable and remains the hardest part of my job.”

“The market has moved from under-supply of school places to excessive over-supply in the space of four years.”

“The pressure of annual inspections leaves little room for genuine long term development.”

“20% of timetable time must be ring-fenced for local additional cultural or language studies.”

“Oftentimes nothing seems to make sense and you can feel like the most ignorant person in the room.”

Internal school community: often managing ambitious growth, the instability caused by the churn of students, parents and staff:

“As we grow so quickly, a major challenge that I face is that we do not lose sight of our vision, mission and purpose as a school.”

“A tradition is defined as something you did once last year! Learn to expect the unexpected. Learn to tolerate ambiguity.”

“Imagine starting with a blank slate and having to decide on every minute aspect of the school. It’s hugely complex and a completely different challenge to just running a school.”

“We have 30% turnover of students each year with 2 or 3 new joiners each week.”

Personal and family issues: isolation, lack of support and family pressures which can be a deal-breaker:

“It can be very lonely – it’s difficult to find real friends when everyone you know is inside the school community.”

“I wish I had known where to reach out for support.”

“Several heads leave due to personal and family reasons – the head is looked after, but the family has a much harder job to cope.”

“It’s crucially important to look after yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually”.

Leading an international school is clearly a hugely challenging and personally developmental experience. A future article in International School magazine will focus on what leaders see as the key qualities needed to be successful when running an international school.

Barry Speirs is Head of Leadership Consultancy at RSAcademics and author of ‘The Art of International School Headship’, which is available for free download at www.RSAcademics.co.ukEmail: BarrySpeirs@RSAcademics.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 19.3 issue of International School magazine. For more information see www.is-mag.com.