The Grass Is Not Always Greener

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Teaching Abroad


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Are you thinking about leaving teaching, or teaching abroad to leave the English state school system?

On my travels to schools across the U.K. and in parts of Europe, I have been asking myself ‘What is the perfect balance between school and teacher accountability?’

Too tight or too loose?

It appears to me that in some of our English schools, we work within a – high stakes – model that is too extreme. Meanwhile, in some independent and international schools, accountability is at the other extreme, too loose in some classrooms. Teachers tell me time and time again that they leave the U.K. for a happier work-life balance, with one having been a teacher for 9 years working in one international school telling me that they “had never been observed or provided with any appraisal targets.”

Another teacher qualified over 20 years ago and has carved out a good career moving from international school to another; some also work in hospitals or in the military for the Ministry of Defence.

Support and challenge?

These alternatives sound great if you are working in a high-accountability system, but I am often led to ask myself, ‘Where is the support and challenge?’ In international/independent schools, if a parent is paying a school £30 or 50k per year in fees, shouldn’t one expect high-quality teaching from the school? And do observations and appraisal actually lead to teacher improvement?

I fear I am a by-product thinker of a high-stakes economy … but I know we need a balance between high-stakes rigour and autonomy. Striking that optimum between both parallels is a challenge for any school.

So, what is a perfect balance?

In 1997 with £50 in my pocket, I left for Nigeria to work with the Voluntary Services Overseas. My two-year contract didn’t quite work out as I had expected and I flew home after one month with my tail between my legs. Accountability was a rare commodity – the challenges that teachers and schools were facing in West Africa were far removed from the politics of the time – that was beginning to drive up standards in the English state school system.

Twenty-two years later I ask myself, have we moved to an extreme where teachers are now voting with their feet? One of my bloggers recently raised an interesting question to those working in the U.K., Does teaching overseas appeal to you? It may be something you are thinking about but think carefully before you do.

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence – with the right balance of support and challenge, we can shape the narrative to make our state school system world-class. However, we need everyone to work together to achieve it.

Consider 365 reasons to teach in English state schools.

5 thoughts on “The Grass Is Not Always Greener

  1. Ross this is an interesting article, however, I must say that teaching and leading in an International school (Australia) call outweighs the stress and pressure that you feel teaching and leading with in the English system. Having been an assistant head and deputy head, I felt that I had no life and the stress of teaching very quickly had me becoming a disbeliever in the English education, as well as education system. I can very much inform all members that teaching in Australia is very much a relief and promotes a strong work life balance. Pastoral care and wellbeing of staff and students is placed as paramount (something distinctly lacking from the English education system) and stress is lessened. I highly encourage all of my colleagues to seek work-life balance within an international caring educational environment.

    1. My best friend has been living and working as a teacher in Brisbane and he seems very happy with his set of cards. It’s a shame it cannot be this way for most in England. Much of my career I was blessed with good experiences, but the workload was excruciating. That ‘Sunday night’ feeling never went away. My last experience – although very rewarding was tarnished by a poor inspection process which has sadly seen the loss of many people I was working with at the time.

  2. Here in the UK, most independent school fees are far less than 30k, 10-15k being nearer the norm. Accountability changes in our sector, being much more exposed to parental scrutiny and expectation, not just for teaching and learning, but for those other elements familiar features of our sector, after school activities and weekend working. I use two modern philosophers, Dan Pink and Simon Sinek, to guide our core principles; Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, and Sinek’s ‘Start with Why?’ What worries me with the state sector’s accountability approach is that it seems to built of unsound principles. For example, our local secondary schools seem to measure attainment in numbers from 1-4 from Year 7, with each year, higher numbers becoming available to eventually chime with the GCSE grade range. Why on earth would you do that?

  3. I’ve worked in international schools. You are accountable to the parents. If the parents are happy, you are doing your job. They pay the bills. If the parents are unhappy, you may not have a job. It’s not a bad model, compared to ours where if the data is good, you are doing your job, regardless of whether anyone is happy!

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