The Quiet Crisis in International School Recruitment

17-07-2008 - Graham Reeves and Andrew Wigford

The change

In The World is Flat, Thomas L Friedman writes that, "We're in a crisis now, but it is a crisis that is unfolding very quietly". His words describe science and engineering in the US but could also apply to the recruitment of teachers to work in international schools.

The crisis is becoming increasingly serious. We know this because of the recruitment work that we both do - for Fieldwork Education and Teachers International Consultancy (TIC) respectively.

Here's one example:

In 1996, Fieldwork started assisting with the recruitment of teachers for a group of 16 international primary schools, most of them small and in remote locations. Teachers had to have had four years' experience teaching in the UK. Most had to be on 'bachelor status'. A few of the schools specified that they wouldn't take anyone who had previously taught internationally. The schools provided better salaries and benefits than most but didn't reveal the figures until a post was offered.

Each year Fieldwork was inundated with hundreds of applications for around 20-25 posts. Typical applicants were single women aged between 27 and 33. Their major concern was whether they would later be able to get a job back in the UK. Most didn't really mind where they went, although some weren't keen on Nigeria.

This situation was normal for international school recruitment. Plenty of young teachers wanted to widen their horizons by working away from their home countries.

Now Fieldwork receives fewer than 100 applications for the same group, even though the criteria have been widened.

What has happened?

Now a far greater proportion of applicants - for all types of international schools - are in their 40s and 50s. Some have been working in international schools for several years. Often they are married and have children who were born away from their parents' home countries. Frequently these teachers are looking for employment as a teaching couple. Others, having had a career in their home country are now looking to work abroad. Usually, with their children grown up, they feel it's 'their turn' and want to have 'an adventure'. Often they apply as a couple, but just as often - perhaps newly single - they want to strike out on their own.

The number of applicants in these older groups is well short of that of younger teachers who used to apply.

There are other issues, too:

It's never been easy to recruit Early Years teachers for international schools. Now, the difficulty is greater than ever. Then there are certain specialist subjects for which there is a real shortage of teachers - music, for example, and English as an Additional Language.

Another trend that is that people are more choosy about where they want to work. Helping to recruit teachers for British Schools of America, Fieldwork is likely to receive up to 400 applications for the pool. On the other hand, there are countries for which few people apply and for which many teachers specifically say they wouldn't want to be considered.

Looking back, perhaps some of the changes had already started, but the events of 9/11, and those that followed, brought matters to a head. The number of applications immediately reduced. People became very conscious of security issues and decided it was safer to stay at home. Applications for posts in countries all over the world just plummeted.

Even when they do apply, some people withdraw - sometimes after they have accepted a post. Maybe it's because they get cold feet when the reality dawns on them. More often it's because they get talked out of the idea by family and friends, worried about safety.

Those who already work internationally are less affected by such concerns. They recognise the realities of expatriate life and balance the drawbacks against the benefits. But as these teachers get older they need to be replaced by newcomers, who aren't applying in sufficient numbers; so the crisis gets worse.

Although global security is a major factor in the quiet crisis, it's not the only one. In the past, people have seen teaching internationally as an opportunity to earn more money. That attraction is diminishing. Some international schools don't pay competitive salaries. Others provide relatively high packages - but teachers tend to look at the salary element and think that they'll be no better off than at home. Teachers who have moved up the pay scales in their home countries may see a move as leaving them worse off. The old hands know about tax benefits, better housing, and cost of living differences that apply in some locations, but the incentive doesn't always seem great to someone starting out for the first time - especially someone on the property ladder at home.

Many teachers also have a concern that they will lose out in career progression. Even though large numbers of international school teachers will not actually return to teach in their home country for any prolonged period of time, when they set out - or consider setting out - on an international career, they usually assume that it will be temporary.

Another factor has been highlighted by Nick Brummitt of ISC Research. His investigations show that in April 2007 there were 4,179 'English-speaking international schools', an increase of 146% in a period of seven years largely coinciding with the period of greater security concern. He estimates that there will be over 5,000 such schools by 2010 and 9,000 by 2020 and that the number of teachers at these schools will be:

154,000 in April 2007
188,000 in 2010
246,000 in 2015
303,000 in 2020

With the number of international school teachers needing to double in 12 or 13 years, the recruitment crisis is going to get worse.

What to do?

Suggestion 1: Cast your net widely

Traditionally, international schools have been staffed mainly by teachers from the UK and the US, with smaller numbers from other countries. Teachers from some of these other countries often seem to have fewer security concerns. Some schools already specifically target teachers from such places as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. It's not an unlimited supply but it hasn't yet been fully tapped.

With vacancies being advertised on the internet, schools are increasingly likely to receive applications from countries that are not always associated with providing teachers for international schools. Many of them can be seriously considered - including some who have had experience teaching in international schools in their home country.

Some schools recruit teachers from the host country. This can lead to difficulties involving language proficiency, suitable qualifications and experience, salary differentials and parental expectations. Schools that find ways around such difficulties - by, for instance, providing on-the-job training and reviewing salary structures - open a potentially rich vein for recruitment.

Suggestion 2: Improve terms and conditions

An obvious thing to do is to increase salaries, but there are other possibilities. One is to subsume some of the benefits into the salary. Teachers receive a higher salary but are responsible for their own removal costs, flights and so on.

Schools can make postings more family-friendly. As well as subsidised school places, they might provide a child allowance, enhanced housing for teachers with families, and support with finding employment for husbands, wives and partners.

Terms and conditions should reflect the market. A school in a 'difficult' location should expect to pay more than one that has less problem finding good teachers. Salaries should be based on a formula that takes into consideration 'hardship' as well as cost of living and the tax system.

Of course, such changes can be costly and therefore result in increased fees which might lead to a drop in enrolments. But a lack of good quality teachers is going to affect a school's reputation, which will also affect enrolments. Somehow, schools must find the balance.

Suggestion 3: Use recruitment agencies

Commissioning agencies to help with recruitment, schools get the benefit of working with experts with up-to-date knowledge of market trends. TIC, for example, uses e-portfolios and video conferencing and holds seminars for teachers to promote the benefits of teaching in international schools. Agencies get to know the teachers and the schools and use their knowledge to find the best match. Their databases of teachers are live throughout the year so are available for unexpected vacancies whenever they occur.

Agencies may sound expensive but they're probably not as expensive as you expect. In fact, they can work out cheaper than repeated advertisements, travel and time spent in the whole recruitment process when you are trying to recruit from a diminishing pool of available teachers. And they are certainly less expensive than the effect of not being able to make an appointment.

Suggestion 4: Hunt in packs

Most schools are naturally concerned only with their own recruitment issues. They spend time trying to outwit other schools, which they understandably regard as competitors, for the best candidates. Time and effort are duplicated and wasted. All schools are facing this crisis and are more likely to overcome it through co-operation.

Fieldwork works with two particular groups of schools. The schools within each group share the costs of a recruitment campaign and therefore share advertisements, application systems, pools, interview dates and so on. Individual headteachers still decide who to interview and who to appoint but the whole process more economical, efficient and effective

Suggestion 5: Invest in professional development

TIC's research shows that teachers who are considering working internationally are concerned about professional development. They worry about becoming 'out of touch' with educational trends and initiatives in their own country.

Schools are more likely to attract teachers if they can demonstrate that an international appointment won't be a black hole in their career but one in which they will benefit from true professional development opportunities.

There are further advantages to schools. Because professional development support is seen by teachers as a sign that they are valued, they are more likely to be content, work more effectively and stay longer (thus reducing the need for further recruitment). Schools will benefit from having teachers who are developing to their full potential.

Suggestion 6: Sell yourself

Before the quiet crisis, international schools had to do very little to attract teachers. Too often, schools still behave as if the applicants will come flocking for the opportunity of a job.

TIC's research shows that teachers get easily put off by poor treatment or lack of response when they contact a school. Some schools do little to make a good impression on potential candidates. They need to have a carefully planned process of recruitment that is able to deal professionally and promptly with applications.

Many teachers now use the internet to find out about schools. Schools without well presented websites will suffer. Too often, teachers know too little about the school, the location, the job and the terms and conditions. The consequence can be people not applying, dropping out before they've even been considered or arriving at the school to find things not as they expected and therefore leaving very soon - thus prompting another recruitment exercise.


The quiet crisis in international school recruitment is already upon us. There are too few people applying for an increasing number of jobs. The crisis is going to get worse. We need to act now or face an insurmountable problem that will affect the whole system.

Friedman TL (2006 - updated) The World is Flat. London: Penguin
Brummitt N (2007) "International schools: exponential growth and future implications". In International Schools Journal Vol XXVII No 1 November 2007. London: John Catt

Graham Reeves is Director of School Management with Fieldwork Education.
Andrew Wigford is Director Teachers' International Consultancy

Between them they have worked with dozens of international schools providing a wide range of services including training, consultancy, curriculum development and, of course, recruitment.

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