An International Head’s Perspective on Recruitment and Retention in the UK

by Rob Ford.

Summer Reflections

This summer marked four years since I took the very difficult decision to leave the English state system and move fully to the international sector and take up my current post in Moldova as CEO and Director of Heritage International Schools.  I remember very clearly the conversations I had just before I left my headship at the brilliant Wyedean School to take a leap into the unknown and move overseas. I remember a lot of the comments, some supportive, but most exclaiming astonishment at the move, and a few even prophesying “career self-destruct”. 

During four years in Moldova, I have felt re-energised and re-engaged with my core purpose of being in education thanks to the privilege of leading and working with the brilliant school community of Heritage, being supported and trusted by my board, working in a national and international education community. These comments from UK-based colleagues are very different now. Nearly all recognise and understand why I didn’t stay in the UK at this point in time as a school leader.  In Moldova, I feel I am allowed to lead and my teachers are allowed to teach. 

Back at home in Bristol this summer, I reflected on the reasons why I didn’t stay in England and “tough it out as a Head”. How relevant are the factors for my decision to go into the international sector as issues in education? Across the UK, things seem to have gotten worse.  

The View from Abroad

The view from an international perspective is not schadenfreude at our hard-working colleagues whom most UK teachers working internationally I know, as I do, keep close ties, networks and collaborations with, as a wider UK-International professional education community. It is more one of futility and sadness that the once world-class education system the globe looked to in England is now at risk of being broken irreparably because teachers want to leave, potential leaders do not want to take on the stresses of school leadership and newcomers do not want to join the profession. 

The two main political parties who will continue one way or another, to be responsible for England’s education policy for the rest of the decade are fairly in tandem in their approach on pay, curriculum, student behaviour, school buildings, academies, accountability, funding, MAT structure and influence and approaches to teacher retention and recruitment.  Labour’s July education announcement echoed the need for wider social mobility and offered some new trinkets such as a focus on “oracy lessons” but putting removal of VAT exemptions from private schools to so-called fund the retention bonus after 2 years of service of 2400 GBP isn’t going to get anywhere in solving the core issues that recent surveys have identified for policymakers to address. 

The Evidence-Based Challenges for Education

Two irrefutable and respected sources of data to back this assessment can be found in the DfE’s annual workforce survey and the Gatsby-funded Teacher Tapp/SchoolDash report on recruitment and retention. The view from abroad is one of shock just looking at the headlines of key structural concerns such as 60% of teachers wanting to leave in 5 years. That 9% of the workforce, 40000 teachers left in 2022 with only 4000 retiring. Teachers want to be able to teach in their classrooms but this is sometimes the very last thing they can do. I am with former Kellett Head, Mark Steed as an advocate of UK teachers having an international experience as part of their CPD, but something unlikely to be taken up by schools. Key subjects cannot find new teacher trainees and those that do train soon leave. We are watching the decimation of the teaching workforce in England over the rest of the 2020s and it is incomprehensible and a national act of grave folly. 

High Pressure and High Stakes Accountability That Put Future Teachers and Leaders Off

Headteacher vacancies stand at 13% and the next generation of school leaders simply don’t want to take on the pressures of a role where a high-stakes accountability inspection system seems to be politicised and so out of tandem with the profession and actual school improvement.  The damage of a one-word judgement can be detrimental to the hard work and challenges of each school community and its context and hard-working individual school leader.  Neither main political party is willing to take on this outdated shibboleth. Yet, still, school leaders are also expected to pick up the broken social services role as well as lead a school and somehow make this work. 

The UK Should Look Outward and See What the World is Doing for Teachers and School Leaders

The view from international schools I work with regularly in networks such as COBISGlobal Schools Alliance, and Varkey Foundation/GSL, is often utter amazement that the English state system and policymakers do not look outward at successful public/state systems of education in countries like Finland or Estonia.  Where education success is about a decent level of pay but also reflecting the standards, conditions, status and respect the profession of education deserves. What educators are entitled to as a career path as well as what this investment means now and for the future by ensuring our teachers, TAs, support staff, school leaders and school communities are supported fully as a key public sector and a key public good as they plan for in Ontario, for example.  

When will the UK look at schemes to support teachers in the middle time of their careers with sabbatical programmes such as the one in Australia where teachers get 1.5 months of long service leave every 5 years? When will outdated industry management top-down accountability approaches be banished from education as well as meaningless nonsense such as “deep dives” and leaders be trusted and allowed to lead?  

Respect the Profession as We Need New Teachers

The way the education profession is trashed by politicians, the media, and policymakers, in the UK at times, also looks so unedifying from an international perspective where education in so many countries is seen as the panacea for children, their life chances and the future prosperity of society.  The August exam results, with marking and grades back to 2019, pre-pandemic levels, appear to be a further kick in the teeth for children of the Covid generation and even the government’s accepted pay award by the unions this summer still leaves the question unanswered as to whether schools will have to fund half of it. 

My 21-year-old niece, a brilliant student, and a good person, who has an impressive academic record, messaged me this summer to ask for my advice on applying to go into teaching as she prepares to graduate from university in the UK this year.  I didn’t have to think twice. My advice was to go for it because we need exactly these kinds of young people coming into our profession in the UK so there are people to pass the baton onto from my generation in the next decade or so. 

I think Monbiot’s idea that AI will replace all teachers may interest the Arthur C Clarke fringe but doesn’t help the debate here when we need to look at industry’s long-established approaches and schemes such as flexi-time working, career breaks, bonus pay, realising lessons of covid that the classroom isn’t just bricks and mortar.  Many international schools, such as Kai Vacher’s schools in Muscat, have teachers teaching shortage subjects online from a different country and a solution has been found to work. 

Working Together and Keeping Focussed on the Best of Our Profession

As I was inspired by my teachers to go into education, we need to continue to focus on what we can all do to improve the profession, involve our communities, engage with policymakers and look after and support one another in our schools. We speak about and show the power of education every day in our professional lives.  

We need not lose sight of this and continue to believe and hope that those with a stake in its future can change what needs to happen to education in the English state system. We need a vibrant education sector in the UK not just for the UK but as a global example to follow. We are interconnected as a wider education community. With a UK election and a possible change of government only a year away, now is the time to put as central this debate for the education system we want to see.


Heritage International School is the first international school in Moldova based on global learning principles and is the only Cambridge International Assessment curriculum school in Moldova and follows the IPC for primary. It serves students from 6-19, co-ed on a newly built World Class campus. It has been awarded Etwinning School status for its extensive work and partnerships across Europe and has been recognised by the British Council with its International School Award for the innovative and extensive curriculum, CPD and networks they are involved in connecting classrooms and cultures. Heritage went through COBIS compliance accreditation in 2021 where the assessors were extremely impressed at the model of international education established in Moldova and Eastern Europe.  Heritage is a member of the COBIS Black Sea Schools Network and the Global Schools Alliance. Heritage was shortlisted as a finalist for the PIE Awards 2022, for the category of Secondary Learning International Impact, and for this year’s ISC Awards for their work on “Sustainability”. 

About me:

Rob was previously Principal of Wyedean School, Gloucestershire, UK where he led a school nationally and internationally known for its innovative holistic curriculum and developed model of global learning. Rob was co-founder of the IB schools network in the SW of England. A senior leader in leading schools in Wales and England, in 2021, Rob was given a “Global Principal” award from AKS. As a long-serving British Council Ambassador, advisor and keynote speaker at many international conferences for the British Council and other similar organisations, he has worked with and advised schools and school boards around the World. Rob is a regular writer for both the TES and International Schools Magazine/ISMP and is an international school leader for the Varkey/UNESCO/TTF2030 Global Leaders Network. 

Rob Ford is the CEO and Director of Heritage International Schools, Chisinau, Moldova

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5 thoughts on “<strong>An International Head’s Perspective on Recruitment and Retention in the UK</strong>”

  1. Thanks to Rob for sharing his open and honest thoughts about retention in the UK. Certainly, this cannot continue and is unsustainable. Could there be an increasing role for international education in the UK?

    1. Thanks Andre for the opportunity to share my thoughts here. I do believe that closer collaboration between the U.K. and those from the U.K. abroad in international education is one aspect of a new strategy here. Especially around CPD and looking outward for workable solutions in education systems in other countries and systems.

  2. Very pertinent analysis! I really enjoyed it, and I got a lot out of it. The teachers retention is a wildly important factor for international schools to be successful. In the end, Rob also provided practical suggestions that would benefit all the leaders, and educators who are facing the same pressure. Thank you Rob for your sharing!

  3. I was a Head in the UK state sector for ten years before being appointed to an international school. I worked for 20 years in some of the UK’s most challenging schools and in such posts you really do learn the skills and qualities of leadership through and through. This article is correct in describing the insanely ( and in my view unnecessarily ) high levels of stress in many UK schools. But despite all of this there are inspirational stories of success from these schools, for example in London where I worked, a generation of similarly minded school leaders worked co-operatively and tirelessly to raise achievement amongst traditionally disadvantaged communities. I wonder if you agree with me that it would be a great idea to collect together ‘lessons learned’ by international headteachers around the world and try to find a way to present them back to the UK Department for Education?

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