What are the challenges of leading an international school?

What are the challenges of being an international head?

The focus for our professional inquiry is to explore the differences between leading an international school as opposed to a national school.

What particular challenges do leaders of international schools face?

What issues should leaders applying for an international leadership position bear in mind?


The Art of International School Headship (RSAcademics 2016) is a piece of market research based on the views of over a 100 leaders of international schools in Asia and the Gulf region. It is an attempt to understand the particular challenges faced by those leading an international school and the leadership qualities needed for success.

The report includes numerous quotes from international school leaders sharing their insights and anecdotes under three main sections:

1. The diversity of schools and the importance of finding a good fit of a leader to a particular school context. The report breaks down aspects of fit to assist potential candidates and school boards in undertaking the necessary due diligence at the appointment stage.

2. The particular and additional challenges of leading an international school. These are described under seven headings: Parents, Students, Staff, Governance, External Environment, School Community, and Personal Issues.

3. The leadership qualities that seem to be particularly relevant in an international context. They are discussed in terms of:

  • Actions and approaches: the strategies adopted by the best Heads, the priorities they focus on and approaches that seem to work best.
  • Skills and strengths: learned abilities and natural inclinations, and the types of intelligence that enhance these skills.
  • Beliefs and values: the likely core perceptions, attitudes and outlook of successful Heads; hypotheses around the type of person that often succeeds.

Activity 1:The challenges of leading an international school

Explore pages 9-43 of The Art of International School Headship (2016) below.

  • How diverse is your school community?
  • To what extent does the diversity of school context pose a challenge to creating a unified vision?
  • Collate in a list the various challenges you may face when leading an international school. Which are the most obvious from within your context?

The Art of International School Headship is posted with the kind permission of Russell Spiers, Founder and CEO of RSAcademics, http://www.rsacademics.co.uk/

Activity 2: Learning from others - what resonates?

Quotes that speak to me

  • Print out each of the following quotes and make a Wall of Quotes. Each quote is the voice of a Headteacher in an International School speaking about the challenges of headship.
  • Individually read each one and then choose the THREE which most speak to you.
  • Table groups - each person picks a relevant quote. Tell the “story” and the significance of the quote to the rest of the group and explain how it exemplifies current and future practice.
  • Have a group discussion around the quotes. Which themes come out of your choices?

 “The greatest gap in my knowledge as a new Head was the 'international parent' and how best to support / challenge / liaise and engage with them. They are a different breed!”

“Parents in international schools rely on the school for their own personal needs and interactions and can be 'over-involved' “

“International communities are easily subject to bouts of paranoia. This is especially true if there are bored 'trailing spouses', who have left highly paid jobs to follow their partners to a new location overseas. If the working partner then has to travel, the potential for paranoia increases. Add in a coffee shop on school premises and you create a perfect storm for school-focused anxiety and gossip to flourish. In the face of this, the Principal needs to be very resilient, especially if they lack support from their Board! Board members may even attend the same coffee shop...”

“There are also the expectations of parents who are often paying consumers of education for the first time. They sometimes feel that by paying for education they deserve an unattainable level of attention, or even results.”

Parent expectations often reflect the way teaching is done in their home country and not liberal western methodologies. It is difficult to get parents to accept the differences - especially the use of textbooks and other resources and rote learning v skills-based learning.

Typically Asian parents are highly committed to good grades, strong content knowledge and while they appreciate it, may assign less value to critical thinking and reflection.

 “Working with a predominately non-English speaking parent community increases the difficulty with both written and oral communication. From school newsletters to homework sheets, is not just the translation task but rather the interpretation of meaning that can be problematic.”

 “Parental expectations, as well as how they interact with staff (local and international), can vary immensely and it can take a while to understand this when a high percentage of the parents represent one culture that you are less familiar with.  An international Head needs to understand this culture as quickly as possible as it is very easy to mishandle a situation and have it spiral out of control, and often having absolutely no idea that it has even happened.  It can be extremely difficult to get to the heart of an issue if the individual/group of parents are not accustomed to giving honest feedback even when asked directly.”

 “In many Asian countries, there is one mother in the form who is more influential than others, possibly due to wealth, connections or family. All the other mothers will defer to this "Alpha Mum", and so it is very important if you are trying to reach an agreement that the alpha mum is included. Otherwise you will be wasting your time.”

 “New teachers can often feel intimidated by some vocal parents before they realize that often it is a cultural difference or a mismatch in expectations NOT a personal complaint.”

“Students are incredibly resilient and are more likely to adapt to a changing environment than their parents, but the impact of moving country/school every few years does have an impact on them as they find ways to cope.  It can be very isolating to move to a school in which there is a dominance of one culture (often the host country), especially when this includes another language that is not representative of the language of instruction.  Students can become very isolated and excluded and the school needs to be aware of this and take the necessary action to try to create an inclusive environment.”

Differences in curriculum make transitions between schools a challenge. This is most obvious when moving to a location which has limited curriculum choices, but even where children are moving to a school with the same IB or national curriculum there may be local differences, e.g. a legal requirement in UAE to take Islamic Studies, the need to study Thai Language and Culture in Thailand.

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

 “We have a greater responsibility to employees as their whole life (accommodation, family etc.) are invested in their post.”

 “The challenges of staff turnover (25% across the sector) should never be underestimated.”

 “There are no local people to call on, no supply teachers, so if you don’t replace leavers you are in difficulties.”

 “Building respect and commitment through generating a sense of belonging to a shared set of ideals and mixing this with a school culture that recognizes and acknowledges contribution - these are key aspects of staff retention. Recruiting essentially builds on what you are already doing to retain existing staff. In a world of online reviews and other social media, there are few secrets...”

“Schools will increasingly need to make enhanced continuing professional development part of their remit and benefits packages as teachers come to realize their value as global commodities.”

“As with parents and students, schools may have dozens of different nationalities and cultures among the staff. This means that any aspect of leadership and management, whether it is giving feedback at appraisal, running a staff meeting, delegating, or communicating a change, is going to have the potential for additional complexity as language, culture and background impact upon the situation.”

 “One of the main challenges is to bring about a sense of common purpose from the diversities within the staff.”

“The Head needs to be prepared to work with staff who come from very different teaching environments, and may adopt methodologies and pedagogies which are poles apart from the Head’s own.”

 “The challenges of a diverse workforce are apparent in the difficulties we have of getting beyond friendly 'congeniality' to real 'collegiality' and a context of high challenge and high support. With colleagues who value one another as friends inside and outside the classroom, and who also accept that 'different perspectives are valid' (both GOOD things) it can sometimes be hard to have that level of professional challenge appropriate to high performing teams. Creating the context for this is the most important part of the role of the leader since this is the groundwork for developing organisational capacity for self-sustaining school improvement. Good models of appraisal, Professional Learning Communities, collaborative planning and reflection, etc. all support this work.”

Governance is often described as the biggest challenge for Heads of international schools. It’s seen as the number one reason that Heads leave earlier than anticipated and, in the view of current Heads, seems to be biggest issue facing international schools, with the vast majority of respondents reporting varying degrees of dysfunction.

“I believe there is a crisis of mismanagement in international schools.”

 “The first Board Chair you work with hires you, the second tolerates you, and the third fires you.”

“The big issue, in my view, is Governance.  The quality of this varies enormously.  With some notable exceptions, it is generally not good.  The challenges come equally in some of those (80%) schools owned for profit, and in others dominated by parental governance structures.  Boards too often lack clear structure, or fail to develop it as they grow and change; some lack clear procedures and records; some even lack any clear written rules or articles.”  

“In addition to these common issues, there are dysfunctions that are particularly associated with certain types of Boards – e.g. Parent Boards with high turnover of members, or Proprietor Boards run by non-educationalists with unrealistic expectations.”

“Cultural dissonance: The Head’s interaction with the Board is therefore the key interface between these cultures with all the potential misunderstandings and conflicts.”

 “Before I started, I wish I had known more about how to work with local Board members - this has taken a long time and caused loads of issues at first. I am now better able to understand their perspectives and have learned how to "better manage" my Board.”

“A growing number of new international schools, particularly in Asia, are propriety schools.  Learning to work with school owners, especially within another culture, can be really complex.”

“Lack of delegated authority: The boundary between Executive Board responsibilities and the Head’s management of the school is a common cause for concern amongst Heads.”

 “Defining the boundaries between the role of governance and school leadership needs to be a priority and discussed openly and frankly. Having a clear understanding of what is strategic planning and decision-making for governance and what are day to day operational matters for school leadership to deal with is essential.”

 “It’s a juggling act working for non-educationalists.”

“In proprietary schools governance can be a challenge - especially if the business office is not always answerable to the Head. With family-owned schools, the family is supportive and proud of the heritage of the school but at times they will want to do things their preferred way.”

“International schools are generally owned by investors (with or without a board of governors) which often leads to conflict regarding the Head's lines of authority.”

 “I think the Principal sits between the political world outside the school and the professional world of the school.   I have been a Head for 20 years and the professional world is fairly predictable.   Holding people to account, student exclusions, curriculum change etc. are always difficult but there is usually precedent and there is always a way through.   The political world is unpredictable and much more difficult to manage.   It remains the hardest part of my job.”

 “We faced an issue last year when a British boy collided with an Iranian boy whilst running around at break-time. The Iranian lost half a tooth in the collision and wished to try the British boy under Sharia Law and have his toothed knocked out in retaliation or at least have blood money paid to compensate for the shame. It took weeks of painful and diplomatic negotiation between both sides to have the Iranian climb down and for the British family to acknowledge that it would be prudent for them to pay some kind of compensation. An environment where you have several judicial systems acting in tandem and the plaintiff is able to choose whichever system they prefer adds an additional dimension to life in international schools.”

“Staff are the vital aspect of a Head's work. Primarily one needs a fantastic HR department to help guide staff through the maze of regulations.”

 “A Head in Dubai must keep up to date with the school inspection process. It happens every year and constantly changes. The pressure of annual inspections leaves little room for genuine long term development.”

“Arabic, UAE Social Studies and Islamic Studies are core subjects on a par with English, Maths and Science. This has required considerable investment of time, money and resources into subject areas which are not our speciality.”

“Trying to run a competitive English Curriculum/IGCSE/IB school when 20% of timetable time must be ring-fenced for Arabic and Islamic studies. The need for much gentle and careful diplomacy to overcome the problems of celebrating other than non-Islamic festivals.”

“The current challenge is the implementation of the Bilingual Programme which is unsupported by the Ministry of Education.”

 “Be prepared to take plenty of deep breaths! The Head can find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to local government, laws and regulations.  Often times nothing seems to make sense and you can feel like the most ignorant person in the room.  Showing your frustration can make things even worse.  Find someone you can trust, and whom can be relied upon to translate when necessary and give you honest direction in the more tricky, or culturally sensitive, moments.”

There are huge cultural differences in a country where no doesn't mean no - it is negotiable and everyone has a price. This country is in a constant state of civil disobedience - just observe the driving!

 “The biggest challenge right now is managing our ambitious growth plans - from 300 students in the opening year last year, to 650 this year, to 950 next year and so on to capacity of just under 2000.”

 “Schools run on traditions and norms - accepted and known ways of doing things. In some domestic schools these may date back decades or longer. Imagine starting with a blank slate and having to decide on every minute aspect of the school, whether it’s uniform details or use of lockers as well as of course the bigger issues of curriculum design and buildings.  It’s hugely complex and a completely different challenge to just running a school.”

“For schools with a high proportion of expat teachers and parents, constant change among the school community may be the norm. This could mean say, 20-25% of students, teaching staff and parent governors leaving (and being replaced) every year – not including any planned growth at a school. It’s worth considering how different this is to a domestic school setting and the practical impact it has on admissions, records, recruitment, HR, induction, accounting, planning – and that’s before you have considered other organizational aspects such as team building and communications.”

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

“Leading any organisation is often an isolated situation – “it’s lonely at the top”. On the professional side, however, in many international environments there may be far fewer possible resources to draw on when faced with a crisis or particularly tricky issue. It’s often less clear how to handle a formal sensitive matter, and if or how to involve the authorities. Procedures may be less developed, if at all.”

 “The one thing I had wish I had known before I started was how and where to reach out for support.”

 “Dealing with issues such as child protection and other serious social, emotional and behavioral aspects of children's education can be challenging as the resources that would be available in national systems may not be accessible in the host country. Schools need to be more self-reliant in these areas and deal with issues with sensitivity and care depending on the host country culture and expectations.”

“Systems are internally generated - there is none of the process-driven fall-backs available to someone with national guidelines/support systems to fall back on.” 

 “The Head is looked after and time tabled, but the family has a much harder job to cope and survive.”

“Living abroad has its challenges. Several of our turn-over situations were due to personal family issues outside the control of the school that pulled a Head back to a home country.”

“Spouses may find themselves alone and in a new culture. Do they make the most of it? If not it could put real strains on a marriage.

The Art of International Headship, RSAcademics, http://www.rsacademics.co.uk/. Printed by kind permission of Russell Spiers, Managing Director.


    • What is it about leading an international school that is particularly challenging?
    • What is it about parents in an international school setting that is particularly challenging?

    • Which of the challenges related to governance described here might apply most at your school?

    • Which of the leadership challenges identified in this report do you encounter most often? Which take up most of your time?

    • Which of these challenges are you most able and least able to manage?  What would need to happen to address these better?

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