The business of education

by Alex Chan

Graham Ranger, education development director, The English Schools Foundation

International schools facing challenges and competition

Schools are not usually thought of as businesses but in one sense, that is exactly what they are. They must attract students, maintain tight control of budgets, constantly improve standards, and keep an eye on the competition. In recent months, the English Schools Foundation (ESF), the largest international school institution in Asia, has come under a fair amount of public scrutiny. It has been reminded once again that the government and parents expect the education sector to adopt a business-like approach in its daily operations.

A decade ago, the ESF had comparatively little competition. It had a long waiting list of students and many applicants keen to secure one of the coveted teaching positions, which came with generous salaries. Today, the competition on all fronts is getting tougher and is likely to intensify. "Apparently, there is one new international school opening in mainland China every three days," says Graham Ranger, ESF's education development director.

These developments have led to a review of practices and more efficient use of resources. "We want the highest quality teachers in the world, but we don't want to pay over the odds," adds Mr Ranger. "That would be wasteful of the government's and parents' money and not a good way to manage a commercial organisation."

Therefore, teachers' salaries are now benchmarked against the competition, and have been reduced twice in the past three years. The most recent was a 9.5 per cent cut. However, remuneration is still near the top of the scale when compared with teaching salaries around the world, and the resulting funds are being used to pay for additional school programmes, improved technology and expansion.

There has been no noticeable drop in teaching standards. "When salaries were really high we might have had 100 applicants for a position," says Mr Ranger. "Today, we may have thirty, but we still have a very high-quality group to choose from."

Recruitment season

The general ESF policy is to recruit each year in January and February. Successful candidates can expect to start in September, at the beginning of the next academic year. "Annually, our turnover is around nine to 10 per cent, so we are looking to fill about 100 teaching posts in Hong Kong during the next few weeks," Mr Ranger explains.

The basic requirements for teachers at international schools are fairly consistent. They must have a university degree and a postgraduate teaching qualification. Having a master's degree is an advantage, but is not regarded as essential, while fluency in English is assumed. "It is not enough that the candidate has teaching experience," notes Mr Ranger. "The nature of that experience, including where they have taught and the quality of the institution, is crucial."

He also stresses the importance of being able to provide confidential reference letters, as opposed to open testimonials. "Although they are significant, we place less emphasis on open references, simply because they are often more positive if they can be viewed by the candidate," he says.

ESF recruits from around the world and has panels in Sydney, London and Hong Kong to conduct interviews. They also set up video interviews for candidates in other locations. "With so many candidates from overseas, we rarely get the opportunity to observe the teacher in action," notes Mr Ranger. "However, candidates who apply locally may visit the school and interact with students and teachers, which gives us the chance to gauge their interpersonal skills before appointing them."

Interactive approach

In any teacher, the most desirable characteristic is that they want to help students learn more effectively. "Someone can be a great academic and highly qualified, but without an affinity for getting on with children, they are unlikely to get a job with us," Mr Ranger says. What makes this even more important is that international schools are well known for encouraging extremely interactive student-teacher relationships. Members of the teaching faculty are also expected to contribute to extracurricular activities after school hours and even at weekends and during holidays.

The large number of contact hours means that candidates must be good team players and ready to collaborate with colleagues. They should be decisive, inventive and willing to speak their mind, since the working environment is democratic by nature, allowing teachers to shape the direction of the school.

In the not too distant future, many international schools will be switching to the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma system in place of British A-levels. The ESF will introduce this in the 2007 school year. As even some local schools may follow suit, this will undoubtedly create substantial extra demand for teachers already familiar with the IB system.

Teacher's guide

  • Major recruitment campaign in January and February
  • University degree and postgraduate qualifications a must; master's degree a bonus
  • Teaching experience at a quality institution is essential
    Confidential references more valuable than open testimonials
  • High number of contact hours makes it vital to get on well with students
  • Teachers trained in the IB system will be in high demand in the coming years

Taken from Career Times 10 February 2006
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