Adventures happen to all of us at all ages – and that's how I came to be packing an inordinate number of suitcases ready for a flight to Kazakhstan. With the children heading to university, and the call for excellent UK staff abroad becoming louder, it was time to take a leap.
I had led two schools from failed to 'outstanding' inspections in Cambridge and Canterbury, and was enjoying an incredibly rewarding job. Then I got a message that Haileybury in Astana was looking for a new head. The school was five years old; it had about 500 students and was just introducing a 6th form and the International Baccalaureate (IB). It is part of the Haileybury family, which has been involved in progressive educational ideas since the 19th century.
I had visited Kazakhstan many times, and knew it had a powerful attraction. The country is in its comparatively early stages of development so it grapples with issues we have not thought about for a long time in the UK – setting up structures from tax to foreign relations, and finding its place in the post-communist world. It’s exciting to be heading there at such a key moment, and it’s a rare opportunity to help develop the Kazakh leaders of tomorrow.
From a lifestyle perspective, it also works really well. It lacks the humidity of the Far East and, although it has great summers, it’s also a land of snow and cold over a long winter. With a six-hour direct flight from Heathrow that is almost daily, if anything happens at home, you can always be back in the UK in well under 24 hours. It is easy for visitors too as you do not need a visa for a short trip. An interesting quirk is that you can only bring your partner into the country with you if you are married. As I am staying here longer term, I need a proper visa and had to provide all manner of interesting documents from marriage certificates to vaccinations records. Otherwise visa issues are minimal and the school had a full-time lawyer to deal with all the regulations for me.
The interview process was rigorous but interesting. I met staff and governors at Haileybury UK, as well as visiting the school in Astana with my wife so that we both had a very clear idea about what it was like. In Astana we met a full range of UK staff and found that teachers face many of the same challenges and issues we find in the UK – with a few extra, such as settling your family into a new country and language barriers, thrown in.
So after interviews and phone calls, discussions and visits to Astana, my wife Jackie and I felt it was time to move on. It’s surprising just how peaceful and relaxed you can be after making such a life-changing decision. But I can honestly say I’ve never looked back. Children and young people are the same the world over, and so many international students have a real thirst for knowledge and a desire to succeed it can be a privilege to teach them.
I guess it helps to be moving to a school with a great reputation and belief in developing the whole child. It also helps that the old stories about how once you go abroad it’s hard to get back to the UK are becoming less true. At Haileybury Astana we will be running a top rate IB school with excellent facilities and taking account of educational excellence from all over the world. It is my aim that staff who come to the school will leave with an enhanced CV and experience of the latest practice. There is a whole international community out there with dedication and enthusiasm; staff can move readily between international schools as well as back to the UK.
So now term is under way and everyone is settling in. Jackie will join me once we have settled our two children into university in Canada and the UK. In August I went to Haileybury UK to meet the new teaching staff – who almost all come from either the UK or British schools overseas – to help orientate them at the mother school. Now we're all in Astana with our programme of support in full swing – from visiting local supermarkets together to charity cycle rides.
New staff clearly have some worries about leaving behind family and friends – and Jackie and I are no exception. But the adventure and helping students overseas overrides many concerns. I am sure I will be frustrated by not having everything I am used to readily available and will have to adapt to new ideas and ways of working. But isn't that exactly what all teachers do wherever we are? Education is a fast-moving and changeable world; all teachers are amazing at adapting to new ideas and initiatives –this is just taking it to a slightly different level. Time will tell whether I am right or wrong, but it will certainly be fun finding out.