Gráinne, what should I do? #8


Leading Your International School today shares our weekly Q&A for international school leaders and teachers. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Sean’s question. 

Sean: What essential skills and competencies do an aspirational international school leader need to develop before taking up her / his first international headship?

Gráinne:Dear Sean,

This is a great question- thank you for asking it in this space. I find that I am quite often asked questions about this topic of preparedness, particularly in the arena of international Headships rather than Headships in one’s home country.

International Headship is not something to be taken lightly and very often, even seasoned, experienced Heads find the complexity, loneliness and sheer weight of expectation in international leadership daunting.

In general, there are two types of aspiring international Head. One who has Headship experience, but in one’s own country- wishing to move into the international world- and secondly, an education professional who has worked through the ranks in the international system and reached the stage of wishing to apply for Headship. For both of these types of applicant, I would say that knowledge and experience are key in a number of areas, the first three of which are:

•Curriculum and Teaching.

A deep understanding of the ‘stuff’ that teachers undertake every single day MUST be at the heart of your expertise and must be totally at your fingertips. A really good Head should be able to roll her or his sleeves up and go into any classroom, recognising, supporting and critiquing best practices whilst also drawing out strands of poor practice knowing how to coach, support, mentor and train those teachers to ensure improved practice and quality control. In addition, that Head should also be able to TEACH effectively, professionally and immediately, when needed. I cannot pretend to teach all of the IGCSE or A Level subjects as well as their specialists might, but if I am called upon to teach, to support or to evaluate I can do it instantly, because I understand the acquisition of knowledge, of how pupils respond to learning and evidence-informed practices (for example in spacing and retrieval practice), the wide range of teaching styles and their effects, plus, how pupils respond depending on their age, their interests, their needs and their abilities- at every stage of education within my school.

•Leadership and Management of People.

Your team is your greatest asset. Full stop! A great team is the bedrock of a great school and that team must include everyone. This is particularly important in international schools where so often one finds staff who are divided along cultural or national lines- where international staff are listened to and afforded so much more voice and visibility than local staff. Another division, not just in international schools, but across education is between teaching staff and ‘non-teaching’ staff. Before one even finds out what a person’s role is,  that staff member is already in a ‘non’ position- negated and disrespected. Administrative staff must be at the centre of all that happens in a school or else ultimately, the pupils will not fully benefit. When every department understands the raison d’étre for the school as a whole and works together in a no-blame, cooperative spirit, pupils thrive.

•Parental Relationships and Customer Service.

International schools are private schools. Whether they are owned by a company, a family, a charity, a non-profit group or an individual, they must be self-sufficient and they must make enough money to not only support themselves, but grow and develop. Parents and families are our customers ( no matter how much we may dislike that word!) and Heads must have a clear understanding of what customer service is, how one develops a service-orientated school without pandering to individuals and what it is, exactly, that parents are asking for. Every family is different and even within one family there are differences- imagine that multiplied by two hundred, five hundred or a thousand families! Are you clear about what you know to be non-negotiable and what you can move on? Do you know how to make parents feel that they have been heard and respected even if you do not agree? Are you clear about what you will not accept on behalf of your school and your staff?

In addition to these three, there are many, many more of course- School Development Plans, Behaviour Models, Safeguarding and Child Protection – practice and policy, finance, budgeting, employment law, Health & Safety, SOP’s, Policy creation, local ordinances and permissions, branding, marketing, licensing, purchasing, use of premises, accreditations, sustainability… I know I’ve left many out, but an overall knowledge of these is of great importance.

A Head does not need to know everything about each of these; naturally, one does have support, but as a Head one has to be able to at least ask the right questions even if one doesn’t know all the answers.

For a Head who is new to the international world, but experienced in Headship itself, one of the greatest challenges is in un-learning some or maybe much of one’s practice and many of one’s expectations. That answer alone would be the length of a book! What I would say here, is to be patient, be humble and be aware that you will be faced with many known unknowns- and more importantly- many unknown unknowns. Learn everything you can from everyone you can- especially about the national and local expectations, traditions, culture, beliefs and family structure. Your first year will be a roller-coaster, but if you can survive your first year in international Headship after many years of Headship in your own country- you can survive anything. And, I believe, you will love it!

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to: 

If you are considering becoming an International School Principal, then why not sign up for our course in January – ‘Becoming an International School Principal’.

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