In one of my recent articles, I touched on some of the pros and cons of employing expatriates as heads of international schools in Nigeria. In that discourse, I mentioned the myriad of problems facing many of them and I alluded to the fact that many, if not the majority, are not able or willing to see their contracts to the end. At the same time, it is fair to say that in the last 2 decades a sizeable group of Nigerians, with many years of experience in the educational sector, has emerged to take on the challenges of heading international schools in Nigeria.
This paper is an attempt to look at some of the issues arising from using Nigerians as heads of schools, especially those classified as being international. There is a supposition that the word international means “foreign”, possibly in every sense of the word. Some of the perceptual problems were identified in another article of mine (local versus foreign content) which laid bare some of the adopted biases some of which were historical whereas others were created by Nigerians themselves due to ethnic and other differences.
Nigerians now heading international schools are, in the majority of cases, well-seasoned teachers and administrators who have ‘cut their teeth’ on the job. Indeed, I have met many who have loyally served expatriates who had marginal experience on resumption of duties, and were themselves beneficiaries of this loyal and dedicated cadre. Anecdotes from some of these Nigerian heads, point to the many errors that were committed at the initial stages of the expatriate’s tenure due to a lack of appreciation of local and cultural factors. Many expatriates it seems got away with such errors due to the very forgiving nature of Nigerian parents who value their children’s education.
But the realities facing Nigerian heads are far from clear or transparent. One of the biggest problems facing such heads is full acceptance from the owners of such schools. It would be wrong to group all owners into one label but the sad truth is that based on my experience, it can be said that a sizeable proportion of owners see such heads as either ‘work-in-progress’ or a ‘temporary stop-gap’. The resultant outcome is that such heads become unsettled and are endlessly fire-fighting to hold their schools on a pre-determined course, if at all. The end result in such schools is that performance across the board is affected and the cycle of blame starts again.
Another huge problem facing Nigerian heads of international schools is acceptance by parents. One parent was blunt when she told me and I paraphrase here: “I see a Nigerian heading what is supposed to be an international school, and I know straight away that the owner is only looking for money”. This perception if widely held (I believe it is) then leaves little room for any progress or achievement in the school. So, in a way the perception of such parents then helps to perpetuate a situation where failure and rancour are the normal expectations. And the cycle continues which further reinforces the belief of such owners that long-term the solution is to look for an expatriate who will help to promote international standards and the perception thereof.
Can we expect any more favourable attitude from the teaching staff? In my experience, they hold the most biased misconceptions of Nigerians as heads and are the most resilient of the groups. On visiting some schools, I was shocked to hear from some staff that the "current head" had studied at an inferior university and seemingly occupying his/her current position as a result of the benevolence of the owner. Others are only too ready to look for faults and evidence of malpractice and other vices not in keeping with an international school. Yet, another nail in the coffin that is ready for the proverbial burial.
For this discourse I want to leave the students’ perception out because in the case of Nigeria, they are silent because their parents do the work of perpetuating the biases for them. In any case, in a country that expects deference for authority they would do well not to express their views, whatever they may be.
So what can be done to ameliorate the current impasse? In my experience some Nigerian heads do not so readily help themselves when they take up their posts. My advice to Nigerian friends who are heads of international schools is simple: the first 100 days will either make or break you. So these are some actions that can be taken immediately:
- First weapon in the armoury basket is to study current procedures and to urgently review whether they can be immediately improved or drastically changed. Let the decision be a collective one and where there appears to be procrastination simply use directives and edicts. Democracy cannot be imbibed in an environment of chaos. It can come later when the clock is working as planned.
- Engage your staff and let it be known that it is not going to be business as usual. Rather explain forcibly that the time has come for “accountability and responsibility”. In my view these are the biggest impediments to progress in any school regardless of its label. Without fear I can say that many are not prepared for consequences but would gladly throw stones when things are going wrong. But, let this be accompanied by clear lines of what the responsibilities are and the expectations of the school. This sets the agenda and helps also to ensure that colleagues do not resent duties because they view them as a trap. It has to be a win-win environment. In Nigeria the word empowerment does not sit well with either the owners or the heads themselves who see it as a dilution of their power. So it is about engagement and achieving set goals and targets rather than about semantics.
- Engage the owners in a future vision where returns on investment would be as expected if not more. Nigerian owners are the same as investors all over the world: how much would my return be? So, the head must get the owner to unlearn the term costs and relearn the word investment to borrow a phrase from Alvin Toffler the American writer. So many educationists assume that an investor will buy into a plan that they see as only full of costs rather than returns. Get it: let them know this is the only way that the school can grow and bring in more returns to bring about that early retirement.
- Let training be the order of the day. Training can start by adopting some good internal practices based on objective staff class observation(s). Then let such practices become part of the culture. But the trick in schools is to let colleagues see that the acquisition of skills and knowledge is for sharing and may in the long-term lead to promotion and recognition.
- Institute an effective parent’s forum where issues can be truly addressed and where solutions to problems can be found. A school must not abrogate itself the position of knowing all the answers and must never let parents think that. This is the most effective way of not only engaging parents but also of breaking down the many biases they already hold. No stakeholder will willingly destroy something in which they have a vested interest: the education of their children.
- This presupposes that the head is willing to unlearn old ways and relearn new things. The school environment is one of the fastest changing in Nigeria not least because of demand and supply and the changing nature of parents and students alike. The head must be ahead and must embody themselves with certain values important of which are: integrity, transparency and probity. These values would indeed shape all the other factors that I have alluded to above and that would help set the foundation of change and progress.
There are other things such heads can do long term no doubt, but the ones listed here are arguably ones that expatriates, as heads, utilise to help engender an international feeling and to also promote a sense that the school is ever moving forward and upward. In a world where new ideas are far and few between, I do not resent the adage: imitation is the best form of flattery. In the process of flattery, I genuinely believe that Nigerians will evolve a system that can beat the master at his own game. I am humbled when I meet Nigerian friends who know so much about their educational system. In a global village, it is about both adoption and adapting of ideas and practices to suit the local environment.
To conclude, Nigerians as heads of international schools face many misconceptions about their suitability from many parties including owners and parents. This, despite the weighty evidence, that in many cases Nigerians are not only more experienced than their expatriate counterparts but also more suitable for the environment. Rather than bemoan the misconceptions, what is needed is to take a number of actions that will help to foster a sense of fairness and equity in such schools. Overall, the suggested actions are geared to help reinforce key values important of which are integrity, transparency and probity which in combination will help to strengthen the view that the school is operated on acceptable principles and that they in keeping with international standards of the 21st Century.
Dr G Fahad
Dr. Fahad is the Dean of School of Foundation Studies at University of Africa.
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Dr. Fahad's observations are very correct; I must say the idea of internationalisation of schools must first be reflected in the curriculum, the very act and art of teaching and learning, rather than the cosmetic change reflecting through school uniforms and all what nots...
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Dr Fahad speaks a lot of good sense, as one would expect. As an ex-pat (though Director of Learning at an International School - and a teacher- NOT a Principal!) I would just add that the ternm "International" applies not to the intake of international students but the opportunity to take nternational exams from UK/US etc. examination boards. There is some logic in parents seeing an ex-pat Principal/Head as someone who can add credibility to their delivery... Heads from the Western countries are seen as a strong marketing aid and at the same time our Nigerian elite seem to school thier own children abroad! Having an ex-pat head may be seen as the next best thing for those of us who could not afford that luxury. Nigerian Degrees are often thought of as of lesser value (rightly or wrongly- but perceptions count in the market place!) A degree from a lesser Western Uni is therefore valued more highly than a home grown one.
The ideal situation would be that ex-pat employees are expected to train-up a Nigerian to take over from them within a set time scale - a policy which seems to exist but is not followed... Maybe there is a prevalent lack of respect for all things Nigerian based on the general problems associated with poor governance and embedded corruption. Customers may be suspicious of home grown products generally preferring genuine "foreign" imports to sub-standard or fake alternatives which is possibly people's experience. To single out the "Education Market" is to ignore the trends prevalent across the whole economy. National self-confidence is probably the issue. I personally long for the time when perceptions are realigned and confidence returns.