Monday 7 August 2023

Advice to new owners

Digging a hole, 2022.

Dear Owner, 

Congratulations! You have decided to invest in a school. In order to have amassed enough capital to allow you to do so you deserve a considerable amount of respect. As a lifelong teacher, with no great wealth to my name, I am in awe of people like you. Through enterprise and hard work, you have added so much value to the world. And now you are set to start a school - what a wonderful gift to give to future generations.

The chances are that this line of business will be new to you and so I offer a little advice in the hope that you won't make the mistakes that I have seen others make in the past when starting up from scratch:

  1. Please don't underestimate the task. Everyone went to school, and most people, therefore, think they understand education. There is a world of difference though between having been to school/university yourself - and perhaps read a few books about education along the way - and actually running a school. Education is full of snake oil salesmen, myths and blind alleys. Choose your advisors carefully and focus rigorously on what can be proved to work, not what sounds good or looks good on a marketing brochure. Although it doesn't sell well the truth is that to do well in school, as in life, you have to work hard. There are no easy/quick fixes and you can't buy success.
  2. Make sure you have a big war chest - starting up is going to be painful and cost you a lot of money. If you can be profitable within the first five years you will be doing well. Most of the easy pickings are now gone - the days of opening a school somewhere and filling it with 1000 pupils on day one are largely consigned to the history books. Expect some parents to be slow payers/no payers and have a watertight procedure on how to deal with this
  3. Pace yourself. You need at least two years from the moment you put up the website to the moment you welcome your first pupils. Sure, people will tell you it can be done faster than this, but they're likely blinded by excitement and over-optimism. 
  4. You need to focus on working on your business whilst others work in your business. This is an absolutely crucial distinction. There will be too much for you to do alone - you need to trust people and let them get on with their jobs. By all means, have regular meetings with them to hold them to account. But so long as you have appointed the right people you should otherwise let them alone to run your school for you.
  5. The success or failure of your school will depend on the recruitment of pupils. This is why it is vital to appoint a knowledgeable Director of Admissions right from the very start and give him or her the budget and autonomy to begin recruiting. Together with the Head, they will start to populate your school and secure enrollments. Do not try to do this yourself and do not make the mistake of relying solely on (expensive) online advertising. When people are looking for a school for their children they need to speak to real people. Remember two years...
  6. Do not over-egg the pudding. Promising parents rugby when you have no pitches, or ice-skating when you have no ice rink is dishonest. There is a certain type of family who are attracted to the pioneering spirit of joining a new school - these people are your core market. If you need to pull the wool over people's eyes in order to get them to sign up you're storing up problems for yourself.
  7. Start small and plan to grow in a sequential way (c.f. points about finance). If you try to open up to all year groups at once your small cohort of start-up staff will find themselves overstretched and/or you won't be able to afford to offer a reasonable diet of subjects in an economic way. Post-16 education is particularly expensive and difficult to run from a standing start with small numbers of pupils. If you're not sure why, educate yourself. 
  8. When you start you will likely lack (for understandable economic reasons) many of the facilities and staff that more established schools enjoy. You may not have a special needs department, you may lack a counsellor, a nurse, sports staff or music teachers. In light of this, you are not going to be in a position to offer a proper education to those with acute special needs, nor uncommon sporting or musical talent etc. Be honest about this and listen to the professionals you have appointed when deciding what can or cannot be done. If you have appointed the right sort they will be willing and able to come up with creative solutions to accommodate those with such needs. However, here's the thing: for every special case there is an opportunity cost. Listen to what you're being told to avoid breaking the camel's back.
  9. Expect problems. Staff will leave, pupils will leave, and parents will get angry. If you are running a secondary school you'll need to be prepared to expel some pupils - startups attract pupils and parents who are refugees from more established schools and bring with them a lot of 'baggage'. If you cling onto these types too tightly for fear of losing revenue it will backfire. All this will happen even if your school is supremely well run from the outset. Build trust with those staff/parents/pupils who stay the course. Nothing will undermine the atmosphere more in your school if you treat your loyal stakeholders as disposable pawns on your school chessboard. You need people in your corner for when the next sticky situation comes around. Be kind.
  10. Aside from the initial capital costs (which may be minimal if you find a suitable building to rent) your biggest outgoings are going to be staff pay in the first instance. To attract good teachers you need to pay competitively, but don't worry too much about this aspect; most teachers are not particularly money-orientated and are happy to work for a fair wage in a school where they feel they can make a difference. 
  11. Once you've settled on a fair rate of pay do exactly what you said you were going to do. Moving the goalposts after appointment will immediately undermine trust at a time when you need it most. Teachers do not need to be highly paid but they do expect to be paid regularly and paid fairly. It is also industry standard to pay teachers an annual salary divided into 12 equal increments. Note that this involves paying them in the summer holidays - even if they have decided to leave your establishment. This may stick in the craw, but that's how it works. If you really can't stomach this way of operating spell it out clearly from the outset that teachers won't be paid over the summer and see who you manage to recruit on that basis.
  12. Communicate, communicate, communicate. I understand that there are some aspects of ownership that must be pondered in lonely isolation. I also understand that when/if you feel yourself getting overstretched you are unlikely to want to tell anyone because the whole edifice lies on confidence. But you simply must be transparent with your appointed Head. He or she will be able to steady the ship for a while if credit is running dry etc. If you just stop paying bills with no explanation people will smell a rat.
I really hope it all goes well for you. I, for one, am rooting for you because the world needs more well-led schools with owners who have gone into the enterprise with the right motivation.

Best of luck!

Tim Jefferis


Monday 17 July 2023

Working in an MCI School

Dear Colleague,

Congratulations on securing employment at Malvern College Egypt. MCE is one of a growing group of Malvern College International (MCI) Schools that exist around the world. In joining MCE, you are joining a family of schools which, although all very different, share a set of principles and values that inform their culture.

The 'Malvern Qualities' articulate what MCI stands and provide direction and purpose for all those who work in the schools. As you prepare for your new adventure in Egypt it is worth reflecting on them and what they might mean for you as you start teaching with us:


In coming to Egypt, you will be leaving behind the comfort of the familiar for a new adventure. The rewards will be great, but there are also likely to be moments of loneliness and disillusion. This is especially true if you are new to international teaching. On top of all the problems associated with your day job will be those associated with getting to grips with a new set of surroundings. Expect the unexpected, expect difficulties, and determine to face them down with humour and enthusiasm.


We expect our pupils to be curious, and to ask questions - we should be too. Take an interest in your colleagues (without being invasive, obviously!) Get out and about, meet people and join in with things. Treat your time in Egypt as an opportunity to grow personally and professionally. Be curious. 


Remember that in Egypt you are somewhat of a curiosity. You are highly paid, western and English-speaking. Be aware of the privileges these things afford and conscious of the potential for cultural misunderstanding. Go out of your way to be kind and polite. Becoming an entitled expatriate is not a good look.


Kindness trumps everything. Check yourself regularly: am I being kind? That's all that needs to be said really.


You're an adult, behave like one. Of course people will help, but it's surprising how infantilising coming to a new country can be for some people. One of my favourite aphorisms is: 'Find solutions, not problems'. If you do this, everyone's life is made easier.


This is best defined as doing the right thing when nobody is looking. This means we should practice what we preach. Think about that.


Be ambitious for yourself and for your pupils. The school will support all reasonable requests for training and self-improvement. We practice what we preach (see above).


You're going to encounter some alien concepts and practices in your first few months in Egypt. Before rushing to condemn have some humility and try to discover why things are the way they are. Being able to see things from another perspective is exactly what an international education should be about. We practice what we preach...


Seize the opportunities living and working in Egypt will give to you. Venture away from the familiar and do something that scares you from time to time. With discomfort comes growth.


Remember you're not doing this alone. Actively seek out the support of your colleagues both professionally and personally. In the early days you are likely to need to seek out personal friends from the pool of teachers at work to a greater degree than may have been the case at home. Embrace this opportunity to collaborate.


You will make mistakes, things will go wrong. Be prepared to admit these mistakes yourself and be forgiving of those of others. Above all, don't take yourself too seriously - life's too short.

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride!

With best wishes,

A close-up of a signature

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Dr Tim Jefferis

Head of Secondary




Wednesday 8 March 2023

Getting the right people on the bus

 Interview panels are fond of questions about vision. I'm often stumped - even more so when it's asked over Zoom and I haven't yet visited the school in question. I usually end up muttering something vague and non-committal - cringing inwardly as I do so - and resolve to do better next time. 

Having done some digging around I'm going to try responding in this manner next time I'm asked about vision: 
  • It would be presumptuous of me to lay out a vision before having got to know the school properly 
  • Jim Collins' 'First Who then What' mantra resonates with me
  • My early focus in a headship role would therefore be to focus on staff - getting 'the right people on the bus, in the right seats' 
Using the bus metaphor, Collins explains the reason for this focus on people first as follows:
If people join the bus primarily because of where it is going, what happens if you get ten miles down the road and you need to change direction? You’ve got a problem. But if people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction: “Hey, I got on this bus because of who else is on it; if we need to change direction to be more successful, fine with me.” Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great. Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. 

In this vein, I was intrigued to see that the US Navy Seals evaluate their people on a two-by-two matrix which I have augmented slightly with Jim Collins' insights as below:

Clearly having people 'on the bus' with neither technical nor character strength is no good and they must be (humanely) removed or redirected. But the very worst people of all to have on the bus, those who will be most corrosive to the team dynamics, are those with a high level of technical competence, but a low level of character strength (shown in red on the diagram). Left to their own devices these dark actors will ruin the culture of a school whilst, in the wrong sort of school, enjoying the invulnerability that comes with having good metrics. These individuals need to be rooted out and removed leaving the top two quadrants to get on with their jobs.

So, my vision? To make it all about people.


Friday 9 December 2022

School Rules

I stumbled across the archive blog posts of Sarah Thomas recently. They are a treasure trove.

Sarah was Deputy Head at Uppingham where we overlapped for a short spell. As a young teacher, I remember thinking she was superb; reading through her posts reminds me of why. 

I hope Bryanston continue to leave up her posts up on their website as an archive. In case they don't, I'll be liberally cutting and pasting from them whilst I can. Here's an excerpt, for example, from her post about school rules:

Bryanston’s fundamental rules are, by contrast, ultra simple. There are just four of them.

    1. A breach of common sense or courtesy is a breach of school rules.
    2. A breach of the law of the land is a serious breach of school rules. 
    3. We ban sex, drugs, alcohol and smoking and you are liable to be expelled for involvement in either of the first two. 
    4. Furthermore, the following are automatic suspension offences: 
        • night wandering, 
        • being on the roof of the main building, 
        • smoking in a building. 

I love that simplicity. 

I suspect you can't do away completely with a more comprehensive set of rules somewhere - in fact the comprehensive set at the last three school's in which I've worked now bear an uncanny resemblance to Uppingham's as they stood in 2011. Those rules no doubt still bearing the hallmarks of Sarah's work earlier in the noughties. 

But Sarah's simpler set are far better for sharing, better for ready reference in pupil planners and on noticeboards. 

They will enter my own canon forthwith!


Sunday 2 October 2022

Supply teaching

 A gap between our trip from MCS to MCUK and our longer ride presented the opportunity for some supply teaching.

This has been a hugely valuable professional experience placing me firmly back in the classroom and offering an insight into a variety of different schools. I've picked up lessons in French, chemistry, maths, drama, geography and English. 

Having been prepared for the worst, in the main I've been pleasantly surprised by the behaviour of the pupils - the vast majority have been polite, helpful and keen to learn.

I make no bones about it though: this is a tough way to earn a living. The call comes in at around 0730 and I could be off to anywhere within a radius of 50 miles or so. Sometimes the work set is best described as 'dry' and so maintaining the pupils' interest in it, whilst having neither the time nor authority to deviate from what's been set, can be a hard gig.

It pays to be well prepared:

  • lunch packed
  • work clothes on
  • bag packed with:
    • board pens
    • spare pens and paper
    • 'emergency' ideas for generic lessons (in the rare instances where no work has been set)
    • laptop with an adaptor for VGI and HDMI cables

As soon as I arrive and sign in I've found it pays to make verbal contact with a senior member of staff to announce my presence and get a feel for the conventions. Then I'm into it - five hours straight usually with a short break for lunch...


Thursday 13 January 2022

MCS TeachMeet

We held a micro TeachMeet yesterday at Malvern College Switzerland. Of all the things you can do on a staff training day, I find these the most valuable.

Here's what I learnt:
  • PetchaKutcha is a way of organising a presentation that restricts you to twenty slides on which you spend a maximum of 20 seconds. Excellent for teachers and a useful scaffold for pupil presentations.
  • is a useful digital alternative to physical whiteboards. Great for AfL.
  • Seneca learning is a great little tool for revision and homework. There seem to be tests on just about everything including A-level Economics :-)
  • Teacher introduction by numbers. Try putting up some numbers about yourself arranged on the board similar to this as a springboard to introducing yourself to a new class. Ask them what they think the numbers represent and watch the discussion unfold:

Answers: 2 children; 20, 21 ages of children; 1989 year of teacher training; 27 years in Switzerland; 10,887 money raised in recent charity event; 4, 5 number of house moves/cars.
  • Noughts and crosses. A good end-of-lesson exercise. Put a noughts and crosses grid up on the board. Add keywords words to each box. The game is played by asking teams to define the keywords in order to place their o or x.
  • Diana Laurillard has devised a 'learning designer' found here. It can be used to put together a scheme of work and then assess to what extent the course is balanced and varied with a pie chart like this:
  • The book 'When Adults Change, Everything Changes' looks worth a read. 
  • Do Now Activities, as recommended by Doug Lemov are a great way to start a lesson. This is especially true if they involve revisiting materials from earlier in the course to reinforce the learning. Here's one I tried today for A-level History:


Friday 5 February 2021

Job rejections

Image result for job rejection

There are people, I know, who secure immediately every job they apply for. I am not one of those lucky people. I know as well as anybody the sting of disappointment that accompanies a rejection email. The sting gets worse, of course, the further along the process you get; the most painful rejections come when you've been to two or three interviews with a school, taught a lesson, done a presentation and even started to get to know some of the staff. 

Right now we're in the process of recruiting for roles at Malvern College Switzerland and so I have found myself on the other side of the fence, having to disappoint people. If you're one of those people, I feel your pain; this little post is for you. 

I've tried to list the reasons why people's applications failed to get through to the shortlist stage. This, I hope, will give a bit more insight into the process than the: 'It was a strong field' brush off that is rather too common in job application correspondence, but that helps nobody. 

You may have failed to make the shortlist because your application displayed one or more of the problems listed below. Only a tiny handful of these mistakes are immediately 'fatal' but when placed in a pool of applications without them they place your application at a disadvantage; and that, in a large field, is all it takes not to make it to the shortlist. So here we go:

Things you can fix:

  1. Not following the rubric. We said we didn't want CVs and yet you attached one. We asked you to apply by the TES and yet you emailed us direct etc.
  2. Sloppy spelling or, more common, sloppy capitalisation. This affected more applications than, as teachers, we should be happy with. I think people have become inured to a sort of digital slang that is seen as acceptable on an online form. It leaves a bad impression.
  3. Asking questions like: 'Will my sofa fit in the flat?' before having even been contacted by the school. Questions like this (and I put in this bracket questions about money) give the impression your primary interest isn't the role itself.
  4. Asking questions that are answered in the applicant pack and/or on the website.
  5. Copying and pasting a personal statement that was clearly made with another school in mind.
  6. Writing a perfunctory personal statement of only a couple of sentences in length.
  7. Not writing a personal statement at all and instead saying something like: 'My CV speaks for itself.'
  8. Leaving gaps in your employment history. However long and tedious, this part of the form needs to be filled in assiduously. You're applying for a role in a school, there will be lots of children about, so there's a non-negotiable safeguarding element to this.
  9. Not providing references at the outset. Asking us not to contact them before deferring to you is fine, but leaving that section of the form completely blank rings alarm bells.
  10. Denigrating - even obliquely - a former employer. Maybe they were horrible and you firmly occupy the moral high ground but we haven't met you yet and so for us, it's 50/50. Those aren't great odds.
  11. Leaving other gaps on the application form. If a section really doesn't apply write N/A. A blank leaves you open to the suspicion that you haven't taken sufficient care.

Things you can't (immediately) fix, but that nevertheless, all other things being equal, did factor in decision making:

  1. Not offering the right level of flexibility in terms of additional subjects taught. 
  2. Not having A-Level and GCSE experience (or having less than an otherwise equivalent candidate).
  3. Not having boarding experience (or having less than an otherwise equivalent candidate).
  4. Not having the requisite co-curricular and extra-curricular experience, or not showcasing this sufficiently.
  5. Having a career history that suggests you've moved around rather too often, never staying put anywhere for long.
  6. Not having the necessary experience of KS4 and 5. We had a lot of applicants who were excellent, but had never taught post-16.
Finally, as a startup, we have been very keen to 'get the right people on the bus' as quickly as possible so that we can begin planning for the tasks that lie ahead. This has meant that we have shortlisted for some positions - as we said we would in the application pack - before the application deadline. Annoying though this is, it is just possible that you were a perfect candidate but that we never got to see you because we'd already appointed by the time your application was submitted. Also, the need for some positions diminished, with the recruitment of teachers able to teach multiple disciplines.

So there you have it. Helpful, I hope.


Since writing this post I have become aware of other reasons why candidates might not be accepted to international schools. To be fair, none of these applied at the time we were appointing our first wave of candidates at MCS, but I do know that they can occur at the murkier end of the international market and in schools operating in countries where such things are the norm.

In such situations, the people who interview you may not be those who make the final decision. Decisions not to appoint can be made for a whole range of reasons which you as a candidate cannot account for. They include:

  • Loss of bottle - The ultimate decision maker decides that the budget won't stretch to another candidate and so despite having jumped through all the hoops you're not appointed.
  • Changes of plan - X was going to teach Y but it now transpires can also teach Z and so things have been reorganised to make do without your services.
  • Racism/xenophobia - Never openly admitted to, of course, but some schools won't appoint certain groups because 'parents won't like it'. Awful, but it does happen.
  • Visa issues etc. - You may have been the perfect candidate but because of your passport it's either impossible or too difficult to get the right visa for you to work in the school.
  • Ignorance - Those making the ultimate decision may not have much experience in education. If your qualifications are unusual in any way they may see it as too much of a risk to appoint you.
  • Delusion - Some decision-makers think that they're going to be able to fill their positions entirely with the 'very best' (Oxbridge educated, first-class degrees etc.) They will reject candidates who don't meet these ideals until doing so becomes completely untenable - and possibly beyond this point.
  • Cost concerns - You have several children, say, and the school is already running tight margins. A cheaper child-free member of staff may be sought even if you're objectively the best candidate.