Freedom to teach, freedom to choose: The underlying drivers behind experienced UK-trained teachers electing to follow a career in international schools. A case study in the Middle East

  • Cherry Atkinson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education (EdD)


This original thesis investigates aspects of experienced teacher identity in one case study school in the Middle East. I will explore the emergent ‘growth paradox’ whereby expatriate teachers from the UK enter a field of employment that is often presented in the literature as “messy, tense, problematic and challenging”, yet which continues to attract and retain “a growing body of educators” (Bunnell, 2021:559). Bunnell and Poole suggest that financial incentives play a highly significant role in teachers’ decision-making (2021a:689), asserting that British educators are opting to leave the “fire” of teaching in the home nation for the relative safety of the overseas “frying-pan” (ibid). This is an echo of what some sections of the British media report as an ever-worsening situation, with many teachers “fleeing overseas” (Weale, 2019). However, my own experience of the field leads me to believe that the reality of the situation is much more nuanced and complex than has hitherto been documented.

Through my professional experience and observations, combined with a thorough and extensive, systematic review of the existing literature (Denscombe, 2017:151), I decided on one overarching question - what are the factors that influence UK-trained teachers in choosing a long-term career overseas? - which I have answered using a mixed-methods approach. By analysing my data through a lens of critical realism, I made some surprising discoveries regarding the nature of international teacher identity and how the observable surface phenomena can be linked with deeper, less tangible sociological issues such as power, class and social justice. The new globalised professional class (which my participants are arguably a part of) are fundamentally different to the global educational precariat that has been written about by authors such as Rey, Bolay and Gez (2020).

My findings are original and significant. My data shows that financial incentives are less important to the teachers in this case study than factors such as professional freedom, personal wellbeing and quality of life. I examined the underlying sociological mechanisms at work, focusing on issues of social change and the development of a globally mobile professional class from a “narrow group of nations” (Bunnell and Atkinson, 2020:255), concluding that the situation is being driven by hidden or misrecognised power structures relating to social mobility and neo-colonialism. I posit that these teachers are ‘pragmatic idealists’ who have chosen a career in international schooling as a way of circumventing the downwards social exclusion prevalent in the home nation; the “broken promises of education, jobs and income” (Brown, Lauder and Ashton, 2011) have resulted in these UK-trained teachers venturing their capital in a globalised market to gain socioeconomic advantage.
Date of Award22 Feb 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorTristan Bunnell (Supervisor) & Michael Fertig (Supervisor)


  • international schools
  • international education
  • UK-trained teachers
  • teacher identity
  • expatriate teacher
  • professional identity

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