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School Leaders - how to spot the cowboys/cowgirls... Yee-hah!

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

As the saying goes... you head out west, you get cowboys and cowgirls. This is similar for International Schools and especially for school leaders where regulation may be promised but is not guaranteed.

We live in an evidenced based world - Evidence forms the platform for any interview panel who have the responsibility to choose the most suitable candidate for a position, especially in an educational organisation. In the business of education... one's education is important. There are many experts in schools who can evidence lifelong learning with a balance of practice/ experience and knowledge... and then... there are the cowboys/cowgirls.

The cowboys and cowgirls I refer to within leadership positions in schools, only have a surface level understanding of quality education (if that). It took 30 years of education, but I was in shock to discover that some British international and independent schools have school leaders who do not even meet the basic requirements to teach in England and lack the fundamental knowledge of teaching in any school (they do not have Qualified Teacher Status, QTS).

We assume that a leader of a prestigious or expensive school is an expert in their field, but this can be a misconception. if someone is appointed to a leadership position in a school it can be for a variety of reasons (including nepotism), and it cannot be assumed that evidence has been taken into account - naturally this can have a major negative impact on a school community and does (International Schools Review). You can give someone a job title but at the end of the day, they are the same person they were before the job title - evidence of experience and knowledge does not and will not change.

Doing a 2-day CPD course does not make you an expert.

Education as a platform is essential and requirements of becoming a teacher and school leader change from nation to nation (especially between constituent countries of the United Kingdom; Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England). In leading educational countries of the world, it is essential that teachers (P - Year 10) begin with a platform at least 4-years of study in Education at university which combines theory and practice (and teachers specify in certain subjects). For example, in New South Wales, Australia every teacher is required to complete an accredited teaching degree.

  • an accredited four-year teaching degree (eg Bachelor of Education) or a combined degree (eg Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Education), or

  • an undergraduate degree (eg Bachelor of Science) and an accredited graduate entry teaching degree (eg Master of Teaching - 2 years).

In Finland, teachers must also have a master's degree in education in addition to the 4-year Bachelor of Education. Nations with additional requirements other than initial teacher education (ITE) to become a fully qualified teacher is illustrated below in Chart D6.1 (EAG2014-Indicator D6 (eng).pdf (

Teacher preparation changes between nations.
International preparation of teachers

When I reflect on the school leaders I have worked closely with, those who I would consider to have clear limitations to the school community (hindrances to quality education being optimised), either didn't meet the selective criteria to enter ITE or were not fully qualified teachers. Basically, they shouldn't have been in the position they were in.

Initial education and training plays a key role for the quality of teaching staff. Together with other factors, such as the image and status of teaching in society and the working conditions in education, requirements for entry into pre-service training influence the supply of prospective teachers, both in terms of quantity and quality. (Review education policies - Education GPS - OECD: Teacher initial education)

How to spot the Cowboys/Cowgirls...

1. Quick give me CPD!

While professional development is important, some school leaders in this position will grasp at professional development in an unhealthy manner (in a panic), like a drowning person frantically reaching for a rope - unfortunately they do not have the platform (knowledge and experience) necessary for deep implementation of such initiatives within their school. This results in lots of curriculum change (and expense) but does not lead to curriculum reform (school improvement).

2. Proudly promote letters after their name which illustrate their basic knowledge in Education rather than their expertise.

  • PGCE - Post Graduate Certificate in Education (UK) is equivalent to a Graduate Diploma in Teaching (12 months) which was phased out in Australia a decade ago and replaced with a 2-year Master of Teaching degree. This traditionally was necessary for secondary teachers. For primary teachers, a PGCE (12 months) enables people to become teachers when they initially selected another career as their first choice. It is a given that a 12-month certificate is not comparable to a 4-year bachelor's degree in education.

  • NPQSL/ NPQH/ NPQEL- National Professional Qualification (UK) is a government led course which can be used as credits towards a Master of Education degree for a small number of identified universities. This varies from 15% - 50% credit but is not equivalent. This indicates... I have the minimum leadership requirements and are yet to have completed a Masters.

3. Avoid hiring staff more qualified or experienced than themselves.

In my experiences senior leaders who are cowboys/cowgirls will surround themselves by staff members willing to do as they are told rather than reflect and challenge - the very mission of good schools. These staff members are often early career teachers.

4. Join committees for individual needs rather than the general systemic improvement of education standards.

The question needs to be asked; what evidence of expertise does this person bring to the committee representing a system of schools, rather than assuming they are knowledgeable because of their role.

5. Dismiss qualifications and research.

Cowboys and cowgirls will try to use the tool of ICT as being innovative and ahead of the educational game, often as a replacement for true reflection and building of knowledge (research) within their context. A prime example of this is AI.

6. Appear to be loyal to the school and won't move on to the detriment of the school - deep down they know that they cannot get a job in another school on merit.

7. Have numerous LinkedIn accounts with inconsistent qualifications, teaching and leadership experience.

In summary, schools leaders need to be respected to get the best out of their staff and teachers. Therefore, any school who advocate being world leaders or offering quality education need highly qualified and experienced leaders. For regulation and quality assurance purposes, all international schools should openly and honestly share qualifications of their teaching staff with the school community.

Some teachers are good actors.
Teacher identification.

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