What’s life really like teaching in Saudi Arabia?

We’ve opened our Saudi Arabia Talent Pool, and this week we’ve put together a special feature on working in the country. “In some years we have one or two days when it may rain, but this is not certain,” explains Bruce Gamwell, Director of the British International School of Jeddah. Read on to learn more about the school from Bruce and other teachers, and find out about current Saudi vacancies.

“Make of it what you can and Jeddah will return your efforts and not disappoint you.

The sun always smiles in Jeddah.”                              

“Make sure you have plenty of fancy dress costumes!”

“You never have to iron again!”                     

“Make sure you are good at journey directions especially if your partner is not, alternatively buy a GPS on arrival!”

“Visiting old Jeddah is magical and an experience you should not miss and try to repeat.


Could you give us an introduction to The British International School of Jeddah?

The British International School of Jeddah (BISJ) is one of the largest international schools in Saudi Arabia. Established in 1977, BISJ provides a British-style education to the expatriate and local community in Jeddah. The school is a non-profit organisation governed by a Board of Trustees.  It was originally set up by the British and Belgian Embassies and was called the Continental School until 1998, when the Ministry of Education designated it the British community school and renamed it as The British International School of Jeddah.  However many in the community still refer to the school as affectionately as the ‘Conti’!

Since its inception, the school has grown and developed rapidly, culminating in relocation to the current purpose built campus in 1999. The school is accredited by the Council of International Schools and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. We are a member school of the British Schools in the Middle East and are authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organisation and Cambridge International Examinations.

In total, the school now has more than 1550 students from over sixty countries. Teaching staff are mainly recruited from the United Kingdom, Australasia, North America and locally. The school has primary and upper school sections, each with their own individual buildings, play areas and administration. There are some 90 rooms, eight science laboratories, five computer rooms, a large sports hall, a gymnasium, a multi-purpose hall, a refectory, three libraries, a clinic, two pools and an outside sports area with running track.

Could you ‘introduce’ readers to Jeddah?

Jeddah is a cosmopolitan city on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.  It is a busy commercial seaport as well as being the entry point to the Kingdom for millions of pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina.

The town has grown very rapidly and continues to do so, with development in Saudi Arabia little affected by the economic difficulties faced elsewhere in the world.  Major shopping malls abound, with several being within a five-minute drive of our school.  Supermarkets are well stocked with the full range of products normally found in the West.  While imported products may be expensive, local produce is relatively cheap.

The climate of Jeddah is moderated by its proximity to the Red Sea.  Thus summers, whilst hot, are cooler than the interior of Saudi Arabia.  Winter temperatures are perfect, ranging from around 22°C in the evenings to 28°C during the daytime.  In some years we have one or two days when it may rain, but this is not certain!!

Where is the school?

The school is situated in the northern suburbs of Jeddah, some 15 minutes from the International Airport.  For those interested in diving, wind surfing and other water sports, the private beaches to the North are within a twenty-minute drive of the school.

Could you tell us about the syllabus that you teach.

The curriculum throughout the school is British in style. The school does not follow the English National Curriculum, but uses it as a basic instructional resource, for example drawing on publications issued by the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority, and literature concerning standards and curriculum changes. Additionally, the school is heavily dependent on British textbooks, which are, quite naturally, based on the National Curriculum. There is strong support in the Primary School for the use of enquiry based learning through the development of integrated thematic units, which draw on the International Primary Curriculum.

In Years 10 and 11 the curriculum leads to the externally assessed examinations of the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, set by Cambridge International Examinations. Post 16, education is based on International Baccalaureate courses, with the majority of students taking the full Diploma course.

Our results at both IGCSE and IB are consistently higher than world averages.

What kinds of opportunities exist for UK teachers – and others working in education – to live and work in education in Saudi Arabia generally?

There are a large number of international schools in Saudi Arabia, the majority of which are privately owned.  Schools advertise internationally for staff and facilitate entry into the Kingdom.

And to work at your school specifically?

BISJ is classed as a community school and as such is allowed to be co-educational.  We recruit staff both locally and internationally.  By regulations however, the Ministry only allows us to employ teachers who are fully qualified with a degree and teaching qualifications and who hold a passport from a western country.

What’s the major appeal for someone in the UK thinking about teaching in Saudi Arabia?

In general the students attending the school are hard-working, enthusiastic and committed to their learning.  Parents are supportive and the school is well resourced.

The school offers a very attractive benefits package to teachers including a tax-free salary, fully furnished housing, travel allowance, medical insurance and end of service bonus.

Staff are able to save a significant proportion of their monthly salaries and travel widely in the holidays.

And what are some of the drawbacks?

Working overseas, whilst professionally rewarding and offering opportunities to travel and experience new cultures, also has challenges. Living away from home and family presents challenges for some.  One major challenge that faces women is the fact that, currently, they are not allowed to drive in the Kingdom.  The school provides transport, however, and has buses going to the shopping malls most evenings.  The buses, with driver, can also be hired at minimal cost by staff members.

What kind of teachers are you looking for, and how would the interview process take place?

We are generally looking for candidates whose track record proves they are excellent practitioners, who go the extra mile and contribute widely to the life of a school.  We would normally look to recruit teachers with at least two years’ experience. [You can view current BISJ vacancies by scrolling down from this link].

Our main recruitment period is in late January and we would look to interview candidates face to face in London at that time.  However, where candidates are in other parts of the world, we may use Skype or Facetime for interviewing.

What support do you offer new teachers?

Prior to arrival new teachers are paired with ‘mentors’ who are able to inform them in more detail about what to expect in terms of living and working in the Kingdom.  On arrival we offer new staff an orientation period which covers both professional and personal settling in issues.

It’s doubtful that many UK applicants would speak Arabic: is that a problem?

The school operates in an English-speaking environment and English is widely spoken throughout Jeddah.

Many thanks for taking part.

We also asked some of the school staff to give us a quick quote about working at the school. Here’s what they had to say:

“The stars in the desert are amazing as is the life under the water.”

 “Wonderful community life for families.’’                           “Family orientated community life.”

 “Living in Saudi Arabia has its challenges but the pros far outweigh the cons. I enjoy the community spirit here and the activities available for my children and me are great. The beach is wonderful and when diving you could be anywhere in the world. I do seem to shop more than I used to – not sure if that is a good or bad thing.”

“Working in Saudi Arabia is very similar to schools around the world. There is a great mix of cultures and the children are generally well behaved and enthusiastic. The curriculum offers a teacher the opportunity to respond to their class and develop their skills in an interesting and relevant way. For a parent, the support the school offers is invaluable and the crèche and after school clubs allow flexibility.”

“Overall I thoroughly enjoy working and living in Saudi Arabia. It is a great place to be with young children.”

Click here to go to the Saudi Arabia Talent Pool, and scroll down to view current teaching vacancies in the country.


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