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When We Work Together, We All Benefit: The Duty of International Schools to their Local Communities | Rob Ford

The power of networks and working beyond the school community, so it is not operating in abstract isolation, has been central throughout my career in education of nearly 30 years. One of the most powerful examples of this idea was during the first years of the new century when state and independent schools in the South West of England and Wales worked closely together to establish the IB, and everyone benefited from this collaboration. Working closely with the British Council as a schools’ ambassador for more years than I care to remember is also a great example of the power of collaboration across education and where local communities benefit from the international networks. Both are still two of the proudest stand out moments of my career in a career of many stand out moments and why I went into education in the first place.


Heritage International School, set up in 2017 in Moldova, was the first international school to be established in a part of Europe where networks are few and far between, and connections to develop everything from training to curriculum events take far more effort and thought than I was used to in the UK. I soon discovered that the idea of collaboration and grassroots agency was something very absent from the culture and mindset of school leaders and the centralised model of everything flowing down from an education ministry, in the Soviet model, pervaded still. The mission of Heritage International School from the Founders challenged this, and events in the 2020s have changed the old mindset and model for good as can be seen in our mission and values.

Heritage International School


The Covid-19 crisis was an opportunity for schools in Moldova to work together for a common cause and Heritage International School played a central role from the very beginning in early March 2020 with its established online and hybrid learning model that we gave willingly to the national education community for all to benefit from. The then education minister of Moldova and his team coming to Heritage International School to understand what we were doing and to take our online learning policy, materials as well as our teachers’ training to their state colleagues, remains one of the best examples I know of the benefits of collaboration and working together in an education community. To read more about this initiative, please see the article ‘What happened with the education ministry came for tea’ published by TES in 2020.


As if the pandemic wasn’t enough for our corner of Europe in the 2020s, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 brought an extraordinary existential crisis to schools, especially in Ukraine but also across the region, particularly in Moldova. It is in this moment that I fully understood the role Heritage International School plays in the local community and, without realising, the role I also play as an international school leader. My colleague attended a ministry meeting early on in the war in the Spring of 2022 with state and local private school leaders. She told me later that all the school leaders came to her and asked, “Is your English director still in Moldova?” She said yes and with that, there was a calm reassurance that we would all be in this together no matter what to keep the certainty of education in uncertain times. It never occurred to me at any moment up until that point the responsibility I would have as an international school leader in my local and wider community. In Spring 2023, when Moldova faces a concerted, organised attempt at national destablisation across all communities by Russia and those aligned to their aims, the support of our local community with our example is even more crucial now. 


The wider community also includes our colleagues and friends facing even worse situations and challenges in Ukraine itself and with our COBIS (the Council of British International Schools) Black Sea Schools group, we have continued to make sure our colleagues in schools, like the British International School Ukraine in Kyiv, do not feel isolated and to know constantly that they are part of a wider international education community. The British International School Ukraine Head, David Cole, is an inspirational example of an international school leader. It was a great pleasure at the recent brilliant Outstanding Schools Europe 2023 Conference at County Hall, London, to meet Anna Azarova, communications director of the British International School Ukraine and our two schools continue to work closely with each other and within COBIS. A recent TES article on Ukraine one year on from Russian invasion highlights the tenacity of students and educators in the context of a warzone.

Isolation for international schools, especially from the local community, even those in well-established networks such as COBIS, CIS (the Council of International Schools), ECIS (the Educational Collaborative for International Schools), the International Baccalaureate, Cambridge Assessment International Education, or United World College groups, is a constant issue: being connected, sharing good practice, and feeling less on your own as an international school is vital.


Answers to developing wider connections, becoming less isolated and creating something that positively benefits the wider community as well as your international school, are often nearer and less costly than we might think if we utilise what already exists in our international school communities.


Six steps are suggested for all international schools to consider:

1. Leverage parents and carers

All parents want to help their school, whatever the setting. In international schools there is a strong pull together for the common good and if used effectively this can have a significant impact on connections to improve opportunities and education. For example, at Heritage International School, we wanted a focus on Stretch & Challenge learning, with an emphasis on giving our students real life experience in a range of careers. We put out a call to parents interested in contributing to an annual Founders’ Lecture series, in the mission of our Founders and four years on we have had diplomats, NGO heads, journalists, writers, academics, politicians and business leaders volunteer to speak with students, providing an impressive narrative to the wider curriculum. We invite our local state schools to attend these events online so that we reach a wider audience and so that we all benefit. This is an extraordinary collaboration between schools and I am extremely proud of what we have achieved here in these unique opportunities to connect with very inspirational figures.

Founders Lecture


2. Engage with international organisations

The fantastic work of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Moldova on Sustainable Development Goals made this an obvious international organisation to contact and explore ways in which our students could link their science and technology lessons to their work here, on everything from green energy to green technology. The UNDP were delighted to provide support, and there are numerous international organisations operating around the world that are happy to support learning in schools. Our Climate Change Action work has really grown, resulting in Heritage International School becoming a Climate Action School in 2022.

Climate Action Schools


ETwinning in Europe continues to provide a very solid platform of collaboration across Europe for schools, often with a focus on local communities. One of our more remarkable collaborations has been with NASA and, again, the whole of our country has benefited from the opportunity to listen and interact with the speakers and add a dimension to education literally beyond this world.


3. Connect with local schools

This may not seem obvious, but some of the most powerful connections for an international school are with local, national schools, through collaboration on a range of educational projects. In Moldova and Eastern Europe, we are involved in the local English language association of teachers. We work together on global learning through networks including eTwinning and the British Council; we are involved in leadership fora, as well as in sporting and academic events: including competitions such as debating and the World Scholar’s Cup, for example. Recently, we hosted a technology and learning conference that brought educators together from all over the country, resulting in them sharing good practice and taking something positive away from the day.

Technology and Learning Conference


4. Champion charities and social responsibility

For so many international schools it is a moral duty and integral to their ethos to support others. These connections also play a vital part in supporting schools’ outward-facing mission. At Heritage International School, the founders’ mission for the school was to develop a strong sense of social responsibility. This is realised through our links with and support of local charities such as the Areal animal centre in Chisinau, the centre for the prevention of human trafficking, and vulnerable children centres in Moldova. These links are about more than just abstract altruism: they are a key part of how we develop societal values of civic responsibility in these potential future leaders.


5. Connect with the wider business community

The wider business community is perhaps an obvious, but often under-utilised, point of connection for many international schools. We are currently working with the National Bank of Moldova as a pilot scheme to develop financial literacy in the country, and this is supporting our wider curriculum. Radio Free Europe is interviewing staff for programmes that support their reporting of the country to show a fuller, reflective, and less hackneyed approach towards Eastern Europe. In addition, the European Union is working with us to explore grants to support STEM education that will also support education in Moldova. This enables a wider development of educational opportunity that is often more anchored in the real World than abstract and limited only to the classroom environment. The more we can connect our schools this way, adds fully to the culture of being outward facing as an organisation.


6. Engage with the diplomatic community

Last but by no means least, it is important to remember that ambassadors love working with schools. A range of embassies here in Chisinau have given so much time and support to us as an international school, from Chevening Scholars inspiring students, Mandarin teaching from the Confucius Institute, French language resources from Alliance Française, America House providing brilliant support, and the ever-wonderful British Council allowing the first ever UK school exchange to Moldova in 2019.

US Ambassador-2
US Ambassador 2


The key challenge for international school leaders and their communities is to stop thinking that they are an island in their national country and, instead, develop a wider outward-facing strategy of utilising connections that takes full advantage of being a global school in a local community. The impact will be transformative. We have seen clearly during the pandemic, energy shortages, war and whatever else the decade throws at us, the power of international schools and their local communities collaborating globally in sharing ideas and solutions.


We need hope right now in our schools, and to know that better things lie ahead in the 2020s; the power of education gives our community and young people that hope. As a school, you are never isolated when you immerse yourself in your local community.  When we work together, we all benefit.


MicrosoftTeams-image (13)-4

This article was written by Rob Ford, who is the CEO and Director of the Heritage International School in Moldova.