IT was while watching a TV series on a soldier who returns from war to go into teaching that Andrew Atkinson, 56, first had his calling.
He was only 14, but the dramatised novel, To Serve Them All My Days, really struck a chord and he knew he wanted to become a teacher.
“I am the last of six children and my father always hoped that one of us would go into teaching,” he explains from his new accessible, ground floor office at Laude School, in San Pedro de Alcantara.
“He loved his education and his first wife was a teacher. Maybe it was subliminal that I wanted to join the profession, and me becoming a teacher certainly made him really happy,” he continues.
It was not as if his other older siblings had bombed in their career choices, going into social work, advertising, interior design and the police force (‘oh and one black sheep’), but Andrew had a passion for learning and, more importantly, imparting it.
Having grown up in Edinburgh and Guildford, in Surrey, he studied Geography and History at Exeter University, before teaching both (via Goldsmith’s) at a challenging north London comprehensive in Finchley.
It was there at the age of 25, not long after graduating, that he had his second ‘premonition’, as he calls it.
Sitting in the staff room at lunch, surveying his stressed and ageing colleagues, he was guided to a series of jobs abroad at the back of the Times Education Supplement.
“A friend of mine had taught in the Dominican Republic and pointed out these jobs abroad, which didn’t need TEFL. So I chose to go to Mexico and ended up in Argentina and went off with a backpack, telling my terrified parents ‘not to worry’ and I’d be ‘back next year’ and didn’t come back for 10 years! Apart from holidays, of course.”
It was there, while teaching at the Holy Trinity College and St. Andrews, in Buenos Aires, that he retrained to be a drama and theatre teacher, with guidance from a professor from the Colon Opera House. And five years later he was promoted to become a head teacher in his early 30s.
Everything looked rosy until, in 2003, the Argentine economy was turned upside down and the country went into a deep financial crisis forcing Andrew and most of his fellow international teachers to leave.
It led to spells teaching theatre in Milan, before he was enticed to Spain to the British School of Barcelona, owned by Cognita, a big global group, before he was headhunted to help set up the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme for six Spanish schools in the SEK group, based out of Madrid from 2006.
It was to be the start of a major career shift that ended up with the talented drama teacher becoming the global head for the IB network, which currently involves over 5,600 schools in 159 countries.
So good was he at organising the six schools around Spain (spread from Almeria to Galicia), that the IB group offered him a job at its headquarters in Cardiff in Wales, before he was tasked with the job of overseeing the relocation to its current IB Global Centre, in The Hague, in Holland.
“I took the job knowing I was developing the curriculum/syllabus and got to invite great teachers from all around the world to the Hague. Say a group of 12 anthropology teachers would come and we would plan the course for the group. I had to engineer the whole thing.
“I was Mister IB diploma then and was eventually promoted to Washington to evaluate and authorise all the US schools to see if they could do it or not. Most IB schools are in the US, as it turns out, and I had to devise the system for them and then inspect them, making sure they reached the level.”
It was a major, high-flying job in a fast corporate environment, setting up systems and meeting lots of people at many international conferences.
“But I realised one day I was so far away from teaching children. Serendipity and promotion led me into those jobs and getting well paid. I was very lucky and I learnt a hell of a lot, but there came a point that I had come too far away from actual teaching,” explains Andrew, who is currently renting in Guadalmina, having landed the job last August.
Yet another career shift saw him moving back to work as the Director of the International School of London (ISL), before becoming a consultant and basing himself in Ireland after Brexit.
“I was at ISL when Brexit happened. It was horrible. I had foreign kids coming and asking me: ‘Am I going to have to leave?’ The whole attitude changed. It was a horror. It made me want to leave. I felt enough, enough of this country that doesn’t want to be part of Europe and I got out,” he recalls.
And the knock on effects, he believes, are already having damaging consequences on the UK.
“Look at the number of children learning languages in England. It has dropped astronomically. Very few kids are doing French or modern languages at A-Level or GCSEs. It is at its lowest level ever. They are just not interested. The arrogance of the English. They think everyone speaks English.
“But the facts are being bilingual gets you places. Languages open doors. You need to talk in foreigners’ languages to get on. Never mind the neuroscience of a bilingual brain which is more powerful than a normal brain. Being exposed to other languages improves brain development. Half your day in Spanish, say, and half in English is really helpful.”
While working as a consultant since Brexit and during Covid took him to many countries, including Uruguay, Russia and the Middle East, he is adamant that his new role at Laude is ‘definitely my last gig’.
“I didn’t know Laude, but when I heard it was in Andalucia, I knew I would love it. What is there not to like? I had worked in Almeria a bit and had visited the area, in particular Granada and Seville. But I didn’t know the coast. I interailed down the coast once going to Morocco and remember being on the beach one night for San Juan. I fell in love with Andalucia for that. It has a real spirit.
“Yes, I love travel and seeing the world, but enough is enough. I am done with airports and travel. I know Spain is where I will retire. I have lived here before, in Barcelona and Madrid and I speak Spanish too, albeit with quite a few Argentine words thanks to my 10 years there.”
So what’s the long term plan for Andrew? To buy a home in San Pedro or Marbella, he says, and probably head to Sevilla again for Semana Santa.
Does he like Golf, I venture? Out comes a snort and a very real look of disdain. “Do I look like a golfer?” It’s a hard one to answer and sadly time is up, the lunch bell rings and off he goes.
Andrew Atkinson, Headteacher, Laude San Pedro
Educated: Edinburgh, Surrey, Exeter, London and an MA at Trinity, Dublin
My colleagues laugh at me from time to time as I keep embarrassing myself using Argentine words when I make speeches. It just comes out. A word like a ‘bondi’ which is a bus in Argentina. I told parents their kids are going to get on the ‘Bondi’ and they stared at me thinking what is he talking about.
A big range of media
Online I read a digest of different newspapers. But if I pick up one, I don’t know if I am ashamed to say it, as I’m not to the right, but I like the journalism of the Telegraph. The crime stories and court stories, I find it a better read. Maybe I just like the big broadsheet design.”
Best of Andalucia
I love the area and go to Malaga and Marbella a lot, although Ronda is my favourite at the moment.
Benefits of a bilingual brain
The neuroscience of a bilingual brain proves you become brighter academically. While your brain is wiring as a young kid and adolescent, bilingualism allows it to wire better, you are thinking and learning in two languages. It really helps development.
IB v A-Levels
As a head teacher I want to offer both A-Levels and the IB. I like the flexibility.
While I have only ever taught the IB, I have been brought to Laude to get the perfect balance between it and A-Levels, which are simply better for certain pupils.
The IB was invented by Cambridge professor Doctor Alec Peterson in the 1960s and was designed for families who were constantly relocating around the world.
It has a real pacifist mission behind it. It’s not for profit. It is not just to teach children the content of exams but to make the world a better place and is linked to the UN.
One of its keys is that it is very important to be physically active. Healthy body, healthy mind stuff.
That said, while the IB diploma is good for its breadth and holistic nature, it is not for every kid. The IB is great if you are a kid that doesn’t know what you want to do. But If you know what you want to do, whether you are creative or want to do medicine, study A-Levels. They are simply more rigorous and in-depth.
Luckily you can take the unique bits of the IB diploma and devise your own model.
So we at Laude are going to have what is called the ‘extended curriculum’ in our Sixth Form – a block of time when they do parts of the IB. I am creating our tailor made version to go alongside A-Levels.