What initially inspired you to pursue a career in education?
From childhood, growing up through school, I was always fascinated when a teacher managed to enthuse me about an area of the curriculum that was not my most successful or most liked. So I became intrigued by the communication of learning from an early age. Incidentally, later on, I think my mother was not keen for me to have a ‘gap year’ so told me that ‘all the nice girls go to teacher training’. Perhaps she knew something because I met my future wife at college and we have both spent thirty wonderful years in education! The communication of learning still fascinates me and I always look to appoint teachers who can inspire all their pupils.
How do your own life/work experiences inform your approach to your work?
I am equally happy talking and working alongside all ages of children, as well as teachers, parents, governors – whoever! I would hate to think my position in the school could get in the way, for example, of sitting down on the steps of the main building at morning break and discussing the finer points of life with a couple of four year-olds! This approach spreads – our oldest pupils love the chance to work with our youngest pupils. An understanding of how different ages can learn from each other is great for community learning!
What have you learnt from your time as a headteacher of an international school?
That there is immense hope for the world when you see children of different nationalities and cultures working together, playing together, laughing together and enjoying being with each other. The harder job will be ensuring they remember this when they are older and that the adult world does not change these views and feelings that are so natural in most children.
What characterises the students graduating from your school?
At the moment, our pupils move on at the end of Key Stage 2 (English system). At age 11 they have been firmly grounded and challenged in their academic studies and have an all-rounder experience with involvement in sport, music, art, drama, dance and so on. They are encouraged to ‘have a go’ and this approach spreads and is very inclusive. GES children are often regarded as being ‘very socially confident’ and we feel this is wrapped up as part of our relatively small community and the way this allows us to pay a lot of attention to the personal development of every pupil.
What would you say makes the learning environment extra special?
The atmosphere is recognized at once by visitors as being warm, welcoming, inclusive and happy – perfect for the children to thrive academically and pastorally in our learning environment. Happy children are very productive and are motivated to find out as much as possible. They love their learning. Of course, it takes some children longer than others to reach different heights – for many different reasons – but if the environment is pitched right they will flourish.
Which features of the school do parents value the most?
Parents like the smaller size of our school community recognizing, as we do, that this promotes self-confidence and an increased sense of belonging. ‘Happiness’ of pupils is something often attached to GES pupils and staff. Accepting that not everybody is happy all the time, GES is a hugely uplifting place to work – a community enjoying all aspects of being a community! Parents often remark how much they feel part of the community too.
What are the main principles and philosophies you promote at the school?
Our Core Values of Community, Teamwork, Integrity, Respect, Courage and Opportunity encompass all that we do. They crop up in so many situations – when somebody does something well, when somebody gets something wrong, how we treat each other, how we choose to be ourselves – everything! Some of our families have the GES Core Values on their kitchen walls reckoning that they are as good for home as for school! Personally, I love it when you see children fully embracing being part of a team and a community and still being totally comfortable as an individual too.
How do you get children to do their best academically?
Lots of encouragement and positivity! Children are encouraged, as they move up through the school, to become more and more involved in their own learning and are guided to greater understanding of how they achieve more and go further in their studies. We like them to be academically curious, ask lots of questions and be keen to go further. We foster an independence of thought from the earliest years and build this up as the children understand more.
Which other areas of education and extracurricular activities are you developing?
We are just about to start opening our own secondary school – something that has been evolving for a good number of years. We open a Year 7 on our current site in Genthod, near Geneva, in September 2016, while a brand new site is prepared elsewhere in Genthod. In September 2017, the GES secondary will open on this site for at least Years 7, 8 and 9. It will then grow year by year up to Year 13 – the final year of Sixth Form. This is a huge development for us and we are very excited about having a secondary school that operates on the same values and umbrella approach as the current school has done for 54 years. The secondary project will bring about a further explosion of extra-curricular possibilities and we expect this to increase the current school’s opportunities too. There has been much development of our sport in recent years and we are now beginning to win tournaments more regularly, field more teams and have a greater depth of coaching. We will want to see this continue into the secondary school.
How do you encourage understanding between cultures and nationalities?
We have parents who volunteer to come and talk to children about Diwali, for instance, and Chinese New Year and Thanksgiving. We like to celebrate differences and diversity at GES and are developing further ways to do so. Children regularly have opportunities to talk about their lives and upbringings in other countries and cultures – which fascinates other children. We are British school overseas which means that there is a lot of ‘Britishness’ around but, increasingly, our attention is becoming more international and global too – and we love it!
What is the best thing about leading an international school in Switzerland?
Switzerland has so much to offer! There are so many opportunities and positives that anybody from any culture or nationality can appreciate – some of them such simple things, like the outdoor style of life, the natural beauty, the openness and so on. This gives a school leader a head start in getting children to appreciate what is around them. Switzerland is a very stable country and, in an uncertain world, this should never be underestimated.
How do you make the most of everything Switzerland has to offer?
We have lots of visits arranged for different year groups which take advantage of the huge number of learning opportunities through museums, theatre and other as well as the wonderful outdoor possibilities. Many of our year groups go on residential trips every summer term to some wonderful locations in Switzerland such as Kandersteg, Lenk, Torgon and Crans Montana. These are breath-taking places to be visiting, encouraging responsibility and appreciation for natural beauty.
How do you help international students settle in when they first arrive?
The youngest children are more reliant on their teachers but from Year 1 (age 5) new pupils are given at least one ‘buddy’ to be with them at playtimes and generally help them to join in, meet other children, for those vital settling in days, weeks or even months. Nobody knows at the start how long it will take for somebody to feel really settled. Class teachers remain very involved, of course, liaising with home. Our community is a happy to keep supporting and encouraging as long as it takes. In the classroom, teachers will be building on what data we had before a pupil joined us to check there haven’t been any key concepts or learning points missed if a child has joined from another school. This all helps the settling process and a smooth transfer. In our smaller community, many more teachers will get to know a new pupil very quickly than will actually teach that child. Children love that!
What are the main trends in education that you are seeing at the moment?
Developments in technology, an awareness of the importance of areas like emotional intelligence, the use of creative space for learning and not just a series of rooms, whilst retaining some of the obvious basics to a great learning experience.
What are the main challenges for education as a whole in the future?
Advances in technology and the whole balance of lifestyle between technology and other areas are a huge challenge to education and the world in general. It is moving too fast to actually get a handle on approaches to use. Something becomes obsolete and is replaced by something ‘better’ in very short spaces of time. This is not necessarily a great learning point for children growing up in a world that all too readily is prepared to take things on, them drop them in favour of something better, faster, stronger and so on. We aim for a balanced approach that acknowledges the desire to embrace technology without creating an imbalance.
How are you equipping your students for future success?
Our approach to community, self-confidence and social responsibility with our students means we are focusing at times on the ‘softer’ skills of communication, respect, initiative, positivity and teamwork – all things that future employers will want in their work places, as much as top qualifications. Emotional intelligence has such a high value and this is an area we seek to develop in our pupils through our Life skills lessons and any other part of the children’s lives at GES.
Geneva English School, which will open a Secondary School in September 2016, is a not-for-profit happy and thriving co-educational international school community for children aged 3 to 11. Visit: www.geneva-english-school.ch