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46 (141) 2020
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Interviews

Health and wellbeing, creativity and adaptability

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Sue Hill, principal of The British School Warsaw, talks to Michael Dembinski about taking up her new post in the middle of a pandemic, and about the importance of an international education

Your previous postings give useful insights into the value of an international education –

“I spent four years teaching in the UK in a primary school before I began teaching abroad – firstly in the United Arab Emirates for 6 years, then moving to Amman, Jordan as Head of Primary at an International school. I had the fortune of getting to know a very diverse group of children of different nationalities and cultures and with this comes different expectations of education. We followed the British curriculum which was attractive for many families who were transient, spending on average 2-3 years in each country. Our ‘third culture kids’ found that moving between different schools around the world was much easier through the British standardised and more rigorous curriculum and this was cited as a big factor for choosing our school compared to other systems, for example the American system. I then moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where I began as Head of a Primary campus in an all-through school from 2 to 13 years. Whilst in this position, the British International School became a part of the Nord Anglia Education network, which currently has 69 schools worldwide. My final school, prior to moving to Warsaw, was the British International School Hanoi where I took the role of Principal.”

What’s the attraction of the British system? –

“British education is a strong product globally. With a standardised curriculum, the British system has a clear set of objectives and expectations for each year group, providing clear progression however there is flexibility to be creative in how these objectives are taught. At The British School Warsaw, we deliver the objectives through the IPC (International Primary Curriculum) which adds a global dimension through the choice of topics taught and with the additional objectives aimed at developing an international mindset.

 In our secondary school, students follow a two-year programme of study for IGCSE* external exams which are taken at Year 11 then they enter the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) rather than studying for A-Levels. Some may question our choice of the IBDP however we are confident that this curriculum is superior as a preparation for university, or indeed for life in an ever-changing world. Many studies have shown that IBDP students are better able than their peers to cope with demanding workloads, manage their time and meet the expectations placed on them. Elements such as the Extended Essay, the CAS programme (Creativity, Activity, Service) and TOK (Theory of knowledge) allow our students to develop more intellectually through a diverse academic curriculum whilst engaging in voluntary, creative or physically challenging projects.

How Brexit will affect the demand for British international schooling around the world is uncertain; EU students will no longer automatically qualify for the same tuition fees that home (ie. English and Welsh) students pay from the academic year 2021. However, British universities remain among the very best in the world which will provide our students and their families with a dilemma. And we still don’t know how Brexit will affect Scottish universities, which currently don’t charge tuition fees to either Scottish or to EU students.

The British School Warsaw has changed much since the 1990s when most of the pupils were children of British expats. “Today, it is far more diverse, with pupils from 59 countries, a growing number of which are from South East Asia. Just under half of our community are Polish; their parents often cite the international mindset and diverse community as reasons for joining The British School Warsaw. The diversity of pupils’ backgrounds can be a positive challenge and provides plenty of scope to learn from each other. Every year, we have a celebration of diversity, with an international fair for our parents, staff and children. Sadly, this year we have had to postpone the fair because of COVID restrictions however we still celebrated in classrooms and it was wonderful to see children dressed in their national costumes.

The British School Warsaw had prepared itself last year for a safe return to school after a spring term of virtual classes. “Implementing best practice from Nord Anglia Education schools across Europe, the British School Warsaw re-opened in September with four separate entrances specific for different year groups, with temperature checks at the door followed by hand-washing, and over 80 automatic hand-sanitiser dispensers around the school! Regular hand-washing and hand-sanitising has had to become a habit for our pupils. Crucial too are the separate zones we have created, with class ‘bubbles’ that do not mix, so if one pupil tests positive, the potential spread would be limited to their individual bubble. This makes it easier to trace potential contacts. Masks are worn by all secondary pupils and staff indoors. Windows are left ajar to ensure adequate ventilation, and desks are re-spaced across the classrooms, altering the appearance of our learning areas in order to distance students. Sadly, there has been no provision of after-school activities, as no outside providers or parents are allowed on campus in order to minimise risk. In addition, there has been no exciting school trips which take students on adventures both within and outside of Poland. As the Polish government has implemented school closure for various year groups, we have moved seamlessly to our virtual school provision and the challenge has been to make learning fun and healthy whilst delivering the academic side of the curriculum. A clear structure to the day is important; a welcome to the day at 8am primary with an 8:15am start of lessons and embedding time away from the screen for dance, PE, and creative activity. We are always trying to be creative and one particular success was an optional family cookery session, based on recipes from Ancient Rome!”

Before Covid-19, educators were focussed on developing skills needed for life in a future world, often known as 21st-century skills. Adaptability, flexibility, resilience, collaboration and creativity are all considered to be important skills promoted though our curriculum and these have allowed us to carry on in a way that would have been impossible even ten years ago.  “We have had to adapt to the conditions around us and rely on these skills even more. In addition to our virtual school, our Nord Anglia Education Global Campus learning platform has proved to be an important resource. Children have been able to take part in a Virtual Science Fair drawing on creativity, as well as collaborating in forums about various impactful projects in our ‘Social Impact with UNICEF’ section. Flexibility has been seen as we have moved many of our regular global meet-ups to a virtual platform: we are looking forward to our Virtual Musician of the Year contest, our Regional Model United Nations and seeing how our students fare in one of the many global competitions such as the Rube Goldburg Challenge, story writing and the comic book competition. Although, we can’t wait for our school to return to ‘normal’, I believe we will still retain some of the features of high-quality virtual learning. It is undeniable that we have all become more resilient and of course, our technical skills have become far more developed.

Sue spent the first 14 weeks of the pandemic in Vietnam and witnessed the country’s response. The SARS outbreak of 2003 has prepared the Far East for pandemics far better than the Western world. “The approach of the Vietnamese people was completely different to that of the UK or Poland; the government’s no-nonsense approach with international arrivals quarantined in military bases and compulsory mask-wearing, schools closed and People’s Committees monitoring the situation on a weekly basis.” The result: to date, less than 1,500 cases and 35 deaths, according to official figures.  “A Vietnamese friend couldn’t understand the reluctance of people in the West to react appropriately to measures introduced to stop the virus spreading. “Why do you question these rules? It’s just what you have to do!”

* IGCSE = International General Certificate of School Education, the exam taken by pupils in English, Welsh and Northern Irish schools at the age of 16

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