Interview: Paul Friend, North London Collegiate School (Singapore)

If anyone knows the ins and outs of international private education, it’s Paul Friend. After 20 years in overseas schools, he has made the move to Singapore to embark on another exciting role as the founding principal of North London Collegiate School’s third international institution – where he hopes to embed an ethos of ambition and aspiration

Q. Can you sum up your career history?

It probably took around three months of working for an accountancy firm in Dudley before I realised that the world of finance was not a long-term career option for me. A few months later, and as a part-qualified certified accountant, I found myself starting a teacher training programme and in front of my first maths class.

The teaching bug bit instantly, and it hasn’t let go of me since. The excitement from interacting with young people, helping to shape their lives, and that almost overwhelming awareness that their learning is firmly in your hands. That responsibility still gives me a tingle of goosebumps, even today.

This year is my 20th anniversary in international schools. It was 1999 when I took my first overseas posting in Thailand as head of boarding at Dulwich College’s first international school. Since then I’ve held four headships, including a return to the Dulwich family in 2009 as headmaster of Dulwich College Shanghai. For the last five years I’ve served as principal at North London Collegiate School’s (NLCS) first international school in Jeju, Korea and moved to Singapore in the summer as founding principal at NLCS (Singapore).

Q. What inspired you to teach overseas?

I don’t think I’d ever really given overseas teaching any thought, but then a new member of staff arrived at my school who’d spent a few years teaching in the Middle East. He maintained that it was an enlightening experience that he felt every teacher should try and that planted a seed of thought in my mind. Eight months later I was packed and preparing to fly to Thailand. 

Q. What are the best things about being a head, and the biggest challenges?

That sense that, as a head, you are somewhat of a guardian of your school community, is an incredibly fulfilling responsibility to hold. The most rewarding aspects of the job are linked to our students, and in particular their growth. When you farewell students at the year 13 graduation ceremony and you have that tangible sense of how they’ve grown and developed under your school’s care, you feel a sense of fulfilment that makes the ups and downs of headship completely worthwhile.

I was asked recently what I felt was the most important part of my job at NLCS (Jeju) and, instinctively, I answered with “ensuring that I put the right teachers in front of our students”. Recruitment, especially on the international circuit where turnover is naturally much higher than at home, is one of the biggest challenges.

Q. What issue in education are you most passionate about?

There is no substitute for a teacher who inspires and excites their students, and I believe that parts of our profession have gone through periods where the importance of teaching quality has been lost within, dare I suggest, ‘learning myths’. I’m passionate about keeping teachers engaged and excited with their own subjects, and on focusing professional development on issues that we know make a difference to students.

Q. What was your favourite subject at school?

Well, as a maths graduate and maths teacher I have to say maths, right? Wrong! I was always good at maths and enjoyed it, but my first love was always chemistry.

Q. What is your favourite book?

I think our context and experiences give specific meaning to books that we read, and we’ve probably all had that experience of seemingly reading a book at exactly the right time in our lives, where the resonance can be quite profound. By that measure I’d probably highlight two books that hold special meaning for me: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

Q. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Wait, what? Heads have spare time? Seriously, I think the intensity and demands of the role mean that we come to value our spare time far more. I love travelling to new countries with my family and exploring new cultures – although our travels are not so much built around sightseeing, as they are around food. I’m a bit of a ‘foodie’ and am fascinated with the connections found between different cultures and foods. 

I’ve always had a great appreciation for performing arts (made greater, I believe, because I have zero talent in that area).

I love seeing live music and theatre and my teenage daughters have given me a newly acquired appreciation for musical theatre.

NLCS (Singapore)

Q. What do you hope to achieve in your new role as founding principal of NLCS (Singapore)?

I’m genuinely inspired by the NLCS story, its values and its ethos. I’ve seen first-hand at NLCS (Jeju) what a profound effect and influence its ethos has on students’ lives. Our students are not just set up to do well academically, but they develop a certain spirit and character that stays with them for the rest of their lives. At NLCS (Singapore) we’ll be focused on embedding that same aspirational and ambitious ethos for our students from day one.

Q. What will make NLCS (Singapore) stand out?

As every exceptional school does, NLCS (Singapore) will stand out because of its unremitting pursuit of its aims and objectives, and its ‘no excuses’ focus on constant improvement.

NLCS (Singapore) will provide an aspirational and inspirational academically rigorous curriculum, supported by outstanding enrichment opportunities and where outstanding pastoral care is clearly focused on the needs of each individual.

Q. If you weren’t a head, what would you do instead?

I’d be playing ‘up front’ for West Bromwich Albion or opening the batting for Warwickshire and England.

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