As the students of Shrewsbury School in Shropshire wander to their first lesson of the day, some of their peers are already winding down for home time. Shrewsbury School has sister schools in Bangkok and Hong Kong – and hopes to open others in mainland China soon.
The ancient school founded by King Edward VI in 1552 is one of the UK’s oldest – but its age has proved no impediment to progress. Proof you can teach an old dog new tricks, Shrewsbury became one of Britain’s first independent schools to establish an international arm in 2003.
Back then, Shrewsbury, Harrow and Dulwich were a small band of pioneers in reaching out overseas, but they began an enduring trend which has seen the UK independent sector reach Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
● Established in 2003
● 1,736 students
● 40 nationalities
● 70% A* or A grades at GCSE
● 200 university destinations since 2004
Shrewsbury founded Bangkok Riverside nearly 17 years ago. In 2018, Shrewsbury founded two more international schools; another in the Thai capital, a coeducational primary school called Bangkok City Campus, and a primary school in the Tseung Kwan O district of Hong Kong.
Riverside is the largest of the three and offers places for students aged three to 18.
Christopher Seal, who is former deputy headmaster at Millfield, traded his job in Somerset for a chance to run a school of more than 1,500 on the banks of Cho Phraya River three years ago.
Despite the distance, Seal says the Riverside school is not so very different from its English equivalent – unlike their peers in rural Shropshire, many of Riverside’s students arrive at school by boat, but their lessons (apart from the addition of Thai and Mandarin classes) would be more than familiar.
When he moved to the school, Seal says he “realised very quickly that the quality education” at Shrewsbury School “is replicated across the international sector in many guises”.
“This ran counter to the rather lazy stereotypes at work in the UK when referring to the international sector. I say this from a position of experience – up to early 2016, I was completely oblivious to just how good international schools can be and would have concurred that these outposts were places where the nearly retired resided in a throwback to the colonial days.”
Seal describes the “uphill battle” he and his team face to “trumpet the quality of the international UK independent sector”.
“UK schools continue to speak of reputational risk being a one-way street, and the reason they have not ‘franchised’ their school. That is not how we work at Shrewsbury.
“Links with the UK are strong, and I am incredibly fortunate to have Leo Winkley, headmaster at Shrewsbury, and the team supporting all that we do. So, I’m not sure what surprised me more coming to Riverside – the sheer quality of the school, or the ignorance of this back in the UK.”
Bangkok City Campus
● Established in 2018
● Feeder school for Riverside campus
● 8:1 overall student to teaching staff ratio
Running a school anywhere in the world has its challenges, but Seal says there are some unexpected tests for him at Riverside. First, there are snakes which make their way onto campus from time to time.
Then, while school leaders in the UK coped with changes to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, the team in Bangkok had to get to grips with poor air quality. A change in local legislation last year meant Thai farmers began burning season months earlier than normal – a change which precipitated heavy smog across the capital and played havoc with the school’s sporting fixtures.
Dr Maghin Tamilarasan, international development director at Shrewsbury School, says the school has invested in some of the best air purification filters, and monitors closely the air quality on campus.
The school has changes of its own to prepare for. Riverside expects to increase its cohort from 1,735 students to 2,300 in the next three years.
The links between all three international schools and Shrewsbury School run deeply. Seal started his journey with Shrewsbury a year before his move to Thailand when he began shadowing the then-headmaster of the Shropshire school. Six months before his start date in August, he spent a week in February with his family at his new school.
He says the transition from Somerset to Thailand was seamless “and an expression of just how good this school is at welcoming new staff”.
I was completely oblivious to just how good international schools can be
To this day, the Shrewsbury schools maintain strong links. They have advisory boards three times a year – and two of the UK school’s governors sit on the boards of their international partners.
Tamilarasan explains there are three visits a year to the international schools from the team in Shropshire and year-round communication.
Teachers share learning resources with their peers on the other side of the world “and we’re increasingly exploring ways to foster collaboration between the schools using the digital technologies that we now have available to us,” he adds.
The school has its teacher recruitment drive in the UK, and Tamilarasan estimates that around two-thirds of teachers in the Shrewsbury international schools trained in the UK education system.
He says the “breadth of experience” and “cultural awareness” their staff bring to the schools helps prepare students for their higher education and future careers. Last year, the most popular destinations for Riverside alumni were Imperial College London, UCL and the University of Cambridge.
Hong Kong Campus
● Established in 2018
● 90 teaching staff
● 30 nationalities
● 7:1 overall student to teaching staff ratio
Seal says stress and anxiety “are commonplace at almost every school these days” but adds that the “triggers” in Bangkok can be different. He says, “our students’ expectations of themselves are extremely high” because parents in Thailand “place a high value on education”.
“We do our best to manage these expectations, and wellbeing support within the school is now strong, but there is only so much you can do to help students who are applying to 10 US colleges, five UK universities, studying four A-levels and doing an EPQ at the same time!
“The behaviour of the students here is exemplary. It can throw you initially because I was used to the ‘banter’ and the more challenging aspects of UK boarding schools, but the classroom atmosphere in Thailand – allied with students’ ability and motivation – allows teaching at Riverside to be at an extremely high level.
“It is a hugely rewarding part of the job here,” he adds.
Tamilarasan says although the school in Hong Kong is in its early days, the school leaders have learned to adapt quickly to the local context. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, residents of Hong Kong had a very different sort of public crisis to deal with.
“The school faced that period of instability and focused on solving localised issues around safe travel of children to school and so on. I guess what I would say is that we are extremely successful as a school in being able to provide solutions and have a very good relationship with the parent bodies.”
Tamilarasan says he is “bullish” about the opportunity for all independent schools to expand internationally and he cites China, India, the Middle East and Europe as key growth areas.
Shrewsbury has ambitions to add more institutions to its growing international family. It is set to open three new international schools in China by 2022, including its first overseas boarding school. Where will be next?
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