Phuket: Inside the headmaster's office
Neil Richards has been headmaster of the British International School for the past seven months and said that although he still had many ideas and new programmes to implement, one of his most pressing concerns was one often overlooked in international schools: Not neglecting the mother tongue.
Monday 11 June 2012, 09:16AM
However he conceded that the logistics of placing emphasis on each individual specific one for the plethora of nationalities that make up BIS students is no easy task.
“What is vital in international schools is that a student’s mother tongue is embedded. So we will give the students the opportunity of being able to retain their mother tongue, whatever that may be, for at least an hour a week. This helps considerably to consolidate learning across the range of knowledge disciplines.”
To achieve this, BIS has a large and well-qualified teaching staff, with a wide-background of nationalities. Languages are well covered with native speakers of Thai, English, French, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish and German.
International schools that cater to a transient market also have to respond to changing demographics, an example being the increase in Russian students who are now applying to get into the school from just a handful a few years ago to 41 full time Russian students studying at BIS in the current term.
Mr Richards believes that such diversity actually brings the student body together, “It [diversity] doesn’t divide communities, but enables everyone to celebrate cultural differences and encourages people to get together. It helps keep the cultures alive, it’s very important to do that.”
What is also incredibly important for Mr Richards is the school’s ability to not only provide a great learning environment, but also create a community and wider support network for the students.
“Many children who attend international schools don’t have access to aunts, uncles or the extended family in the way they would do if they were living at home. Many children, mine included, often feel like outsiders when they return ‘home’.”
Mr Richards said that although international schools are often able to create wonderfully intelligent children, capable of highly critical and analytical thought, they quite often fail in allowing children to construct a more ‘normal’ support and communication network.
“The children need to feel part of something bigger and if they don’t necessarily feel part of the local culture, they can withdraw and find it very difficult to communicate face-to-face with people.
“So we [BIS] ensure that the children have the support network to develop the communicative skills that are crucial in the modern, fast-paced world. Can we make this happen? It’s very important, so we must make it happen…”.
Although Mr Richards admits that attending an international school was likely to create a unique set of dilemmas and problems for students, he denied that the number of concerns were any higher or more significant than those experienced by teenagers anywhere else in the world.
“All children experience problems and have difficulty in the modern world with identity and emotional connection.”
Mr Richards however, believes that far from exasperating that particular crisis, living in an environment with so many cultures and communities actually makes it easier to gain the answer as to who you are, “It’s easier to know who you are when there are many different types of people, with different types of backgrounds. This context makes it easier for a student to reflect upon their own differences and unique aspects as opposed to when everyone looks the same and is from the same background.”
Mr Richards believes that the basic philosophy and ethos of education should remain the same regardless of the country or environment in which a school is placed, although he did add that adaptations may need to be made in how a curriculum is delivered and by whom.
“I often find that I have to educate and inform the parents themselves of the changes in educational thinking and what research in neurology, for example, brings to the table. I explain why education nowadays places extra emphasis on the importance of an emotional connection in what we’re trying to achieve.”
As a way of doing this Mr Richards holds regular meetings with parents and intends bringing various guest speakers to the school.
The approach and perception of the value of international education and international children has thankfully changed significantly not only to teaching, but also in the approach to discipline. Positive behaviour is not a result of coercion. “If we live in a society where we prioritise the need to be the ‘best’ as the sole message then this is what some children will strive to do at the cost of others and pursuit of other virtues. Unfortunately some children might just give up.
He added, “ If we promote empathy from an early age, we will be providing students with the skills to lead emotionally satisfying lives.”
This, Mr Richards believes, will in turn encourage children to learn for the right reasons, “By creating an environment that both values students and provides opportunities for students to be of genuine value to others, they will respond positively, become interested and want to learn for themselves as well as for the people who are teaching them.”.
The British International School, Phuket is a privately owned co-educational boarding school established in 1996. It comprises four sections; Pre-School (Early Years), Primary School, Middle School and High School. The curriculum draws upon the practices of the English National Curriculum, the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education and the International Baccalaureate, delivering a diverse and challenging programme to 800 students, from 18 months to 18 years old.