Halycon International School: the Principal’s perspective

As a school leader in an international school, it used to be the case that I operated in a separate, parallel universe, to the English independent school world. But this has changed over the last five years, so much so that British passport holders are now the largest group among our 36 nationalities at Halcyon. The stories they bring with them often have similar threads: of schools so driven by examinations that student wellbeing is entirely incidental; of systems that are needlessly rule-bound and resistant to change; and a realisation that GCSEs and A Levels are not preparing their children for life.

Halcyon is an International Baccalaureate school, offering a responsive, current curriculum that prepares students to be participatory citizens and change-makers. The IB Diploma – an alternative to A levels – is also the gold standard for university entrance; a fabulous, academic preparation for undergraduate study anywhere in the world. It opens intellectual doors that the English education system cannot recognise, let alone open. Parents and students from both the independent and maintained sectors are discovering that we can meet all their ambitions without the kind of suffering that some schools feel is a badge of honour – that earning a good education requires sacrifice or pain, and that this process is somehow character building. They come to us because, at Halcyon, we have better, more flexible, academic programmes and we treat education as a source of joy.

How did the English education system lose its way? Well, let’s begin by acknowledging that the people who have the power to change education are, of course, successful products of it themselves. For them, school was a often straight road, travelling with relative ease, on to the best universities and successful careers. Where is their incentive to say it doesn’t work? It is a form of privilege not to have to question one’s own education.

It also seems that many tend to look on schools as they would traditional trades or cultural monuments – that there’s something so vital and essential about them that they cannot change. But school practice should be agile and creative and have the impetus to challenge assumptions; It should look more like the real world –  of, say, a digital start-up, which is the kind of place where many students will spend their working lives.

It feels that GCSEs are almost the apotheosis of this failure of imagination. It would be hard to think of a less relevant or less useful qualification, or one that has failed so comprehensively to adapt to changing needs. In contrast, IB students study mathematics, and English, and a second language through to 18, so there’s no need to take examinations at 16+. GSCEs are redundant. 

Successive governments have lacked the political will to retire GSCEs, and to replace the A level system; to offer something more flexible, creative and relevant. Maybe this is because of a lingering chauvinism: that a solid ‘English’ education is better than something found elsewhere in the world? Except that English examinations – requiring narrow, significant, and often irretrievable, choice at 16 – are very much the exception; nearly everyone else in the World has a baccalaureate style approach. That should give us pause for thought.

It might also be true that this lack of courage in making change sits much deeper, beyond the rational. After all, if it were just about intellectual debate, surely we would have joined the dots by now.  Maybe, to make effective change we also need some emotional courage, too; to understand our unspoken biases and unfiltered constructions. For many of us, our sublimated understandings about, and emotional ties to, English school systems are very deeply embedded. Let’s take an obvious example; Hogwarts. It is one reason why Harry Potter works so well, because it functions as an instantly recognisable character, modelled on the kind of elite boarding school that upper-middle class parents aspire to. It has quintessentially English values – honour, loyalty, striving, sacrifice, and individual heroism in overcoming the odds – that connect all the characters together. The reader is not-so-subtly invited to indulge in incoherent imaginings of some idealised, romantic, traditional schooling, where it was so much better in the past. This is a fantasy, of course, but it is alive and well in our imaginations and is not a rational place. 

Many of those privileged to have access to elite English schools are now recognising that there are better ways of succeeding. And as most have realised that things will not change in English schools, they need to look elsewhere if they want their children to have a relevant education, and to have a genuine voice in their learning, 

At Halcyon we are proud to provide a relevant and rigorous IB education, and to do this within a framework that places each person’s wellbeing at the centre of what we do. In this context, wellbeing simply means that students feel valued; they have a voice and can advocate for themselves; they are socially secure; they are intellectually challenged; and they have a sense of purpose and meaning in what they do, everyday. Education is not transactional – about passing one test in order to take the next test – it is about deep personal enrichment, and the IB programme allows us the scope, outside of the limits of the U.K. national curriculum, to prepare students to be lifelong learners. 

Will the current and future governments be brave enough to change the education system?

This blog was written by Barry Mansfield, Principal of Halcyon International

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