Interview: Gwen Byrom, director of education strategy, NLCS International

Gwen Byrom on "taking the leap" into something different, her best reads and advice to school leaders during the pandemic

What does your current role entail?

My role is to ensure that the ethos and world-class educational standards of NLCS UK are maintained in our international schools.

NLCS operates a very hands-on franchise model, since it is important to us that our brand means the same to families wherever in the world our schools are.

Our schools may operate slightly differently in different countries, as you would expect, but our core values remain the same.

As examples of how we achieve this, NLCS International is committed to being involved in the appointment of every member of teaching staff in our schools, and all of our schools receive a monitoring visit from the international team at least annually.

NLCS International’s dedicated team of recruiters, project managers and educationalists are co-located with the London school and we draw upon the expertise of the teaching staff there to help us to recruit and train the very best international teachers.

I work with our principals through the Academic Board to discuss areas where we can share good practice and to look at where we need to have common approaches to academic matters. I also serve as the academic governor on our international schools’ governing bodies.

In addition, I work on other consultancy projects where we offer advice, support and training to other schools on a wide range of matters associated with running a successful British-curriculum school overseas.

Why did you decide to go into international education?

My decision to go into international education was prompted by a desire to keep learning about education and to do something different. I had been a headteacher in the UK for a number of years and during my presidency of the Girls’ Schools Association I was given the opportunity to try things outside of my comfort zone.

When weighing up the choice between staying put or taking the leap into something different, the appeal of continuing to learn new things won out. International education is wonderful, and really makes you think as an educator about your own philosophy and the lenses through which you view the world.

I work with some superb school leaders and my role gives me the opportunity to visit (in more ‘normal’ times) the wonderful schools they lead.

NLCS Dubai

Once open, what impact do you think NLCS Bangkok will have on Thailand?

NLCS Bangkok has the potential to be a real trailblazer in education, in much the same way as NLCS UK was, as the first independent girls’ school in the UK, 170 years ago.

The strong values of the group always will be at the forefront of our offer, but we are, of course, looking closely at our USP within the market and how it relates to other projects we are working on in Asia.

The ‘blank sheet’ afforded by any new school is tremendously exciting, and we are working towards the position when we can announce when NLCS Bangkok will be open for students.

North London Collegiate School (NLCS) is a growing family of schools, including:
– NLCS UK (Middlesex)
– NLCS Dubai
– NLCS Jeju
– NLCS Singapore
– NLCS Bangkok (not open yet)

What is the biggest challenge facing international independent schools?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing international independent schools, which are part of a group, is to articulate how the ethos and values of the ‘home’ school are reflected overseas.

We know that the way we do things takes a lot of time and effort but we believe that we owe it to the families who join us to make sure that their school’s connection with the ‘mother’ school is not in name only, but has genuine meaning.

You cannot make any assumptions that just because of your name, or the fact that you have good exam results back home, you will be a success

I also believe that for schools operating in jurisdictions with a very different philosophy of education, building confidence and trust that your educational model ‘works’ is a constant pressure. You cannot make any assumptions that just because of your name, or the fact that you have good exam results back home, you will be a success.

You don’t just have to attract people, you need to give them a reason to stay – including your staff – and the values that you live by and how you articulate them are a key factor in retention.

We’re currently facing the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed education enormously. Can you share any words of advice for schools?

There has been so much good practice in schools around the world and it’s been heartening to see the profession pulling together to offer help and advice as the wave of school closures has moved around the world.

My advice to school leaders would be not to be too hard on yourself. This is an unprecedented situation for everyone and nobody has all the right answers. It can feel like the best choice of how to teach students, and how to support staff, is only the least worst option, and that’s never a comfortable place to be.

Know that whatever your decision is, it’s the one which works for your organisation in your particular set of circumstances and trust your instincts that you are doing the right thing.

For all the talk of an education revolution, what’s becoming very clear is that effective teaching and learning over the long term needs face-to-face interaction with the connection between student and teacher that is fostered.

All of the NLCS schools are currently hard at work delivering the outstanding education parents have come to expect via online lessons and support, including the excellent pastoral care which is a feature of all our schools.

This being said, we very much look forward to welcoming all of our students back into school when the current emergency has passed.

The current closure of schools and subsequent assertions that learning could be revolutionised by this period of online teaching throws educational inequalities into sharp relief and fails to take account of the wildly varying access to online facilities, both within and across countries.

I think that having to adapt to a new situation rapidly (which all of our schools have done very well) will ultimately inspire and invigorate educators worldwide but if this current hiatus opens up a wider debate about how much variation there is in access to educational opportunities, both in schools and online, then so much the better.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Chemistry – smells, explosions and a bit of magic, all with an explanation!

What issue in education are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about the life-changing possibilities of education, and its potential to be a genuine driver of social mobility.

I don’t suggest for one moment that any education system is perfect, but for all the criticism levelled at independent schools in the UK for promoting educational inequality, we are all committed to supporting students who would not be able to come to us under normal circumstances.

I am passionate about the life-changing possibilities of education, and its potential to be a genuine driver of social mobility

NLCS UK opened its international schools to help secure the education of a large number of students whose families do not have the financial means to access NLCS. The more students we can support, the better.

What is your favourite book?

I am going to be greedy here because choosing one is too difficult.

I love The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov as a magical, darkly comic but stinging indictment of Russia under Stalin. In non-fiction I’d pick Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, which is utterly fascinating.

As a raging feminist I can’t let a book recommendation pass without mentioning Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, though.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

In my spare time I try in vain to keep track of my five kids, I read, knit and ride motorbikes faster than I should – but not all simultaneously.

If you weren’t in education, what would you do instead?

As you might have guessed from one of my book recommendations, my alternative career choice would have been to work as a pathologist.

I think I perhaps had a misspent youth watching too many crime-fighting pathologists on TV (who I now know don’t really exist) but I also loved the time I spent in the pathology museum when studying at university.

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