My father was the headmaster of a tiny little school in the middle of Lesotho in Africa and he found it quite hard work. But, I can’t imagine what it would be like being in charge of a large international school in Singapore. Especially in times of a crisis! I recently spoke with NICK MAGNUS, headmaster of Dulwich College (Singapore). Dulwich is one of the newer international schools in Singapore, but already regarded as one of the top international schools on the island. Its “mothership”, Dulwich College in London, is one of the oldest schools in the world.
Dulwich College was founded by Edward Alleyn, a contemporary of Shakespeare, in 1619. Alleyn decided to establish a school in London that would provide sound learning, strong artistic pursuits and good manners. And that thread is still prevalent today throughout its international network of colleges, with a rich curriculum that not only focuses on academics but also sport, music, the performing arts and global citizenship.
I asked Nick a few questions about how he and his team managed through the pandemic, from the challenges they faced to the things they learnt.
Dulwich has schools in different parts of the world; did this help in preparing for the onset of the COVID-19 crisis?
Thanks to our connections with our sister schools in China, we received word around Chinese New Year that things were likely to get a lot worse. We started planning right away and were fortunate to benefit from the experiences of our international network of schools who were ahead of the curve and had already switched to e-learning. This gave us a significant head start; so when the Circuit Breaker kicked in eight weeks later, we were well prepared with our own e-learning programme.
Once the penny had dropped that this was going to be fairly serious, what were your first steps?
There are many crisis management exercises that organisations go through as part of leadership and management training, but schools and their leaders are particularly well prepared for such eventualities. Crises occur in different guises and schools must be proactive in trying to predict what will happen. We planned and then adjusted plans in line with what was happening on the ground, and kept communicating to make sure everyone was informed. It’s important to always have a clear reason and purpose for our actions, to support the students at the College.
What were the key challenges for the teachers with home-based learning?
Online learning for children under the age of seven can be challenging due to the level of personal interaction that this age needs with adults. My sympathies go out to parents who were trying to support their children’s learning at home while juggling their day jobs and worrying about loved ones all over the world.
The wellbeing of our teachers, students and parents was always our priority, and getting involved in community initiatives helped to keep spirits high. We have had parents sewing masks, students organising deliveries of essential items and teachers volunteering their time with local charities. We are all in this together. The inventiveness, commitment and work ethic of teachers is always something I reflect on and it fills me with hope to see this in challenging times like these.
What have been the main points to come out of home-based learning for you as the headmaster of Dulwich College (Singapore)?
I think that certain elements of it are here to stay. Although we’re fortunate enough to live in a country where community cases of the virus are under control, I predict that other places around the world will be less fortunate; spikes and school closures may occur again. There is a temptation with e-learning to get caught up in the technology, but the technology is just the vehicle: it’s the teachers who make the difference. Teaching is at its best when it’s interactive and engaging, so the focus, whether it be face-to-face in the classroom or remotely through e-learning, should always remain on what makes good teaching and learning. How do children learn best? What inspires and interests them? If you continue to focus on this, then learning and a love of learning can take place anywhere.
What feedback – positive or negative – have you had from parents?
This has been a difficult and challenging time for everyone, and we’ve seen a huge change to the norm. That always brings anxiety. But our parents have been magnificent and incredibly resilient; their loyalty and support have been truly humbling as has the kindness and appreciation that they’ve demonstrated towards our teachers. We have sought feedback on a regular basis from students and parents, and where changes have been suggested we have adjusted the e-learning offering wherever possible. We’ve tried hard to remain flexible and adaptable, and to be nimble in adjusting course where necessary. Our partnership between home and school has never been stronger as a result.
What have you learnt from these last few months, and how does it affect your vision going forward?
It has enabled us to have greater clarity on what the Dulwich difference will be moving forward. The world has changed, but necessity is the mother of all invention, and switching to online learning has forced us to think creatively. What we have realised is that there are actually many positives from our e-learning experience, some elements of which we will choose to retain as we go forward.
Universities have long been promoting hybrid learning and we believe this should be our model for the future – a hybrid learning programme rooted in the best pedagogical research that draws upon the feedback of students on how they learn best. This is a pathway to personalised learning in the 21st century. One size has never fitted all and our children deserve the best. We’re already implementing this, and we’re calling it “The Dulwich Difference”.
What do you love most about being headmaster of Dulwich?
The future of education has never been so exciting. We’re at a crossroads. We can turn our backs on recent events and carry on as before or we can draw upon our recent experiences and proactively look forward to a brave new world. The kindness and support that I’ve received from our Dulwich family over the last four months means that there is no place in the world I would rather be. As parents, my wife and I consider ourselves so fortunate that our own children have the opportunity to go to a school like ours.