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HeadTalk: Paul Friend, North London Collegiate School, Singapore

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

In July 2020, we spoke to Mr. Paul Friend, principal of North London Collegiate School in Singapore.

If you would like to watch, please do so here:

Or if you prefer to read, here is the transcript:

Paul : Good afternoon Ruth. Real pleasure to join you.

Top Schools Ruth: Thank you for joining us all the way from Singapore. Now, I know that you have not always been teaching in Singapore. So could we just find out a little bit about you and also the school that you are heading up?

Paul : Ok, so a little bit about me. I'm from the UK; born and bred in the UK, started teaching in the UK many years ago, and then left for an international adventure in 1999. So, this year is my 21st year overseas and I've taught in Thailand, Zambia, China twice, South Korea and now Singapore. My first overseas' post was actually the very first UK school that franchised overseas - Dulwich College in Thailand. I was the head of boarding there; picked up a few headships, rejoined the Dulwich group and became headmaster at Dulwich College in Shanghai. I was there for six years, then joined the NLCS family; NLCS in Jeju in South Korea and now NLCS in Singapore. So it's it's been just a fabulous international journey for for myself and my family.

Top Schools Ruth: Right. So NLCS is North London Collegiate School and you've been the principal in the NLCS School in Jeju for a few years.

Paul : Correct. So, for five years I was the principal in South Korea and then the opportunity came up to bring the NLCS ethos - which I find incredibly unique and inspirational - to Singapore, a place that I know really well, have travelled with the family through many, many times. So really exciting to be here.

Top Schools Ruth: Great, thank you, Paul. So the school is opening this coming September. And so I want to really take a deep dive into the NLCS ethos and really how that compares to maybe other schools that you've taught in, as well as other schools in Singapore. First, I want to ask you, NCLS is a British school, but it's not a British school and you're not using the British curriculum, right?

Paul : Well, it's interesting; it's complicated. So, first of all, our curriculum absolutely is based on the curriculum of NLCS in the UK. And NLCS in the UK have what I think is a very unique model for that family of schools; a very hands-on relationship, a very close partnership between the school in the UK and the overseas schools. And I think it's probably fair to say that if you go back 12 or 13 years, when NLCS were first thinking about opening schools overseas, they made a commitment then that their most valuable possession is their own reputation. And so they made this commitment that any school that opens anywhere with the NLCS logo above the door, must meet the same standards and deliver the same ethos that they deliver in the UK. So it's a very, very close relationship. And it means that our curriculum structure is absolutely built on the curriculum that's delivered in the UK. Having said that, there is a real commitment within the NLCS family that the curriculum needs to be suitable for the context in which it's operating. So of course we've made some some changes to the curriculum and to some of the curriculum content. But significantly, we've decided not to follow the IGCSE awards in Years 10 and 11, which I guess is surprise to some of the parents that we've met here. And our reason for doing that is simply that - for us as a very academically focused school, a very academically rigorous school - our curriculum culminates with the IB diploma. And so for all of our curriculum areas, we've taken the IB diploma high level material as our starting points and simply backward planned the curriculum all the way down. So we're really excited that we've got this very aspirational curriculum, very challenging curriculum for our students with a real sense of being on that one continuous path leading towards leading towards the IB diploma.

And so for all of our curriculum areas, we've taken the IB diploma high level material as our starting points and simply backward planned the curriculum all the way down. So we're really excited that we've got this very aspirational curriculum, very challenging curriculum for our students with a real sense of being on that one continuous path leading towards leading towards the IB diploma.

Top Schools Ruth: And is it correct to say that the school in the UK does also offer the IB diploma as an option to A-levels?

Paul : They do. They offer both A-levels and IB Diploma and have a really close relationship with the IB. They are one of the top performing IB schools in the world. So their average IB score last year was 41 points with three students achieving the maximum marks of 45. So it's a program that means an awful lot to them and they have made a commitment that all of their international schools will only offer the IB diploma.

Top Schools Ruth: As I was doing the research for today, the statistic that struck me was not the overall score, but the fact that in the higher level subjects, the average last year for the UK school was 6.42 points out of a possible 7. So, very academically rigorous. This is something that I've heard you say a number of times. I do want to circle back to that. But before we do, can you just explain a little bit about the connection between the schools in the technical sense? How are the schools related to one another?

Paul : Well, first of all, the involvement that NLCS in the UK has with all of their international schools is, as I say, a very, very close relationship. So they work with us on all our staff recruitment. They work with us on our ongoing staff training. They have oversight of every aspect of the curriculum that we deliver to our children. They also inspect their overseas schools twice every year. And, in our first year of operation, we will be inspected three times. That will be a team of teachers and leaders from the school and external inspectors that will be visiting us to look at everything that we do. But to ultimately answer that question: is the standard of teaching and learning going on in the school of the level that we set for ourselves back in the UK? So, a very, very close relationship between all of the international schools and London, but also a really close relationship between the international schools. We have developed what we call our 'communities of practice'. So, for example, the Head of Maths in every one of the schools - the international schools and London - will be connecting maybe once every half term sharing best practice, sharing ideas, helping out with maybe some difficulties that each other has, and significantly looking for ways in which we can create opportunities for our students to share opportunities with each other. So we've held online debates across the schools; we're thinking about trips and activities that could take place across the schools. We have a student exchange program already set up and established between Korea and London. So we just really get the sense that this is really gaining momentum and it's really going to turn into something exciting for us.

Top Schools Ruth: Do you actually provide priority transfer between the different schools for your students? And I know the school in the UK girls only, but the other international schools are co-ed.

Paul : Correct, there are two big constraints with the school in the UK. The first, as you say, is that it's a girls' school only. The second is that they are hugely, hugely oversubscribed. So I think the data for the last intake into Year 7 was around 50 extra places moving from Year 6 to year 7 and they have over 550 applicants for those fifty places. So incredibly hard to get into London, but for the international schools there is an automatic right of transfer. All of our schools are academically selective, so children need to go through entrance tests, they are interviewed, we look at reports from their previous schools. But, once selected into an NLCS school - providing there is a place - then they have an automatic right of transfer between the schools.

Top Schools Ruth: I want to explore this idea of rigour and being academically selective, because we get a sense that in Hong Kong that that's actually something that's not really offered. Whereas in the UK, for many of the schools, that's a given. So how do you interpret that and how did you identify the need for that in Singapore?

Paul : I think I'll answer your second question first. I don't think it was a case of identifying the need and therefore setting up a school to be like this. This is who we are. And NLCS have a tried and trusted ethos and philosophy - and ways of educating children - that we know works. We know it's successful. We know it's inspirational and aspirational. So, it was a question of 'this is what we do'. And the authorities, when they announced that they wanted another international school in Singapore, and NLCS bid with 48 other schools to get that license...the authorities here found it a very, very compelling offering and thought that the market here in Singapore needed a school like ours.

What does academic rigour looks like in our school? I mean, I'll tell you what it doesn't look like. And we find ourselves saying this a lot to parents. It can be so easy to think about a school that's using phrases like academic rigour. We're academically selective and you almost develop this picture of quiet classrooms with children sat at single desks, copying work off the board while the teacher maybe sits down in the corner marking books from the previous lesson. We are absolutely not like that at all. Our classrooms are dynamic, they're energetic, they're often noisy. There's a lot of debate and discussion going on. And for us, academic excellence is not about academic results. It's not about exam results and university matriculation. It's about the culture in our school. It's about creating that classroom environment where the teacher is passionate about their discipline, where their remit is to inspire and excite the children in learning their subject and wanting to learn their subject. It's about academic societies that we have in our enrichment program. And when we get that right, academic excellence for us is the culture of the school. It's a celebration of learning. And it's this common thing between us where we just all want more knowledge. We all want to develop. We all want to find out more. And I think if you get that right, those excellent exam results and those excellent university matriculation results that you've already referred to actually fall out of that process anyway as almost as a byproduct. And, you know, we're finding here in Singapore, speaking to parents, we're really having to emphasize the fact that we're not an exam factory, we're not into rote learning, we're not into memorization. That's not what we are as an academic school. It's about that culture that just thrives on knowledge and learning and constantly wanting, wanting to know more.

Top Schools Ruth: I think that a Singaporean local style school shares a lot of common qualities with a Hong Kong style of local school and also the mainland style of local school. And I think obviously the parents that are looking at the schools that we work with, including a school like NLCS, are not looking for that. But then when we look at all of the other schools - all of the IB schools and UK schools - parents have been telling us that there's a little bit of a tendency now to be so untraditional or progressive in some sense that parents actually lose sight of where their children are academically. So I'm interested to know that a child going through NLCS, an academically rigorous program, what does that look like for parents? What sort of information is flowing back to parents? And how are parents able to benchmark where their children are, are they performing to the absolute best of their abilities?

Paul : You raise such an important issue in education today and those schools that are progressive, and I would suggest many of them experimental, in what they're doing and what they're delivering...I do have something of a frustration with our profession and I think we're far too keen to jump on bandwagons and to listen to new ideas and think, let's put that in the classroom straight away. And so you see an awful lot of fads in education. You see a flavour of the month that maybe lasts for one or two years and then it fades away and it's replaced by something else. I think at NLCS, we're so confident and certain that what we do is effective, that we are sure enough that we can resist all of those fads that come along. And that's certainly not to say that we're not innovative. We are innovative, we are disruptive in many senses. In fact, the NLCS story is based on an educator who was disruptive and wanted to change things. But what does that looks like for parents? First of all, we have a real strong belief in the need to communicate with parents and communicate in detail. So we already have very detailed curriculum guides for our parents. If you're a parent at our school, you pick up the grade level curriculum guide and you know exactly what your child is going to be taught in every term, in every subject in detail. So we're very, very open in sharing what we're teaching to our children. I have this particular mantra that I tell our teachers. We never want our parents to have surprises. And I'm sure many parents have had this feeling - you go to a parent-teacher consultation at the end of a year and your maths teacher says to you that your son or daughter hasn't been doing well in maths all year. And as a parent, you think, 'why am I only finding out about now?' So we're a school that really values informal education. We encourage our teachers to pick up the telephone, to drop an email, to drop a text message, if only to say, look, I'm just getting a little bit worried about situation X, Y, Z. We need to talk, we need to keep an eye on it. We need home and school to be all across this or to contact parents and just say, look, your son or daughter is doing fantastic in the subject at the moment. And that informal communication, I think, is incredibly important. And again, if we get that right, parents have that confidence and that comfort that they know where their children are. They know what material is being taught, they can see where that's leading to. If there are any problems, if there are any difficulties, then they are involved in talking about them. And that word 'confidence' is so important. As parents, you need to feel confident that your child's education is in good hands. And you can only get that confidence if you have full information coming from the school.

Top Schools Ruth: Absolutely. And I've said it time and time again, I find it bemusing sometimes that parents who are paying seriously high private school fees don't feel that they can actually pick up the phone and call their child's teacher if there's an issue. If the teacher isn't responsive, then escalate that to the head of the year and so on and so on, and I find it very, very strange.

Paul : I do, and something else that frustrates me that is linked to that are schools that rely completely on systems. So if you've got a problem as a parent, if you've got a concern that you want to raise and you raise it with your child's tutor or teacher or the head or the deputy head, and you're told you're speaking to the wrong person, look at the flow chart in the parent handbook. You can only talk to us if you speak to this person first and this person next. And again, I mean, we throw that out the window. We have a genuine open-door policy. I've told all of our staff and all of our parents, I will never, ever turn a parent away. I will listen to anything that a parent wants to talk about and engage with. And I don't know why schools do that. I don't know whether it's for some schools, it's insecurity, for some schools that they're so busy and that there's almost a distraction, if you like. That's probably not the right word. But if parents get involved, it just gives us another thing to worry about. I mean, I found myself talking to a group of parents last week, and I made the comment that, you know, I've been a head for a long time. I've led some very large, successful, prestigious schools. I've got my Master's Degree in Educational Leadership. I'm partway through a PhD that I will never finish. I'm an avid reader of education and leadership research and textbooks. And I've seen the gurus speaking on stage. But nothing has influenced my own educational philosophy more than becoming a parent. And when you see your own children experiencing schooling and you see the difficulties that they go through and you see the challenges that they face and the successes that they face, that that that gives a whole new perspective to me in terms of running the school and why we do what we do.

Top Schools Ruth: That's a very interesting perspective. I would say the same for what I do. And also, you've got different children and one child is entirely different from the other.

Conscious of time; I know that we could talk for hours. I want to ask you a little bit about - and this is this is connected with parents feeling that they belong to the community and their children are performing - how does the pastoral care system work? So, if I'm a parent, how many individual members of staff are looking after my child and in what different capacities?

Paul : Yes, so again, I will draw it back to the ethos before we talk about the system. So the NLCS ethos talks about the need to focus our pastoral care on the needs of the individual, not the needs of the cohort and the group. We need to know the child intimately in order to spot when they're going through those difficult times. And where there may be a little bit of a trough and they need support. And we believe that you do that by requiring every single teacher in the school to be responsible for pastoral care. And it's a frustration that I found that you walk into some schools and maybe some teachers wear a badge that says Head of House, Head of Year, and they will tell you, I do the pastoral care and you'll find someone else that says, well, I'm a physics teacher and I don't do anything apart from teach physics. Well, those teachers don't belong in a NLCS school. We formally require and we appraise our teachers based on their contribution towards the academic life of the school and the pastoral life of the school. And so it's not just the tutor and the head of house that's looking out for the child. It is the geography teacher and the chemistry teacher, it's every adult that they come into contact with. And so when you have that - that wraparound care where every adult in the building is looking out for the child - that's when you really can be sure that you can spot those moments when the children need some extra support from us. The pastoral care for us in Singapore will be based around a House system. And often we say to parents, think of Hogwarts and you're not too far away. So we've got our houses and we create that family atmosphere within the larger school and tutor groups within those houses. But it doesn't mean that the care of the children is limited to that system. It's a responsibility that we all have.

Top Schools Ruth: So, there is a House system and there is not a Tutor system as such?

Paul : Yes. So, again, a really interesting approach. So every child will be in a tutor group and our tutor groups at NLCS Singapore are vertical tutor groups. So if you walk into a tutor group, you'll find two year sevens, two year eights, two year nines all the way up to Sixth Form. And that, again, speaks to that family spirit that we want to create. And for us, the relationship that we call the older sibling relationship is really important. And those tutor groups will form part of a house. So the Tutor Groups are a subset of the House System.

Top Schools Ruth: I want to ask you a little bit about the facilities - 35,000 square feet - and the sports. It's an amazing site.

Paul : Yes, it's a wonderful site. And we're so lucky to have a site that is so central. And because I've been on the circuit for a long time - I know most of the heads here in Singapore personally - and they've all said to me, how on earth did you manage to get that site in such a great location? So we're lucky to be where we are. We've got a large school that's built for 1600 students. We've got a 50-meter swimming pool, basketball courts, tennis courts, a double gym indoors with a climbing wall and a dance studio. But outside of sports, we've got a music performance space, a black box drama studio, a design and engineering workshop, a specialist computer science lab.

The hardware is all there; nothing that you could want for. And I had a question actually that was submitted earlier. Just very briefly, I want to touch on it. I know it's not a bilingual school, but we're asking about the Mandarin program. Can you give us a very, very brief summary of the Chinese program?

Paul : Yep. So, very briefly. Mandarin is our main second language. Mandarin is a compulsory subject from pre-kindergarten all the way up to Grade 8. In pre-kindergarten, our youngest 3 year olds, will have Mandarin lessons every day. So we teach it discretely. In addition, in the early years, our teaching assistants are Mandarin speakers and qualified Mandarin teachers. So they make sure that - for the parents that tell us that Mandarin development is important for them - that it's also integrated into their day to day activities in the classroom. When we get up to Senior School, when we get to Grade 6, Mandarin, again, is compulsory. But we also introduce a second second language. So the children need to choose an additional language. And then when we get into Grade 9, all of our languages become optional. So that's where students could opt to do Mandarin or not to do Mandarin along with the other one.

Top Schools Ruth: I just want to ask you for one last piece of advice for parents. You read a lot, you're very well read on on all aspects of education. If there's one book that you would like to recommend to parents, that's a non-academic accessible text, what would that one book be?

Paul : OK. I'm probably going to surprise myself to recommend this, but there is a book called Dual Coding. There's a whole theory called dual coding. But if you look out for that text and you know, there's so much known and cognitive science at the moment about how the brain works and how we learn. And so little of it is actually translated into classrooms and into teaching and dual coding is such a powerful concept. That is proven scientifically to work and actually is absent in almost every classroom that you walk into. So I've got this big mission to not only expose our teachers to dual coding, but talk to our students and our parents about it. So look out for dual coding and in fact, don't order the book because delivery times are delayed at the moment. There's some great websites that the dual coding is about.

All right. Thank you, Paul. Well, we'll get the links from you. So absent in most classrooms, but present in the NLCS classrooms.

Paul: Yes, absolutely.

Top Schools Ruth: Thank you for your time, Paul. It's been super interesting and I'd love to come visit when we next over in Singapore. So all the best with the finishing off the build and with your opening. Thank you for your time. Thanks, Paul. Goodbye.



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