Stephen, you're Headmaster at the Geneva English School. Tell us a bit about your role – what does your day-to-day routine look like?
There is a lot of routine to the role of Headmaster but plenty that isn’t. For instance, we have a dressing-up celebration today for a local Geneva annual celebration and this year our theme is ‘pyjama day’. So, I am dressed as a giant banana in blue and white striped pyjamas!
There is always something going on in a busy, vibrant school that sits alongside and enhances the routines and timetables. We believe it is so important for the children’s learning and school experience to be lots of fun.
On the routine side, I have regular meetings with key staff every week, show most prospective families around the school personally, and have increasing amounts of communication to answer. I teach just a little this year and coach two of our football teams. I go and support teams and groups regularly and try to visit most year groups on their summer term residential trips to wonderful locations in Switzerland and France.
What educational options are currently available at the Geneva English School?
We base our learning on the National Curriculum of England – base because we ‘tweak’ it to allow, for instance, a lot more French. We also feed in some Swiss history and geography into topic work, but it is, first and foremost, the curriculum you would find back in the UK. We have developed our sport and coaching opportunities over the last few years and are now beginning to win tournaments regularly – as well as arranging more matches so we can increase the number of children able to represent the school. Individual music lessons are available with our team of visiting music teachers and there is a much stronger focus on the expressive arts.
We have a great extra-curricular programme which has mushroomed in the last few years. Children here can get a true ‘all-rounder’ experience and we encourage children to ‘have a go’ at things – even if they know something might not be a particular strength for them. We encourage a culture of being involved.
The school has provided primary education for many years, but next year will also be opening for secondary education. What prompted this change?
For many years, families involved in the school have wanted a secondary school that is organized with the same ethos and values as our current school, with the same key selling points – strong academic focus, National Curriculum of England, all-rounder experience in a smaller school that is the right size for confidence-building. I believe our addition of a secondary school will make us stronger, as we are the only international school in our locality that does not offer secondary education.
We are opening a Year 7 on the current site next September while a purpose-built secondary school is being built a mile away in the same community. This will open with at least a Year 7, 8 and 9 in September 2017 preparing, in due course, to take iGCSEs in Year 11 – all hugely exciting!
We will make a decision about whether to offer A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Sixth Form level at a later stage, pending more investigation. Interest in what we are doing is gathering at great pace.
The Geneva English School has under 300 pupils: was it a deliberate decision to keep the school relatively small, and if so, what inspired this decision?
For many years the school had a maximum of 172 pupils. Since then, we have added parallel classes and reduced our class sizes a little. We have also opened a Nursery. It is certainly our deliberate objective to be a smaller educational establishment. We believe it allows us to do things that would not be easily possible in schools where there are several thousand pupils – like the personal development of every pupil. At Geneva English School, all our staff know most of our pupils and vice versa. This makes the pupils (and staff!) feel very secure and part of a supportive community. ‘Community’ is one of our Core Values.
What is the most challenging aspect of running an international school?
It is a ‘people role’ and, therefore, there are many different expectations, views and opinions to balance – pupils, staff, parents and governors. The clearer you are about what the school stands for and does, the less complicated it is. The head of any school is responsible for the overview of the operation, the development, the vision and the implementation, supported by the senior staff team, and with the support of governors in their role of ‘shaping the future’. Generally, I am very collaborative, so I like lots of input into how we get from one point to another in our planning and operation.
In your opinion, what are the best things about living in Geneva as an expat family?
For many people, especially from the UK, it is relatively easy to settle in the Geneva area. Budget air flights to UK and elsewhere make it a different proposition than a move to the Middle or Far East, for instance. Switzerland is a fantastic country, and Geneva is no exception.
View from Geneva English School
Wonderful outdoor locations are so close and there is a focus on a healthy and fun lifestyle. Geneva is such an international location so it is a very interesting place to be. The school has regular visits to places like the United Nations and this helps the children develop a very healthy global perspective.
How does the school help to integrate children and their families into the local community?
We have parents who volunteer to be Class Representatives and part of their role is to welcome new families and introduce them to others. Within school, we have a notice board displaying things going on in the area and we direct them to the ‘Know-it-all Passport’ publication that is full of wonderful information for families in the Geneva area and nearby France. Many of our families take advantage of the huge number of opportunities – sporting, drama and so on – available around the Geneva area.
Are you an expat yourself? If so, what made you decide on Geneva as a place to settle?
I am an expat. It was this job that brought my wife and I to Geneva six years ago and it has been a wonderful adventure. It is the first time we have been expats. Professionally, there are so many similarities within schools (which I love), regardless of where you are. But, for me, being in such a different environment and country has given my work a very special flavour.
Finally, when you're not working, what do you do in your spare time?
Hahaha! I have to concentrate on things I can squeeze into a very busy professional lifestyle. Work hard, play hard comes to mind! We have two dogs (one is Swiss!) and they ensure we get out regularly, walking in Geneva’s wonderful natural beauty. I have never really moved on from rock festivals and concerts – which are wonderful ‘escapes’ from routine! I follow football and other sports, especially the up-and-down fortunes of Stockport County football team.
I am a children’s DJ on occasion – now primarily at the school. I write fiction for teenagers and hope to do this full-time before long. Geneva has been a great location from which to travel all over Europe, which my wife and I love to do. I play a piano accordion, and dress up in many more costumes than just giant bananas!
Stephen Baird is Headteacher at the Geneva English School in Switzerland, which offers a British-style education to children living in Geneva.