A British school in Qatar
In this conversation Mike Weston, recently retired Headmaster of Sherborne Qatar, talks to us about what makes a British school different to other ‘International Schools’, and describes the experience of working in a new school that aims to provide a British education to pupils from all over the world.
Mike, perhaps you can start by explaining the difference between ‘British’ schools in other countries and ‘International Schools?’ How does Sherborne Qatar refer to itself?
We think of ourselves as a British School, not as an International School – that’s an umbrella term that describes many different kinds of school, offering very different educational experiences. Our intention at Sherborne Qatar is to provide a distinctively British education, and to translate British values and practices into a new school without sacrificing any of the qualities or standards that parents would expect. We’re part of a category of schools called BSO – British Schools Overseas. This means we’re inspected to Ofsted standards; and in fact we have met and even surpassed the required standards both in and away from the classroom.
So does this ‘Britishness’ affect every aspect of school life? Is it about more than the curriculum that you teach?
Yes, absolutely – it’s about the culture of the school. Any parent visiting us would see lots of things that they would recognise as distinctively British. They would see it in everything from the way we organise the school day to the nomenclature that we use. I’ll give you some examples. We have a school uniform, a British school uniform; we have prefects and houses; we have a lunch hour and a dining room – all the familiar features of an independent British education. It’s an important part of the offer that we make to families in Qatar, whether they’ve just moved to Qatar, or are Qataris themselves who want a British education for their children.
What about the teaching staff? Is the pattern there also different to other ‘International’ schools?
Yes, it is different. All our teachers are British, or at least trained in the British system, rather than being ‘international’ in the sense of coming from all over the world. A lot of our teachers are parents as well, by the way.
As well as being a British school, with aims and practices derived from British education, you obviously have your parent school in the UK, this specific tangible link. What difference does this make?
The mothership, yes! It’s a wonderful asset; it brings another dimension to the experience of our pupils in Sherborne Qatar. For example, recently a group of our geographers went on a trip to Iceland, which was a great experience in itself, but then on their way back they also visited Sherborne in the UK and studied the Jurassic Coast in the south of England. This ability to join our resources to those of another school obviously gives us this additional scope. We also have an annual pupil exchange and are looking at sports and debating tournaments too.
"...any parent visiting us would see lots of things that they would recognise as distinctively British..."
Presumably this link to an older school, and the familiarity of a British education, is quite reassuring to a lot of parents?
Yes, it’s something that a lot of parents will value. If you’re moving to another country, then these points of reference are of course immensely welcome. This familiarity (for parents from the UK at least, although parents from other countries may also find many aspects of the school life familiar to them because of the expectations they have of a British education), helps parents and children to settle in. And of course the difficulty of finding a school with all the right qualities can often be a decisive factor in people declining foreign work placements, or struggling to make a success of them. This is why the school’s ‘Britishness’ is not just about the central academic concerns – the curriculum, the examinations – but all the features of school life including a high standard of pastoral care; all the things that offer reassurance and orientation.
"...word-of-mouth is tremendously important..."
How do parents typically come to focus their search for a school, and decide on Sherborne?
Our reputation, and the sort of education that we offer, will hopefully be very clear to parents who are looking for schools in Doha. And then what we find is that word-of-mouth is tremendously important. Parents will recommend the school to other parents. Some of this is about individual, personal contact, and some of it is about recommendations on social media, and so on.
And what typically happens when parents and children visit the school?
Visits happen in a couple of ways. Every family visiting the school will either meet me or the Deputy Head. My Deputy blocks out a particular time in the week for visits, and parents and children can come in then and plan their visits around this time. Or if they’re not able to visit at that time, then they’re welcome to come in at other times, and often I’ll show them around the school. What we’ll typically do is take them into some classrooms and get some of the pupils to speak to them. Nothing gives parents a stronger impression of what the school is like.
Once a child has joined Sherborne, what do you do to help them settle in?
We assign a friend – I like to call them friends rather than buddies! – to help them settle. We always make sure they understand that they can get things wrong, that it doesn’t matter. But you know, we tend to find that children settle in quite quickly. There are quite a lot of reasons for this, but obviously a part of it is that all the other pupils are very accustomed to new children arriving, and will help them to settle in. The turnover of pupils, if you like, is something they’re very familiar with. It’s an essential part of life in an international setting – whether it’s a British school or another kind of international school. It’s something the pupils understand and expect.
That’s interesting. Are there any other general comments you would make about children’s experience of international schools, about how they handle it, how they adjust?
We tend to find that they settle in well, and that they all get on together very well. They become international children – they become familiar with the norms of life in international schools. Their world becomes a lot larger. For example, we have some pupils who’ve left the school but still have lots of friends at Sherborne and often help each other with homework – thanks to the Internet!
So they develop a wider network.
Yes, our pupils are certainly networked on a global scale, making them much more aware of the world around them.
Sherborne Qatar is six years old now. It must have changed a lot in that time.
It’s grown enormously, of course. The prep school opened in 2009, and then the senior school in 2011. Our first cohort of A level takers are getting ready for their exams in 2016. That will mark a special point in the growth and development of the school.
Thanks for talking to us Mike, that was extremely interesting. Good luck with all your plans for the school.