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Principal's Blog - Riverside Reflections

Riverside Reflections: When to Forgive and Forget?


This week sport has offered us another wonderful life lesson.  Although many of our students know little about cricket, the game that consumed me for 30 years, they may be aware now of the name Ollie Robinson.  After making a very promising start to an international sporting career, he is suspended from the team after the discovery of racist and sexist tweets from a decade ago.

There has been much debate in the UK about the tweets and the sanction.  Politicians and the media arguing about when it is that teenagers should be forgiven for their past misdemeanours.  This is the perfect fuel for programmes like our own Learning for Life, or Personal Social and Health Economic Education as it is often referred to in the UK.

Excellent professionals like Karl Hopwood have been delivering the same message consistently and entertainingly since then, and I can sense his ‘eye rolling’ at another prime case for his updated powerpoint display.  It was with a strong sense of deja vu that I watched a middle aged man laboriously mansplain on one news channel yesterday, that social media posts are a permanent record and should be treated with care.  This was the mantra of all those involved in the support of young people a decade ago and more, with Facebook on the scene by 2005, it felt baffling to me and I’m sure younger members of the audience to be patronised on this again. 

Being smug about it doesn’t help though.  Teenagers get it wrong.  Jackie Cox did an amazing job for decades through her work in the UK boarding sector in explaining why this happens and she was one of the first speakers to interpret scientific finds about brain function into sound advice for staff and parents.  The brain’s recalibration, and fluctuations in chemistry through the teenage years suggests that there will be mistakes, mishaps, misunderstandings and literally mindless behaviour.

This is why social media is such a challenge.  All of my teenage moments were played out in the mid 1980s when the closest I got to transmission of my views were the odd outbursts aimed at my parents when I was especially disgruntled with a perfectly reasonable decision of theirs.  Now reactions to events are swift, public and permanent.  We have been advising, cajoling, reminding and supporting for over a decade now, and nothing has really changed for our young people - or has it?

In my view, students have got better at regulating themselves in this space.  Maybe not much better, but better.  This came through more widespread and higher quality education, a creep similar to the inexorable increase in grades as we got better at teaching towards the outcomes desired.  The Ollie Robinson case will serve as a reminder and schools should use it as such.  

Schools are better at this too, they pounce on such posts and deal with it swiftly, trying not to stigmatize but educate instead.  That is the easy bit, the next part becomes much more challenging - when should these posts become ‘in the past’ in the way that the points ‘earned’ from your erratic and over zealous driving in your 20s disappears from the license?

This is the nub of the Robinson debate.  On one hand, these posts are a decade old, but if I cast my mind back to life in schools in 2010 this would have raised alarm bells then as it does now.  I worked in a school which had a very clear and enthusiastically enforced lack of tolerance for racism.  It is possible that the media is more sensitised to this issue now due to the events of the last few years and George Floyd’s grisly demise, but good schools were working hard to stamp racism out 10 years ago and well before.

The key to dealing with issues such as this then is the key now.  Is he contrite?  Has he learned from his mistake?  Will he refrain from this in the future and what support does he need to ensure he doesn’t slip back?  However, in focussing on Robinson, we miss a crucial point that colleagues at Riverside seized upon immediately - the damage done to others.  Whatever Robinson did or didn’t mean, whatever his intent, whatever his background - those tweets cause offence, hurt and despair now, as they would have done at the time.  Maybe we should think more about how we tackle that, rather than when he next plays cricket for England?  

It is perfectly possible that Robinson is a flawed character, and if so he will feel the wrath of the media and the governing bodies again - rightly so.  It is also possible he posted without thought about the damage he would cause and without malice, in which case he should be offered another chance after a meaningful and appropriate sanction - mistakes are how you learn, and if we live in a world where teenagers cannot make any mistakes then I fear for what is ahead of us.

Riverside Reflections: The Bigger Picture

Can’t see the wood from the trees?

This lovely English saying neatly describes a feeling that comes to many in education rather often.  Immersed in the detail of a timetabled day, the minutiae of each lesson, meeting or interaction, it can be a common experience to have heads in the weeds finding little time to take the view of the overall growth of the wood or forest.

It happens to us all, even those of us charged with setting the vision and direction of schools.  In recent months the third wave of infections in Thailand, the return to online learning, umpteen layers of communication through a range of platforms and the critical phase of Project 2021 has meant that the senior team at Shrewsbury has been somewhat preoccupied with the weeds and the trees.

The level of detail in Project 2021 is mind boggling.  The spaces are vast, and numerous.  The requirements of each classroom or laboratory are complex and require accuracy.  The spreadsheet begun recently to detail the moves through August is already fiendishly complicated.  

Then this week, we returned to the site.  Because of all mentioned so far, it had been a while.  The changes have been momentous, and the outcomes astounding.  Space and light is abundant as cathedral-like ceilings offer us the headroom for young people to grow physically and metaphorically.  The Stephen Holroyd Sixth Form Commons is a space to be enormously proud of, as we are of him and his legacy.  The Sir David Lees Innovation Centre is a building to lead education from in the coming years, just as he has led with distinction for so long.

‘A lion chased me up a tree, and I greatly enjoyed the view from the top’ - Confucius.  Anything attributed to Confucius requires interpretation, but this phrase is so apt this week.  The lion is the need to continue pressing on with the building, a number of details needing to be finalised, and once chased the view was spectacular.  In a wider context it reminds us that in any wood or forest, we only see it’s majesty from above - the canopy of the rainforest, or a flight high enough to see how the landscape works in the ‘bigger picture’.

As we move towards our next Governor’s Meeting we will continue to search for the bigger picture.  The senior team have been considering this for some time now, and recognise that Riverside will need some profound changes alongside the physical alterations being made right now.  More enrichment for all, more opportunity for all, better support of all and the infrastructure to deliver significant change.

I’m sometimes asked where the ‘bigger picture’ comes from.  In previous years flying has helped, long trips to the UK and US offer distance from Riverside and the challenges and benefits of this.  Perspective is key, and sometimes you have to be away from something, or above it, to gain a renewed perspective.  Literature is also a ‘go to’ for me.   

A fairly eclectic mix or reading has helped with this.  Books about the history of mankind can ensure that you draw out from your current place and time.  Sapiens, Homo Deus, and The Silk Roads have been key in this.  The first two are reasonably well known - a humanist view of the development of the world offering the capacity to draw conclusions about how we can move forward in life along what is a far greater continuum than we might usually think.  

Silk Roads is interesting because it offers the profound lesson that the world is seen from so many different angles, and a large section of our modern world is neither western or eastern - perspective being everything.

So in closing I urge our students, especially those coming to the end of a tough time with assessments.  Get to the top of the tree, have a look at what is beneath you and gain the bigger picture.  Read, explore, get lost in diversions.  Witness the forest in all its majesty, and enjoy it too. 

Riverside Reflections: Out of adversity comes Opportunity

'Out of adversity comes opportunity' - Benjamin Franklin

In this blog before I have written about the potential benefits of the pandemic. I realise this sounds strange - nobody wants COVID to run their lives, and we would all prefer to have the freedoms we felt we had prior to 2020.,

However, there are benefits.  Despite a number of ill-informed comments from politicians in the UK, students across the world have learned new and valuable skills - not least the resilience to deal with the vacillations of examination protocols and government policy. The way in which content is delivered and contact has been achieved, has altered education fundamentally and particularly offers us more options moving forward.

Families, especially in Thailand have spent more time together, as a result of the ‘work from home’ directive. Not all of this time is easy due to the rigours of online learning, but I sense that we might look back in years to come on this time as a chance to build stronger and more powerful relationships with our closest contacts.

In a wider sense, the innovation clear across a range of sectors has been humbling to witness. The speed of vaccination production, the technological developments, and solutions to fiendish problems have been truly groundbreaking. 

Benjamin Franklin should know. A key part of US history, scientist, politician, diplomat, author, and inventor he had a huge impact on the history of the US in the late 18th century. His famous quote has proved to be right in a legion of ways, none more so now.  A recent tweet by a Bangkok expat exposed another of these opportunities, ‘my kid doing swimming lessons online, this is nuts!’; adversity bringing hitherto unexplored opportunity.

In the absence of my attendance at HMC Conferences and the like, I shifted my expenditure on professional development this year and invested it in coaching.  No stranger to the idea of being coached, I have enjoyed the transition into trusting an external provider with my inner thinking.  The experience has been revelatory.  Rather than the acquisition of knowledge (hugely important of course), I have been challenged to think and through the form of questioning my coach has challenged me in a way I thought impossible.

Recently too, I’ve rediscovered my love of reading.  2020 tried to blow me off course, and away from a set of eclectic and interesting texts rarely anything to do with education, but always with messages that can be applied.  I’ve been able to replace long flights and UK trips with, ‘happy hour’ on the balcony (yes drinks are provided) and short breaks in paradise when Thai travel has been allowed.

My current read is a recommendation from a colleague.  Limits to Growth is an update to a project started in the 1970s to understand the impact Man was having on the world and whether economic growth was sustainable.  Not without controversy, the researchers asserted that there were serious limits to growth as the title suggests and that man should alter course to ensure sustainability in the long term.  Now fifty years on from the original assertion, the challenge remains a significant one as our impact on the environment continues to be profound.

In reading this text now, I am catching up on previous thinking but also finding optimism in thinking about my engagements with students over recent years.  More awareness of environmental issues, more determination to find sustainable economic solutions, and more appreciation of the need to alter course.  To me, this positivity can only be exacerbated by recent events, and innovation in the management of globalisation should be open and inclusive in the hands of the generation we are currently teaching.  

So, kids, we are all counting on you!  After you’ve revised for exams that aren’t exams, have a look at what a polymath in times of adversity and challenge looks like.   In 1737 Franklin argued that ‘well done is better than well said’, a great call to action and he also knew what the Shrewsbury Bangkok community knows - that as our motto says ‘if the heart is right all will be well’.

‘A right Heart exceeds all’ Benjamin Franklin - Poor Richard’s Almanack 1739    

Riverside Reflections: Here we go again


As I sat in my office chair at home on Sunday to review paperwork ready for the start of the final week of term, I was in a cheerful mood.  I’d made myself a strong cup of tea and an early round of golf that morning produced a back 9 score of 45.  Not my best, but some nice pars and my 9 iron is ‘dialled in’ at the moment.  Then I looked at my phone.

Three schools to be closed on Monday after links established with COVID cases.  We had come close ourselves the previous week when City Campus closed after a parent tested positive.  We had spent much of the remainder of that week cauterising all known links with our colleagues across town.  A brutal but necessary exercise to preserve the safety of the Riverside campus.

The SHR Executive Whatsapp group roared into life.  Close and trusted colleagues exchanging thoughts and guidance.   Google docs followed swiftly after with a well thought through and collaboratively written letter to the school community acknowledging the concerns that all will have and detailing our actions to come - a major review of the week ahead!

The Leadership Meeting on the following morning scrutinised all the events of the week to come through a new yet familiar lens.  What should we do?  What reduces risk?  What must we cancel?  Clarity of thought and another carefully crafted letter written.  We hadn’t done much to advance the educational mission of the school in that hour, but another crisis averted - so we thought.

The remainder of the day was lost in hypothetical conversations about all the ‘what ifs’ of that week and the Marketing team established plans ‘a’ to ‘f’ for two major concerts and a speech day.  So far so good.

In the closing stages of an interview with a UK based and very promising prospective colleague that evening, my phone started it’s usual attention seeking activities.  A case in one of the towers of a local condo.  I looked out of the window of the apartment across at the Watermark where four colleagues and their families reside along with a number of Shrewsbury students and their parents.  Oh no, that’s all we need.  More cuartertising, and a couple of hours later we were confident with an opening on Tuesday.  To sleep.

On Tuesday morning I exited a perfectly lovely shower to find my nemesis, the iPhone 11 doing its thing.  We have a case!  A father of a Y12 and a Y4 student is positive.  Half damp from the shower and the other half damp from the exertion from getting to school as quickly as I could, I slumped in my chair in the Riverside Principal’s office.  Surrounded by those erstwhile and brilliant colleagues already mentioned, we set to work.  The school closed within the hour, wonderfully supportive parents taking home brilliantly compliant children.  Letters posted.  Done.

This week has been a flashback to March 2020.  I still recall being halfway through my groceries in a rather plush food court when my phone disrupted my choice of tea bag.  Phone call after phone call about cases involving famous actresses, school closures and the prospect of the MOE stepping in.  The relentless build up of pressure a little like the creaking that occurs in submarines at extreme depth - when will it break?  A parent I worked with some years ago described fathering his youngest son as  ‘death by a thousand cuts’.  He retracted his comment quickly as he knew it wasn’t the right way to describe a much loved son, but I knew what he meant.  All schools in this pandemic have either been the submarine on the bottom or the victim of those thousand cuts - it just keeps coming.

Now that we are closed there is a terrible mixture of emotion.  Deep sadness at sitting in an empty school.  Enormous relief that thankfully the infections across our community seem to be very limited indeed.  Huge frustration that a series of brilliantly conceived events are cancelled or postponed.  Closure may bring operational clarity but it brings an emotional turmoil.

We hope sincerely that we will be open again after the Songkran break, and we also hope this cycle of events will stop soon.  I used to like my iPhone...

Riverside Reflections: Buildings that Build us


(published in Independent School Leaders Magazine in the UK)

Project 2021 seemed a good idea at the time.  In 2016 the plan was hatched to grow capacity from 1600 students to 2300, at our 16 acre central Bangkok Riverside campus.  

The first part went remarkably smoothly despite a few hiccups.  In order to free up space we moved all parking underground.   On Christmas Day December 2017 we started the onerous task of breaking up existing roads to build a three storey underground car park.   The complaints from a nearby hotel as the piling loosened fillings and other medical installations was also compounded by the heartbreaking moment when a much loved sports field disappeared.  

Building work is not easy.  The noise, the vibrations, the complexity and the danger all combine to set challenges like no other and the opportunity to reflect on how we rose to them.  The swampy underpinnings of Bangkok provided us with a few grey hairs as my desk would regular vibrate to the tune of the machines some 400 metres away, and also the ever present water seeping in from the River of Kings (or Chao Phraya) meant that large cracks appeared in concrete all over the site.

However our contractor RITTA proved from an early stage to be trustworthy and hugely safety conscious.  In advance of the build we met with a director of the company to get across our concerns and issues.  Safety, safety and safety were the items on the agenda as we laboured  over fine details about crane jib length and access to site.  This laser focus on H&S and the  follow up work from school was an early success and something that has worked for us since those early stages.  The relationship built with RITTA has meant they have earned new contracts and we have faith in all they do, especially when they have delivered the car park on time and on budget.

I attempted feebly to get the marketing team to press the claim that we are the only school in the world with a three storey underground car park, but they weren't impressed.  Even when I suggested the “Holroyd Hole’ (after my brilliant predecessor and boss at the time) as the name for the completed project, nobody bit - but they did laugh, and this was key as the complexity of the projects increased over time and the decisions became more challenging, humour became a key part of our approach. 

Not swallowed by the car park, we set off on the next stage - a delightful interlude where we developed a new shop, reception, medical centre, staff room in one summer (only twelve months after completely redesigning a two storey library).  By this time (through 2019) I was spending more time with architects than my wife.  This is probably the reason why our marriage survives, but my relationship with DWP Architects has developed into a mutually supportive understanding.  First drafts of plans are close to the eventual outcome with increasing regularity - proof absence might make the heart grow fonder, but being together more often than not is the recipe for the success of any relationship.

With the interlude closing, we embarked on the main build.  7 storeys of dining, science, mathematics, computing, 6th form space, and innovation (whatever that meant?).  This question of what innovation means took me round the world on a quest to find the perfect piece of architecture.  However, visits to Babson, Caltech, premium schools in the UK, Cambridge and Choate Rosemary Hall in Massachusetts delivered a consistent answer.  The innovation we all seek is in the minds of young people, and could easily be ‘over-engineered’.  The simplicity of those spaces in top class establishments and some forward thinking by our Head of 6th Form drove the concept of ‘Space to Think’.  Adaptable and flexible spaces that offer everyone an environment free from distraction and replete with opportunity.

During the lengthy 2020 lockdown we employed these principles and accelerated a refurbishment of our Design department.  With no students on site we gambled on not returning for the remainder of the academic year and went for it - we were right all bar 13 days in June where the DT department moved to its junior school facility.  We’ve built new open plan spaces allowing circulation, great light and access to all manner of facilities and materials  - an environment fit for innovation.

In the new 6th Form space we now are building Darwin Rooms.  Small break out rooms that could be timetabled for smaller classes in MFL or such like, but also freely available to the students and staff for their own thinking.  In science the laboratoires are 120sqm, larger than most.  Space to move, and space to think in abundance.  My world tour of architecture over three years also took me to Manchester, initially not a promising destination but there we found S+B Labs, a world leading design and build company offering premium fit and finish and willing to deliver bespoke units in our oversized facility.

Size has become a key discussion in recent years at Riverside as we look to move past the 2000 mark for total roll.  The enrollment of new students could have been a challenge in a pandemic, but has been met with enthusiasm and innovation by a wonderful admissions team conjoined perfectly with the senior management team (that's another article right there).   With numbers looking good, size matters.  18 labs, 16 Maths classrooms, 140spm of makerspace, 140sqm of robotics lab and 340sqm of strength and conditioning to accompany the two new basketball courts bringing our total to five.

If you started playing serious sport in the early 90s as I did, strength and conditioning was having a cup of tea in the pavilion and a slow lap of the outfield, but now sports science reaches all levels of abilities in schools like ours.  The new facility is based on the Powerbase concept at Loughborough, another clear indication of our ambition in Project 2021.

As I write the glaziers are on site, the carpets being selected and furniture being ordered.  Since we started we’ve seen one pandemic, two lockdowns, one Thai election, Brexit, three Christmas breaks on deserted beaches, two UK elections and endured most of the Trump era.  2021 is upon us, Facebook live sessions espousing the virtues of the new build and applications are coming - who said building in a pandemic was impossible?

A quick Google search reveals two quotes about building that resonate with Shrewsbury’s recent exploits in the world of construction.  Winston Churchill is apparently responsible for ‘we shape our buildings: thereafter, our buildings shape us’ and entrepreneur Jim Rohn rather more vaguely stated that 'whatever good things we build, end up building us’.

These projects have indeed shaped us, and will continue to build this community long into the future.  Floreat Salopia.