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Principal's Blog - Riverside Reflections

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.

Riverside Reflections: A life well lived


Think not how they die, but how did they live

Last week we said goodbye to a much loved colleague - this is my address to the school on Friday 5th March.

We come together here through a school year for  a variety of different reasons.  Some joyous, some less so.  Some in celebration, sometimes to remember. We come together today to remember one of our own. 

Mr Holes came to Riverside in 2016, after an excellent UK career where like many of your teachers, he had been a leader.  As Head of Faculty he had successfully managed a large team of teachers across 5 subject specialisms.  As brother in law to Riverside Physical Education teacher at the time, Mr Baldwin, he was welcomed with open arms. 

One of his supporting references from 2016 simply stated:

‘Mr Holes is a valued colleague who I recommend to you without reservation for this position.  He is enthusiastic and passionate about his subject enabling students to have high quality experiences within this area.’

Amen to that.

Mr Holes died on Thursday 18th February aged 40.  Too young, for a man of such rich talent.  Too young for a much loved colleague Too young for a loving husband and devoted father

Mr Holes was a keen sportsman and fitness fanatic, further compounding the challenge in processing this news and the shock felt by the community over the last two weeks.

Mr Holes was a much loved teacher here with a vibrant and vital character.  He was an important part of our community, as indeed his wife Ami and two daughters are still.

I can recall early meetings with Mr Holes when I arrived in 2017.  He always walked straight towards me with a broad grin and an outstretched hand.  
His firm handshake was not an attempt to ingratiate, just an expression of this genuine and welcoming character.  You remember people like Mr Holes, they make an impression on everyone.

Over the years I got to know a committed professional with a real passion for doing things well.  Mr Holes lived life to the full, gave his all when in school and gave just as much to life outside of lessons.

In his own time he designed and built his own products, bringing his subject to life.  Many staff own something Mr Holes designed and made whether it be a chopping board, a bar stool, a wedding present or a gift for a family member.  Mr Holes also built bespoke camping vehicles and was in the process of renovating a property in France.

He loved his rugby, and his motorbike.  In days gone past we might have referred to Mr Holes as a ‘man's man’, as he liked traditionally male pursuits.  
But this overlooks the kind and sensitive individual who always asked ‘how are you’ like he really meant it.  

Beneath what seemed to be a granite like exterior which could intimidate the untrained, was a gentle and caring man - his friendships were deep and warm and will be sorely missed.

Grief can impact people in a variety of ways, and as such there is no right or wrong way to deal with this tragic event.  
Mr Holes had seen his fair share of grief too, losing both mother and father in recent years.  Mr Holes dealt with it stoically, but not in a silly or old fashioned way.  

The emotions he was feeling through those difficult times were close enough to the surface for us all to see. So my guess is that Mr Holes would be fine with our show of emotion today. I reckon he’d be fine with stopping lessons to say a few words about him too. I reckon he’d even be fine with us all reflecting on his impact on us all.

Mr Holes showed us that life should be lived.  Enjoy each day, and get as much from it as you can. These statements seem obvious and yet we find ourselves procrastinating and delaying things all too often. Today is our opportunity to stop and remember but also begin the process of moving forward.

I’ll finish then with what might have been a Mr Holes team talk on the rugby field; work hard, commit everything you have, don’t waste a moment
but most of all, stick together.

It is us who need to stick together now as we move forward without Mr Holes. Thank you for everything you did for us.  We will miss you, and try to do you proud.

Riverside Reflections: Happy New Year (again)


With our campus swathed in red, and lanterns swinging in the welcome breeze Riverside celebrated the start of the year of the ox this week.

With gifts from the Shrewsbury Parents’ volunteers, and a myriad of wonderful outfits the campus was noisy, colorful and filled with joy.  It is hard to believe that only two weeks ago this all seemed very distant again.

The opportunity to celebrate three different new year celebrations is a sign of our diverse and inclusive culture and also our capacity to enjoy the opportunity to restart and refresh.  The theme of refreshment is key to many new year celebrations.  Washing or sweeping away poor luck feels cathartic, and although never easy to stick to, making resolutions for new projects or behaviours allow focus.

In reopening the school for the third time after periods of closure, we are hopeful once again that we can again begin to sweep away some of the restrictions on our lives.  This is easier said than done and we all know this will be a long process, but to have the school full with enthusiastic learners and teachers delighted to be back doing what they love, we have a glimpse of what is ahead.

Learning is the thread that binds us all in the Shrewsbury community.  Over the past twelve months we have learned much.  How to deliver a school online, how to reopen after closure, how to manage students safely and successfully in a pandemic, how to keep aspirations high in all areas of school and how to continually work in an environment that offers few certainties or security.  

As we all know learning is not a linear or easy process, but one where progress can plateau or accelerate swiftly.  Schools experience institutional learning as an aggregation of the people within. Over these twelve months Shrewsbury has built on the wealth of prior experience held to adapt to challenging circumstances.  It can do this well as the average stay for staff at Shrewsbury is over 6 years (3 contracts!).  In 2020 (pre COVID) we retained 93% of our fully qualified teaching staff, in 2021 we will retain 96% of them. Exceptional people drawn to stay at an exceptional school.

The more we stay together the more knowledge and experience builds, all of which benefits the students especially as the Shrewsbury community navigates uncharted waters.

So as another new year dawns, Shrewsbury embraces all that is ahead with the benefit of all that has come before.  If you search ‘the character of the ox’ on google, Wikipedia tells you that ‘strong, reliable and fair’ are the keywords that describe that year.  

These words are perfect for describing Shrewsbury’s journey in recent months.  The strength of the experience and intellect of the exceptional people we already have, the reliability of knowing that the institution retains almost all of the community year on year, and fairness links so strongly to our ethical and valued governance from the UK and Thailand.  

Not a bad way to move forward - happy new year 新年快乐

Riverside Reflections: Adversity's unexpected gifts?


It has taken me a while to come up with a response to my positive and enthusiastic blog post from mid December. I was looking forward to another thrilling and exhilarating term of excellence and creativity in our marvellous school - then COVID returned!

So here we are studying from home, with teachers responding swiftly to a return to online or distance learning, and parents supporting us all with patience and strength.  Quite a turn around, and one that we could be quite disheartened by.

However, there are some positives to this situation and the last twelve months in general.  It is an unfashionable thought, and one that I make with a clear and profound understanding of all the challenges of recent times. 

Firstly, the swift return to online learning was exactly that - swift.  The clarity provided meant we were better prepared, better supported and working with a group of young people who were more prepared for all that is to come.  A group of young people who may be more resilient now than twelve months ago? 

Our provision is not perfect, but much better.  We are improving, and more open about what we are trying to achieve.  Over the course of the last few months there has been more communication between school and home about pedagogy, how students learn, how we examine, why we do certain things in education, and what evidence base we have for them.  These conversations and the democratisation of teaching and learning can only be a good thing.

The Shrewsbury community is clear that seeking the very best teachers is a priority for me.  This is a challenge I relish, and those highly qualified and experienced professionals guide and support you all through the labyrinthine world of education.  The best ones of course do this with a sense of reflection and renewal, and the openness to new thinking and opportunities to challenge long held but unsubstantiated beliefs.  These are the teachers who always catch my eye - the ones who reflect on the lesson you just watched and say ‘well it could have been better’, even if it was already outstanding.

So we have the experts at Shrewsbury, but those experts are growing and learning too.  In recent months we have appointed more of these outstanding teachers.  An Historian with a first class honours degree from Oxford, another Mathematician from the same institution, an outstanding EY practitioner from one of our best feeder schools and scientists with PhDs.  All keen to move to a school and country that values high quality teaching and learning.

Usually at this time of year we are advertising around twenty teaching positions - this is normal for a large school and a 8-10% turnover is a healthy one for any school.  However, this year we retain 96% of staff as a result of the current situations in Thailand and the UK and as such look forward to finding only a few more exceptional people to join a community that reflects, grows and develops together in a resilient manner.  COVID is something none of us wanted, but something that has shaped us, and in some ways shaped us positively.