What's the difference?
What's the difference?
In terms of their rhetoric, most good schools, especially good international schools, are almost indistinguishable from one another.
If a computer were to randomly reallocate the existing marketing brochures, webpages and welcome messages, I seriously wonder if anybody would notice. What’s more, this herd of schools is huddling ever more tightly together as if circling predators were edging closer. Girls and boys beam cherubically from the brochures: none of these children cry or fight or act thoughtlessly. A ridiculously cheerful Head of School will appear somewhere on the website telling you that if you want to truly understand the place, you really must visit and that you can be assured of a warm welcome when you do. Elsewhere there will be promises that the ‘whole child’ will be educated, that technology is used as a means to an end and not for its own sake, that values trump everything else but, don’t worry, we’ve got the academics covered. Service—an area where UWCSEA trailblazed—is now ubiquitous. Oh, and there will be a nod to some ideas parents will not have known from their own youth: ‘growth mindset,’ ‘disruptive education,’ ‘flipped classrooms’ or whatever.
There’s a reason for this. Great international schools are inevitably more similar than they might care to admit, and as they strive to identify and then promote their unique selling points, they will inevitably find their diverse pathways converging at the same junctions. While the bewildering and increasing number of conferences, seminars and presentations on international education is indicative of a welcome collaborative spirit among schools, homogeneity might easily be an unintended consequence. And if one school really does steal a march on others, you can bet it won’t take long before it is once again a part of the collective, either because the idea had more marketing froth than educational substance and was therefore abandoned (I can cite a fair few like this), or because everybody else thought “That’s neat” and quickly did the same.
My first academic year at UWCSEA is nearing its end. And I ask myself: are we as different as we think we are? Is UWCSEA safe in the centre of the herd, or is it a bold outlier staring down the lions? One more question: frankly, does it matter?
Last question first. Yes it does. It matters mightily. The pernicious commodification of education has enough dark champions: our mission statement flies in the face of the pie charts and graphs. What you know is important, but how you apply that knowledge, the skills you have acquired that allow you to attain more relevant knowledge and, crucially, the ethical ground upon which you stand and fight are more important still. I will repeat this mantra until the day I leave: don’t definitively pronounce how good your schooling was when you are 18; tell us when you are 80. That’s why researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education are our partners in measuring impact. It’s not a whimsical foray into research heaven: it is vital, and speaks to the core of our being.
So how different are we on the ground? Well, I confess, I came here wondering if I was going to find Asia’s premier urban hippy-chic community. A kind of San Francisco with killer exam results. I was wrong. It became clear to me very quickly that our students didn’t just hug trees: they knew which trees to hug. I have seen them fuse tangible and ethereal, practical and theoretical, orthodox and radical in ways I have never witnessed elsewhere. From the resultant intellectual, aspirational and moral gloop comes crawling a discernably UWC-type creature. Mission-driven, self-aware, collaborative, loyal and capable of spotting hype, humbug and propaganda from a hundred paces. There are exceptions of course, but watching our students en masse and as individuals, these traits are evident and in some they come as naturally as leaves to a tree.
Two events (well, technically four), communicated with special force this unique essence of UWCSEA. The first was UN Night (Dover) and CultuRama (East), the second the respective graduation ceremonies.
There’s an easy win for UN Night and CultuRama of course. Lots of young people from many different nations all working together happily to create a sensational evening’s entertainment for a disparate audience. You nail three quarters of the mission statement down in one go. What’s not to like? But then I’m told that many of these students had never danced before in their lives; that they organised rehearsals in their own time; that many were actually new to the College. This was more than a bonding exercise. Here was courage, discipline and (perhaps most strikingly in an event run to such a large extent by the young participants themselves) quality-control. Strengths and weaknesses were judiciously assessed, collaboratively worked on and melded into something strong, striking and fresh. I remember thinking to myself: these guys could have just settled for Grease.
Graduation was different. While I sat admiring the delightful balance between fun and formality, I also felt a sense of belonging such as justifies my statement on the website in which I claim to have “come home.” Yes, you’d expect a large international school in Singapore to have a huge variety of nationalities up on stage, and yes you’d hope for some variety of colour and styles in the costumes, but what you would have no right to ask for was the passion of the student speeches, the power of the student music and the palpability of the desire for the mission to be taken to the world. The visual imagery of graduation is compelling enough, but in the hall you felt something still more arresting: a unity of spirit and purpose. Less “Look what I’ve done,” than “How can we help next?” A beginning as much as a parting.
Where ‘same’ is best, we should do ‘same’ with clear conscience. But Kurt Hahn gave us reasons enough to be wary of conformity. I believe we should stand, and do stand, away from the herd at those times when the UWC mission calls most strongly.
The College is flawed and must always strive to do better, but some of those flaws flow from noble origins, and need gentle redirection, not damming at the source. The veracity of the following, final sentence, cannot be proved, but viscerally, I know it is so. I am so very proud of the students at UWCSEA: they would not be such students had they gone to any other school in the world.