I was appointed to the post of founding executive headmaster at Wycombe Abbey School Hangzhou in April 2019 with a start date of 1st August 2020.
I was at the time a principal at an international school in Singapore and I had previously been part of the team of a start-up international school in Malaysia, prior to that I had been a head in the UK since 1997.
Wycombe Abbey China is a growing group of bilingual and international schools in China where there are now four schools including a preparatory school in Hong Kong.
The lockdown at the beginning of 2020 had the result of a major delay in the construction of our school in Hangzhou. There had already been a delay of a year, so it was vital to move forward quickly.
We had a small team of Chinese nationals working with the construction company and from August 2020 we ramped up our meetings with them to exert pressure on the construction company. I would visit the site two or three times a week and worked very closely with our onsite project lead and Wycombe Abbey HQ in Shanghai. My previous experience in a start-up situation in Malaysia was very helpful.
“We also worked very hard on our government relationships, hugely important here as they are elsewhere in Asia.”
We managed by exerting continuous pressure literally on a daily and weekly level to get the construction company “over the line” in time for opening in September 2021. We also worked very hard on our government relationships as well, hugely important here as they are is elsewhere in Asia. By and large while there was a huge snagging list, we opened with a beautiful campus.
The lesson learnt was “push push push”!
Recruitment was an issue that became more and more critical as the pandemic continued and for us here in China it became more controlled with complex regulations for expatriate entry into the country.
We made a decision in October 2020 to stop recruiting from outside China. A wise decision in that it resulted in our school being fully staffed for our start in September 2021. The biggest difficulty was finding teachers with boarding experience. We have been extremely lucky with our team of educators, and they have formed the backbone of our school community.
The lesson learnt was “look within China”
Marketing and Admissions
Trying to market a school in a pandemic brought with it some interesting challenges. However, in one sense it led us to a policy that has proven to be a winner in the marketing stakes particularly. Very early on from September 2020 we held. “Headmaster Teatime Talks” in up market hotels in the centre of Hangzhou. These were informal talks followed by Q and A sessions to groups of about 10 to 15 families. These proved to be very powerful sessions and generated great interest in our schools.
“Trying to market a school in a pandemic brought with it some interesting challenges.”
Maintaining a selection process for admissions was also a challenge, but it was so important for us to select potential pupils who would gain from our style of education.
The lesson learnt was “the personal touch always works”.
As it is with all new schools the first term was immensely challenging, a new team and particularly an inexperienced boarding team alongside everyone learning new routines made for a busy first few months.
We had to building the school community quickly and smoothly in a dual management system (expat/Chinese). The whole school staff room social area rapidly became a focal point, and we will be forever in the debt to our South African staff for their Friday evening BBQs or “Braais”.
“I wouldn’t swap the experience of the past year and a half for anything.”
Whole school events like our first Primary School Sports Festivals with our sister school in Changzhou and our first competitive Basketball match (which we won!) were important milestones.
The lesson learnt and while it is a cliché was “keep calm and carry on”!
With four months to go in this first year what are the challenges we see facing us for year two? There are three areas that are causing us the most concern.
The ongoing pandemic and the reaction to it in China is a huge factor. As the world emerges from Covid, how long will China remain isolated from the rest of the world? This has resulted with some worries from our current parents and prospective parents who are hesitating about sending their children to a university in the UK. The inability to travel for our expatriate staff is also a big factor effecting our staff stability and retention.
Recruitment continues to be a major issue. Recruiting internally in China is still important but wage inflation is causing real problems. As more expatriates leave the quality of those remaining can be variable. We have been very lucky in being able to employ some excellent Chinese teachers with international experience but for our type of school we need a good balance between foreign and local staff.
It makes complete sense for the government both at city, provincial and central to regulate private, bilingual, and international schools. It is clear that further regulation will be heading our sector’s way in the coming months, and we must be prepared. Maintaining a good relationship with our district and city EDB is absolutely vital.
It’s been such an incredible journey, every single day since my arrival in China has been an adventure. I would not swap the experience of the past year and a half for anything. I have enjoyed every minute and am looking forward with a keen sense of excitement to Wycombe Abbey Hangzhou year two and all the challenges and adventures to come.