Given the gift of foresight, would North London Collegiate School (NLCS) have chosen to open a school almost 7000 miles away during the biggest global health crisis in a century? Probably not. But when we broke ground on the project in late 2018, novel coronaviruses and lockdowns did not cross anyone’s mind.
That being said, we did open what has become an extremely successful, happy school, on time, with a strong roll, and (almost) according to plan. Here’s how we did it:
Construction of the site began in 2018 and the founding team, including the principal, head of juniors and assorted admissions and marketing personnel were in place in Singapore from September 2019.
In February 2020, I visited Singapore to meet the team in place on the ground and to see the site. The founding team were in good spirits and busy with the business of starting a school, including plenty of marketing activity and coffee afternoons for prospective parents several times a week, which I was able to join.
“We could see our school-to-be taking shape, and it looked very good indeed.”
Recruitment of students was just heading into its busiest period with lots of admissions testing booked. The construction site was a hive of activity, and the aim of being finished ahead of schedule looked like being very comfortably realised. We could see our school-to-be taking shape, and it looked very good indeed.
Sure, there were a few restrictions in place because of a new virus, recently emerged, which the Singaporean government were watching closely, managing a handful of imported cases and a few small clusters of local transmission. The emergence of SARS in Asia almost 20 years previously meant that the government, and the Singaporean population, were taking the emergence of a new respiratory virus seriously with various hygiene measures in place. The WHO were yet to designate the outbreak as a pandemic: that was still a month into the future.
So when I returned to the UK it was with a sense of real optimism about the grand opening of the school, which we were hoping to take place either shortly after Easter, or over the summer break. Our weekly project calls with the founding team continued in preparation for the final push to opening.
“All construction in Singapore, including the construction of our school, came to a grinding halt.”
Then the all-too familiar happened: the restrictions on movement in Singapore began to bite, with compulsory quarantine periods, restrictions on gatherings and directives to work from home. The founding team moved to online “coffee” sessions with prospective families, the remote testing of students and coordination of the build from home.
As Covid cases within the community increased, the government imposed a strict testing and isolation regime on Singapore’s residents. The impact of this latter act was to bring all construction in Singapore, including the construction of our school, to a grinding halt. We were so close to completion of the building, but too far away to contemplate moving in. Happily, the progress of the build up to this point had been way ahead of schedule and we had a good degree of optimism about still having a completed building by our opening date in August.
April turned into May, then June, with no sign of being able to re-commence work on the site, and our optimism that all would be well began to bleed away, replaced instead by a raft of scenario planning and in-depth discussions regarding the risks of a possible delay to opening.
“A local convention centre was selected as the best option to meet our needs.”
By this time, we also needed to contend with the very real possibility that our first cohort of teachers would experience difficulties with entry into Singapore from all over the world. We knew that not only did we need to factor in the mandatory quarantine periods for anyone entering the country, but we were also facing concerns that the necessary employment visas may not be issued on time.
Our one consolation on this front was that all schools (indeed, all employers) were facing the same challenge with their new overseas staff, and everyone was making representations to the government about their concerns. Luckily, most staff safely arrived in Singapore by the start of August.
This didn’t help with our issues with the school building, however, and after a good deal of discussion we decided that our best option was not to delay opening the school but to find an alternative location in which to operate until it was complete.
The next few weeks passed in a flurry of floor plans and phone calls for the team on the ground, as various locations were contacted about their availability and our requirements. Site security and the safeguarding of our students had to be the priority, followed by a huge list of other considerations related to the day-to-day operation of any school.
“The novelty of taking an escalator into the school building was not lost upon our founding students.”
A local convention centre was selected as the best option to meet our needs, and the relevant government bodies were contacted for permission to operate in this somewhat unorthodox venue. Cue a nail-biting weekend of waiting, until we were finally given permission to operate the school in the chosen site.
The novelty of working in vast “classrooms” in the convention centre and taking an escalator into the school “building” was not lost upon our founding students, who really enjoyed starting their journey with us in such an unusual way.
On the downside, we couldn’t put up display work, PE lessons were confined to what the spaces made possible, and our science department had think very creatively.
Our usual practices for monitoring and inspecting schools in their first year of operation also faced serious modification, with a remote monitoring process designed on the hoof and implemented across the family of schools. We still saw some outstanding teaching and conducted delightful interviews with students and staff, and the feedback they gave reassured us that the school was making strong progress.
Finally, over a frantically busy Christmas break, we were able to relocate the school to its proper home. Staff were finally in their classrooms; library books were at last in the library and our scientists could at last get their hands dirty. But the challenges hadn’t yet finished for the team, who needed to manage a monitoring visit from NLCS International, an IB accreditation visit and EduTrust assessment at various points post-Christmas of that first year. There was also an additional period of lockdown with online learning towards the end of the school year.
“A school is so much more than its buildings, especially when it hasn’t got any.”
We are now entering NLCS Singapore’s fourth year of operation, with its first (outstanding) set of IB results in place and students on their way to some outstanding universities. We can now look back on the opening of the school with some fondness and to a degree, a sense of amazement at what was achieved under truly extraordinary circumstances. When I reflect on the last three years, these are some of the things we take forwards in our other projects:
- – a school is so much more than its buildings, especially when it hasn’t got any! NLCS Singapore managed to cultivate a real sense of itself and of belonging for its staff and students, whilst in a temporary location and with the restrictions of social distancing and face masks for everyone over the age of six.
- -the founding team in any school is essential in ensuring that the ethos you aspire to is properly established. Where possible, placing staff from other NLCS schools in the founding team supported this, especially in leadership positions.
- -our weekly partnership meetings, and more frequent conversations with the founding team in the runup to opening were essential to making sure that everyone was happy with the course of action taken. We needed to be able to have honest conversations about the worst-case scenarios we could face in order to plan for all eventualities.
- -clear and timely communication with families over the challenges being faced and the plans you are making remains key in bringing them with you.
- -the ability of any founding team to manage uncertainty and to be able to turn challenging situations into opportunities is crucial, even in “normal” times, but we were very conscious of the additional strain on the founding team of teachers. It is essential to recruit a team which is comfortable with having to adapt or completely re-work plans at short notice, whilst working together and keeping the end goal in sight.
As NLCS Singapore celebrates its third birthday, I can safely say the project has exceeded our expectations. The school roll has grown rapidly as parents have recognised that the school has delivered on its initial promise.
The founding team, and those who have joined in the subsequent couple of years, have done a phenomenal job under the most challenging of circumstances and we are immensely proud of all they have achieved.