Expat Life in Thailand sat down with Mr Jon Standen the genial Head Master of Harrow International School Bangkok to find out about his history and beliefs and the world-class education that his school delivers.
It is fitting that Mr Standen, a history graduate, should find himself leading this particular international school in Bangkok: its distinguished namesake, located just outside London, was founded in 1572 under a Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. The school in Thailand now has its own impressive pedigree of 22 years of creating future leaders.
How did you end up at Harrow Bangkok?
I’ve been a headmaster for 12 years. This is my third headship, my first two were in the UK.
I was head of a selective state grammar school in the West of England, where I had a fabulous 8 years at a really great school. During my time there, the number of students increased by 20%, and the percentage of A*-A grades achieved doubled. I don’t believe that A* and A grades are the only or the most important measure – we valued every pupil – but it was wonderful to double the number of top grades.
I then moved to become head of an independent school in southwest England. A school where three quarters of students were day pupils and one quarter were boarders, this was an exciting new challenge for me. Reported as having ‘Extremely successful…happy and knowledgeable young adults’, where students achieved excellent exam grades, it was also possibly the best swimming school in the world! There aren’t many schools who have a Year 10 girl who goes on to win an Olympic gold medal. During my headship we had 11 students and former students competing at the Rio Olympics – impressive stuff! I was headmaster there for 4 years and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But one of the things my wife Suzie and I always talked about was that if the right school in Asia had a headmaster position become available, how about we take it on? Very fortunately, 2 years ago Harrow Bangkok had a vacancy as the previous head was moving on and that definitely was, and is, the right school.
What’s your educational background?
I grew up in Kent. From an independent prep school, I was accepted to the Judd School, a top state grammar school. I later went to Nottingham University to study history and ancient history. After graduating I took a job in the civil service. I didn’t feel passionate about this career though so I thought hard about what I love doing and could I make it a career. I concluded that I really loved history; on days off I thoroughly enjoyed going to castles. I decided to find a job where I could use my history skills so I moved into teaching. I really enjoy being around young people, helping them learn, helping them grow and seeing them mature. I ended up in a career that I’m passionate about and one that has a real purpose.
What do you think about parents’ roles with students?
I firmly believe that parents are the first teachers. My mum and dad were perfect role models for me. One of the challenges in society today, when everyone is so busy, is to put the time into home life. I look back at my mum and dad and they put a lot of time, care and effort into giving my sister and me a great upbringing and childhood. They were hardworking people, both then HM tax inspectors, one of those ‘boo-hiss’ sorts of jobs! I think the way I grew up profoundly shaped my view of parental roles in school.
What would you tell a teacher in the UK who is thinking about moving abroad?
There are many options available to UK teachers, with lots of international schools to choose from but it doesn’t get much better than Thailand with its rich culture. I love the variety of this country and the friendliness of its people.
With the large number of international schools in Thailand now, how is Harrow Bangkok different?
Fundamentally, it’s what we believe in – ‘leadership for a better world’. We passionately strive to help our boys and girls grow into men and women who go on to make a difference in the world, to lead us in the world. That’s a key aim of ours and one that gives us a really strong purpose. It’s not just about students being leaders and getting excellent grades, which of course they do, but more specifically about being leaders for a better world imbued with a moral compass.
For a historian, you couldn’t have picked a better school than Harrow Bangkok. What’s the school history?
With nearly 450 years of history and heritage, Harrow is a name that is synonymous with quality, at the forefront in the UK but now also in Asia through its family of schools.
Harrow was the first school to expand into Southeast Asia, opening in 1998. We’ve got Harrow on the Hill’s prominent reputation behind us, a very close relationship with them, but we have an impressive 22 year history of our own, our own record of excellence. I think that’s important for parents to acknowledge when they are investing in their children’s education. Alumni are the measure of how successful a school is and we are very proud of our inspirational alumni.
How do you get the word out about Harrow Bangkok?
We hear time and again, ‘I heard from a friend how good your school is, how friendly your school is.’ Which is a fabulous position to be in – honest, glowing endorsements – that we are so grateful for.
The website is important too and I believe ours gives a fair and accurate view of our school. In many cases it’s the first impression people get so we work hard to show people the quality in everything we do.
I don’t feel that I’m in a position where I have to actively sell Harrow Bangkok. Our students and parents do that through the positive experiences they have, the wide range of activities on offer through our Leadership in Action extracurricular programme, and of course through the excellent academic education; the school sells itself. I just have to be genuine and authentic – a wonderful situation to be in as headmaster – and make sure we stay one of the best schools in Asia.
What are the benefits of an international school education?
I believe an international education has so many benefits for helping our boys and girls understand different cultures in today’s connected world. We provide a wonderful combination – a British education in a Thai setting. All nationalities get to know about each other, everyone has a balanced and fair perspective which enhances their education.
I would love for UK parents to send their children to board for two years at an international school to get them to see a different part of the world. Here at Harrow Bangkok, it’s about that richness of the cultures coming together. It’s not just about a great academic education, it’s the holistic education – sports, music, business, speakers, cultural trips.
How important is your school’s first-class campus?
The facilities here are world-class. We have been in Don Muaeng for 16 years and in the last 3 years, we have invested over 1 billion baht in our facilities to make sure everything we have is of the highest possible standard. Classrooms, arts, design and technology, music, sport, boarding are state-of-the-art facilities.
These facilities helped our F1 in Schools team to do so well in the World Finals in Abu Dhabi recently. F1 in Schools is a competition where groups of students build a miniature racing car powered by compressed air. The team have to call on all their science, technology, engineering and maths, STEAM, knowledge and skills to create the fastest car possible in the World Finals. Students also have to get sponsorship and promote and present their design. Our team won the Sustainability Award because all of their car’s plastic components, and the team’s uniforms, were made from recycled plastic. Which is particularly pleasing as we were recently awarded an Eco-school Silver Flag for our environmental efforts and progress.
We have the most amazing, facilities but I believe buildings alone are empty vessels. The truly unique selling-point any organisation has is their people and that’s what I think helps parents place their trust in us. I hope I come across as enthusiastic, passionate, warm and engaging and that I truly want the absolute best for every boy and girl in the school. My entire team model those aspirations and values and show that we are a friendly place and that parents feel that they can be part of a community here.
How many students do you have?
The school has continually grown to around 1650 students, nearly our desired capacity. Class size is of greater importance though. Classes generally have a maximum of 20-22 pupils, with Sixth Form classes a maximum of 16, optimum sizes for quality teaching and learning I believe. We keep growing every year which I think is because parents trust us.
How many teachers and staff do you employ?
We have around 200 teachers, 100 academic support staff and another 100 admin staff. Then we have contracts for around another 150 staff doing catering, gardening and security. We provide employment for nearly 550 people.
HPL – High Performance Learning, can you explain what this is?
High performance learning is a programme based on the principle that all pupils have the potential to be high performers. That it’s possible to teach students how to be ‘intelligent’. Decades of academic and scientific research and the practical experience of educators has led to a framework of the ways of thinking and the ways of behaving that students need to develop to be successful at school and in their future.
Harrow Bangkok are the first HPL school in Thailand and are systematically turning the HPL philosophy into classroom activity which will, over time, build on the high standards we already have. All good schools constantly strive to evolve and improve, to make those marginal gains, and HPL is one way that Harrow Bangkok will.
Why and how are you introducing entrepreneurship to the school?
Surveys show that globally 77% of teenagers think about starting a business and about 25% of them will start a business. Perhaps more importantly, our entrepreneurship programme aims to instil in students an entrepreneurial mindset of curiosity, creativity and innovation. The future world of work is unknown so we hope these traits will give students a skill set that will be valuable for the rest of their lives. An entrepreneurial mindset is entirely in keeping with the HPL mindset and all the values we believe in at Harrow Bangkok.
Entrepreneurship will be led by the school’s Director of Entrepreneurship, David Harkin, also the CEO of British ideation company 7billionideas. There will be lessons, activities and workshops that deliver age-appropriate entrepreneurship skills to students from Early Years right up to Sixth Form.
Tell us about your school governance.
I think we’ve got a great model of school governance here. We have local governors and governors from Harrow London, some have been involved in the school for many years, and others who represent AISL (the holding company for all Harrow International Schools). They have a broad skillset which I find energising and a very valuable resource. Plus they keep me on my toes! Which is absolutely what they should do.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Outside school life, my wife Suzie and I love the outdoors and our two dogs. We love sports, we ski, I play golf, we try to keep fit.