With a tradition of great leaders among its alumni ranks, including Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Pandit Nehru and Richard Curtis, it’s no wonder why Harrow School is an institution famous for its toptier education. Its Beijing branchis no exception, known widely for readying pupils for academic success. But what separates the Beijing branch of Harrow from other schools are the tight-knit communities it cultivates for both students and parents. We spoke with Matthew Farthing, the Headmaster at Harrow International School in Beijing, about this unique network, how international schools fit into China and the importance of learning from students.
Q: When did you first come to Beijing, and what are your responsibilities as Headmaster?
I came in 2004 and I spent one year getting licenses and securing a building and setting up the school, which opened then in 2005. One primary responsibility is to maintain the vision and the values of the school, and to ensure that they’re properly communicated and implemented in the everyday operations. I always look after pupil and staff welfare; but I also leave staff properly empowered to get on with their jobs.
Q: What kind of curriculum changes do international schools make when opening a branch in China? How different can the curriculum be?
Even though we work from a British national curriculum, we are aware teaching about Vikings and Normans might not be so relevant to predominantly Asian communities in the middle of Beijing. But when you look at the skills that are developed when you’re studying Vikings and Normans and their patterns of migration in medieval Europe, you can actually look at the topic of migration and apply that into a more local environment. You can talk with the children about their own backgrounds and where their families are from, where they’ve moved. It’s about making things more relevant, starting with the base of who the children are in the class.
Q: How does Harrow fit intothe local and expatriate communities in Beijing?
We have a very strong Friends of Harrows Parent Association. Parents make friends with each other through the way their children meet at school. If you did a study of the social life of expatriates, I wouldn’t doubt that they’ve met other families through their children. In that sense, the school does have an important social function there. We do value the importance of developing a community, especially working more closely with the local community as well.
Q: How does Harrow empower students to learn and reach their full potential?
A sense of community is so important, and it comes out of a good school. Earlier this week, I was in a lunch session at the mathematics department. It was a peer-to-peer learning activity, where students can get referred to for tutoring. The older students manage it; so they bring in students in math who are taking A-Level mathematics, and they pair them with children who are having difficulty in, for example, year eight. Then they sit together and work together on their math work. Looking in this week, I was amazed at the intensity of learning that takes place. I really do think we underestimate how much young people learn from each other; and it’s truly a great experience for the older students to be teaching the younger ones.