A Term of Firsts

by Tess St Clair-Ford

I live at the top of a hill and drive down that hill to work every day. Each morning, since the spring, I’ve seen a woman walking up that hill. At first, she was struggling: she appeared to be re-learning how to walk (I don’t know her story – I wish I did. Perhaps she is recovering from an accident or stroke). Now I see her, walking confidently and with strength, making much faster progress up the long hill. It has moved me, this morning witnessing, and it has often struck me as an apt analogy for our opening term as a new College: it is a mountain, and we are learning how to climb it. 

This climb is not for the fainthearted. Of course, I knew what I was getting into, and was furnished with detail – both throughout the recruitment process for my role as Principal of OIC Brighton, and during the lead-in to taking up the role – about what was and wasn’t in process, what had and hadn’t been planned. But in all honesty, there’s very little that can prepare you, as leader of a start-up, for the monumental task ahead. 

OIC Brighton opened in August 2023, with 170 students. I officially started the role in April but was heavily involved last winter and spring in recruitment and planning. As I write, this extraordinary year draws to a close. What better time to reflect on all that’s happened, all that’s been achieved and, Janus-like, to simultaneously look forward to what still needs to be done. 

Ours is a Nord Anglia Education school and modelled closely on OIC in Oxford, so there was a great deal already in place when I took up my role. We knew what the curriculum would look like and we had a clear idea of the type of students we’d be recruiting. Colleagues suggested that working for NAE, I would have less autonomy than in an independent or charitable school: I now know this not to be the case. In fact, the level of autonomy – and the number of decisions that were left very much to me – has been one of many surprises this year. 

A memorable example is when I was asked whether we’d want our students to wear school uniforms. That’s a simple yes or no question, right? Wrong. Just think about the implications: having a uniform or not, and what that uniform looks like, how it’s worn and enforced, are decisions with big ramifications on College culture. My answer was a qualified ‘yes’. The next discovery surprised me: I’d have to design it myself. 

It turns out that developing a uniform is not a simple process and, for anything bespoke, a 9-month lead time is completely unrealistic. Nevertheless, the first time we saw our students walking through campus in their smart new uniforms, clearly identifiable as OIC Brighton students, was genuinely exhilarating. That moment is one of many ‘firsts’ that have made this autumn term so exciting, so gratifying.   

Within the planning and the decision-making, something I’ve had to learn to live with is huge uncertainty. In our case, there’s the time scale of building projects. When actively recruiting students and staff, there’s the uncertainty of what the community will constitute, including the logistical uncertainty of subject choices and year group sizes.  There’s a very real sense in which, no matter how many avenues you explore and how many processes you go through in preparation, there’ll be things you haven’t considered. Little issues or actually quite important decisions will continue to crop up and as a leadership team you simply have to admit: ‘Oh, we hadn’t thought of that!’ Will you hire musical instruments for international boarders who’ve left theirs at home, and if so, where will they be stored? (Hadn’t thought of that!) Where will the students queue for lunch when it’s raining? (Ah, should have thought of that!) What shall we call the boarding house? (Let’s ask the community!)

At our grand opening event in September, we welcomed colleagues and leaders from across the independent schools sector and across the Nord Anglia group. As with so many of our ‘firsts’ this year, we have felt buoyed by the support of these networks, held up by the sharing of expertise and the often material, tangible support and resources. I spoke then about all I had learnt about architecture (a lot!) and a growing fascination with the way people use spaces. It’s one of many surprising, unpredictable things about opening a new College; how people interact with the spaces that have been prepared for them; how people reclaim and reuse rooms and walkways and common areas in unexpected ways; how the formation of a community is shaped by the new campus in which that happens. 

Needless to say, the team you build around you is of the utmost importance and I like to joke that you need to be just the right amount of mad to want to work in a brand new independent boarding college which, when you’re interviewed for your job, doesn’t yet exist. I’ve been extremely lucky: the team has international teaching experience (tick!); UK independent boarding experience (tick!) and an incredibly collaborative, can-do spirit. We like to think of ourselves as pioneers at OIC Brighton and I couldn’t think of a better team of trailblazers with whom to set out on this adventure. It sounds obvious, but walking the corridors and seeing learning happen; witnessing the achievements of our talented students in their academic endeavours, feels miraculous. Every effort we made was working towards that outcome: seeing it come to life feels like magic. 

We’ve enjoyed building local links and have been fortunate to recruit great local talent in both support and academic teams. I can’t underline how important this is, regardless of where your students come from or how international your network: it takes a village, as they say, and some of the most beautiful moments have come from introducing our students to neighbours who have long memories of the site we now occupy as a College or showing them British traditions in the form of a Remembrance service or Christmas tree lighting. 

This is about building trust: winning the trust of our nearest neighbours that we’re going to be respectful occupants of a beautiful historical site; developing the bonds between new colleagues that create a culture in which people can experiment and thrive. As a new College, we have had to make a concerted effort to win the trust of parents, and reflective teaching colleagues have talked about the process of building trust among their classes: a harder job when everyone is new, even the teacher. In the final week of this long first term, we had another first: our first concert. And there was that trust, that relationship, clear to see: teachers offering back up piano for student performances; students and teachers singing and dancing together; representatives from the local village doing silly ’12 Days of Christmas’ dance moves along with staff and family members. A community has come together, and it means a lot.   

This mountain climb has been challenging, and more challenges lie ahead. It can be gruelling to be the decision-maker and to manage the uncertainty and relentless pace of a start-up which is not only a start-up but also a living, breathing, high-achieving organisation. Within this, I have endeavoured to hold a powerful sense of perspective. I think about the woman climbing the hill: her struggle seems so much harder than mine. We turn our students’ attention always to the terrible conflicts and suffering of our world and this hones our sense of empathy but also the very real gratitude we should always feel for what we have. I am grateful, proud and fortunate and, despite the hard work, really enjoying every minute of the climb.

Tess St Clair-Ford is the Principal of Oxford International College Brighton, England

To connect with Tess on LinkedIn, click Here

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In next week’s Leading Your International School Principal’s Blog, Dean Croy – Head of School, Utahloy International School Guangzhou, writes about ‘Developing Middle-Level Leaders: Get in the Boat‘.

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