A Very International School
Deputy Head Master of Harrow School Alastair Land asks how international students are broadening the horizons of British boarding schools and what makes a British education universally attractive to students from overseas
Harrow School has recently been the focus of an eight-part documentary broadcast on Sky One, entitled Harrow – A Very British School. The programme ably focussed on the lives, triumphs and learning experiences of the members of one boarding house at Harrow. The inseparable bond of boys with both their house and school came through strongly, as did the shared educational and pastoral vision of both boys and masters alike. The leading quality of classroom work and excellence in music, sport and drama were also shown off admirably in the context of those elements of school life that the programme makers ascribed as British, specifically: particular school uniform, grand set-piece school events, indomitable house spirit, diligent hard work, training, courtesy, fair play and fine long-running traditions. Whilst some might view these as British qualities, they are of course universal and it is these virtues that attract parents to send their sons to Harrow School from around the world. Added to which, Harrow School is truly a full-boarding school: there are no day pupils and every day is full of both action and opportunities for reflection. The school schedule is rich, varied and compelling to teenage boys.
Harrow has, in fact, been international to some degree for some considerable time. It counts proudly amongst its alumni Jawarhalal Nehru and King Hussein of Jordan. These days, some pupils will, for the longer holidays, return to homes in Africa, the Caribbean, North and South America, Europe, Russia, the Middle East and throughout Asia. Of course, a lot of British boys will make the same journeys to be reunited with parents working overseas. In this context, it is worth considering to what extent internationality is a concept deemed relevant by the boys themselves. As new year groups become established in the first months of the Autumn term, ideas of origin seem less pertinent. New friendships are firmly forged regardless of where boys hail from, as, through full-blooded participation in all the events that are sequenced to help new boys come together, they discover the synergies in the diverse backgrounds they represent. This bonding is neither a laborious nor self-conscious process, but wrought naturally on the playing fields, in the concert hall and the house common rooms, as boys get on with the business of getting on. It is not merely though a question of fitting in. Boys from overseas bring a lot to the school; for instance, two of Harrow’s newer societies, Atlantic Society and Slavonic Cultural Society, attract audiences for their meetings from throughout the pupil community. These newcomers exist alongside more established ones: Nehru Society for all matters relating to the Indian subcontinent, and the Pickthall Society for Muslim interests.
The boys who join the school now, born in this millennium and not the last, have been raised in a culture where social media are the norm, instant and global digital communication is taken for granted and in this light, place of birth and upbringing are respected but not categorised. For the youth of today, a seamless movement of people and information makes minds that think of connectedness rather than difference. This is not merely fine-sounding rhetoric. All of our pupils, whether from overseas or the UK, are found in every milieu of school existence: at the top of our academic achievements in Oxford and Cambridge and Ivy League admissions, in the Monitors (prefects), the top teams for rugby, soccer, cricket and Harrow Football, the Orchestra, the Choir and the School Plays. House masters are crucial in this regard. Working with their House Pastoral Teams they ensure that, with insightful guidance and proper encouragement, all boys find their feet academically as well as discovering complete enjoyment of all aspects of the Harrow School education. To a degree, this embedded culture of embracing all comers is founded on Harrow’s truly national reach. There are few all-boy, full-boarding schools where there are pupils present in significant numbers from all regions of the UK.
Harrow School is itself a clear international brand with Harrow International Schools having been founded in Bangkok (1998), Beijing (2006) and Hong Kong (2012). A recent conference of the international heads of these schools hosted at Harrow in the UK, debated the concept of “Harrowness”. Some ideas at the centre of that discussion included: being straightforward; adopting a strong moral tone; being without side or guile; knowing that hard work is the key to results; teachers who never stop giving to their pupils so that they will attain the very best results achievable; participation and competitiveness regardless of the likely outcome; mass involvement and excellence in the co-curriculum; and a sense of shared humanity, in which direct personal work with those outside the school community is a celebrated obligation. At the same conference of heads, the international schools conducted interviews for posts in their schools, and some staff from Harrow in the UK will transfer to the international schools. In time, they may return. This global transfer of knowledge, experience and expertise in the teaching staff is augmented by the international backgrounds of many Harrow masters, thus making the international unexceptional. In addition, an initiative this year will see 16-year-old pupils from Harrow School, the three international schools and the John Lyon School come together in what will become an annual conference. This conference will explore ideas of what holds them together as young people from around the world. In a world increasingly influenced by supranational institutions, where the position of the traditional nation-state is less clear for some, TCKs (third culture kids) will find a nurturing and progressive place for them at Harrow. Some will define themselves as Harrovians, with enquiring minds, durable ethical standards and resolute values that provide a robust platform to go out into a turbulent global context.