Jon Locke, the Principal of The British School of Barcelona, is interviewed by Bhalia digital newspaper. BSB Principal reviews a year in pandemic, the school’s challenges and achievements during this challenging period, the qualities of a British international education and the future of BSB, which includes the opening of its fourth campus in the city of Barcelona: BSB City.
We are not used to interviewing many school principals around here … Is this because little importance is paid to the people who educate our children?
In the current climate of a global pandemic, it is understandable that people’s focus is on our health system and the necessary safety measures, as we try to overcome this unprecedented world event. People are worried about the health of their families and friends, about their jobs and livelihoods, so this is really understandable in my opinion.
However, since the first moment of lockdown last March, we understood the importance of providing a routine, support measures and a sense of normality for all of our students. There is a considerable amount of emerging evidence which indicates that our young people are at significant risk of mental health issues due to the pandemic. We have worked really hard to counter this by providing as much ‘normality’ as possible, even during the 12-week lockdown period.
How have students resonded to returning to school after lockdown? Has it been difficult?
Our students, staff and parents have been fantastic since returning to school. In June, we took the opportunity to open to for Primary aged students, following the Government guidance. We invested a great deal of time into ensuring BSB was as safe as possible for our students and although we were all a little nervous, we quickly built confidence and have managed the situation very positively. We established clear safety protocols in school and our students have respected these really well. We ran lessons to explain the risks alongside parent webinars, this has been key in developing clarity about how to stay safe in school.
We were then able to open secondary fully, running all of our normal lessons and a full curriculum. Students have appreciated being able to return to school which has also made a big difference.
Since opening, we have had some cases of students testing positive for COVID after contracting the virus outside school. In all cases we have followed strict protocols and have had no transmissions in school, keeping all parents fully informed, thoughout. This has meant that we have been able to remain fully open and student learning has not been impacted. Our whole school community has pulled together to achieve this.
With so much screen these days, especially after lockdown, do students learn more inside or outside school?
Although we were already quite advanced in our use of technology to support learning, since the lockdown, our learning curve has been steep! During lockdown we provided a mixture of online lessons and independent working, sometimes not involving technology. This seemed to be the optimum model during school closure. We have maintained this approach for students who are unable to come into school as they isolate. In September we launched our 1 to 1 device programme, with all students over the age of 7 having their own personal device, to use in school and at home. This has led to the more seamless use of technology to support learning. We want students to use technology when it makes learning more effective and impactful, not just for its own sake.
We are increasingly seeing the blurring of the traditional lines demarking home and school. Students are encouraged to work independently and collaboratively using technology, both in and outside lessons. They are also encouraged to discuss and debate, to solve problems together, to develop relationships and to present ideas. These skills are just as important as technological fluency and need students to be together, in school, to be exposed to these experiences. So although we have made enormous progress with developing intendent learning using technology over the past year, students still need to come to school and have the human interaction not least for their own wellbeing and social development.
Related to this topic, what are the main concerns or questions that parents have about education with screens?
The main parental concerns have been about too much screen time, online safety and lack of socialisation. These are obviously all very valid concerns and we have tried to take a 3-way approach to dealing with this, ultimately our aim is to help students to become digital citizens, able to self-regulate their use of technology.
In school we run specific lessons for students, explaining these issues and providing clear guidance on how to use technology safely and in the right way. We have created a team of digital champions, students who train other students and who help develop our digital safety policy and procedures. This is an ongoing programme that will never be finished due to the constantly changing nature of technology.
We have also run parental webinars and workshops alongside providing parental guidance and support. Many of our parents have expressed concerns about keeping up with their children so a key task has been in supporting parents so they can be confident in managing their children’s use of technology at home. As with the training for students, this will be an ongoing need.
Finally, our staff have had to rapidly develop their understanding of how to use technology effectively and safely. We were already reasonably advanced in this area and we now have staff trained as Apple certified educators, Microsoft practitioners and certified Champions for the software platforms we use at BSB. We run a comprehensive programme of research and development for our staff, fluency in the use of technology has now been fully integrated into this ongoing training programme.
Yours is a school that follows the British educational system. What is the biggest difference from the Spanish system? What qualities could the Spanish system learn from the British, and vice versa?
By following the English national curriculum, we know students are provided with a well-considered balance of skills and knowledge. This provides a solid bedrock which ensures our students are prepared for University study in the best institutions in the World. However, with the English curriculum there is sufficient room for teachers to be more creative and to be more innovative. At BSB we have an additional focus on wider learning habits or future skills. This means that our students become self-sufficient learners, who can solve problems, work collaboratively, demonstrate resilience and be creative. BSB graduates are curious creative thinkers who love learning.
As I’ve already mentioned, a significant innovation at BSB has been our programme of EdTech and digital fluency. Our 1 to 1 devices programme (iPads or laptops) helps students learn how to use technology seamlessly to support their learning. Allowing learning to become a fluid activity in school and at home, with students independently determining their learning ambitions. We understand that digital fluency is an essential future skill, and that this will be a constantly evolving and developing area.
The Spanish system provides a very good breadth of offer for all students until the very end of school when they go to University. The English system is more focussed, with students making options choices at 14 and 16. This might be a disadvantage for some students who do not want to specialise so early, preferring the wider breadth of study offered by the Spanish system. At BSB we have tried to overcome this by offering the IB alongside A levels, for our 16–18-year-old students. This means our students are able to follow a more in-depth, more focussed A level course or a broader IB course. We try to offer the best of both worlds.
One of the values of your school is ‘excellence in education’. What is an excellent education nowadays?
Excellent academic outcomes are essential of course. We want our students to gain the best examination outcomes possible to enable them to attend the best universities in the world. We want them to have choices. However, as I have mentioned, we also want our students to become young people who have the skills and habits to live successful lives beyond school, our focus on learning habits is a vital component of this.
We understand how important it is for young people to feel safe, happy and confident. In the current climate of uncertainty and unrest, this could not be more relevant. At BSB we therefore focus on the care and support for our students. Without this, students will never achieve their full potential and gain those excellent academic outcomes. We have a dedicated student services team who oversee the mental health and wellbeing of our students, providing a comprehensive programme of support and guidance alongside targeted interventions. We run a peer mentoring programme, host parental workshops and arrange guest speakers to ensure our students and their families feel really well advised. I have worked in a number of high performing schools and believe that our programme at BSB is second to none.
In line with the above, in just 20 years we have seen that educational methods have changed a lot. What do you think education will be like in the next 10 years?
Our children face a future that none of us can truly imagine or understand. They will be competing for jobs in a global market, many of those jobs have yet to be invented and they will change careers multiple times in their working lives. To be prepared for this, students need the future skills that I have mentioned. They also need to have developed an intrinsic enjoyment for learning and self-development.
In school we must focus on student agency, giving students increasing levels of self-determination to nurture this independence and implicit motivation. We want creative curious thinkers, young people who can do the jobs that robots can’t do! At BSB we already provide students with choices at many levels of the school so that they begin to enjoy this sense of self-determination. In ten years’ time this will be the norm in schools, rather than a unique feature.
You have recently announced the inauguration of a new campus in Barcelona, how important is this step for The British School of Barcelona?
The City campus is an exciting step for us, a new chapter in the school’s history and evolution. The main driving force is the aim of being able to offer a BSB education to many more families. During the past 60 years, BSB has regularly needed to expand in order to meet the growing demand for places. By opening a brand-new campus in the City, we will be able to offer places for hundreds of new students. The advantage of expanding by opening a new additional campus, is that within BSB City we will be able to retain our family ethos, ensuring that every student is treated personally, according to their individual needs, talents and interests.
We already have a great team of staff at BSB. BSB City will provide new opportunities for some of those people, adding a reason for them to stay with us. In addition, the new campus will hopefully help us to recruit new outstanding teachers from across the world.
We know that our staff make the single biggest difference at BSB, and we want to have the best trained, best qualified team possible.
In relation to this new campus, is it intended for families who already live in the city or is it to serve new families?
Both. We already have a number of existing BSB families interested in transferring their children to the new City campus. Their reason is obviously the location, so if reducing travel time is important to those families, we will be happy for them to transfer to BSB City. However, a number of BSB families who live in the City will not want to disturb their children’s education, they have established friendship groups and are very happy with their teachers etc, so they will choose to remain at the Castelldefels or Sitges campuses.
We will also welcome new families to BSB, families who might have discounted us due to our existing location outside the City. We have already had enquiries and can’t wait to expand our BSB family.
It is said that education is something that lasts a lifetime… Where do you see The British School of Barcelona in 50 years’ time?
I will definitely not be here, that’s for sure! We currently have students who are the third generation of BSB students from their family. In 50 years’ time we might have fifth or even sixth generation students, because we will always be a family school even though our family is expanding. BSB will be a destination school, with families choosing to come to live in Barcelona, at least partly, because of BSB. Our campuses will include state-of-art Science, Arts and Sports facilities, and we will run collaborative projects with local universities, art galleries, theatres and sports clubs to ensure our students have the best possible opportunities to explore where their passions lie. Our Alumni will be in some of the most influential jobs around the world, making a positive difference to everyone’s lives.
I know these may sound like big dreams, but it hopefully demonstrates our unrelenting desire to be the best school we possibly can be.