School processes matter, but nothing beats culture, curriculum, and values

School processes matter, but nothing beats culture, curriculum, and values

Neelam Parmar is the Director of Digital Learning and Education for Harrow International Schools in Southeast Asia. Ten schools currently fall under that umbrella with seven of those located in China. Neelam has previously worked as Director of Digital Learning and Innovation at Ashford School and as an Educational Technologist for the United Learning Group. Prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic, she contributed to the Department of Education's digital strategy. Neelam caught up with Habitude founder Izzi Dorrian to chat about nurturing a communal culture within a group of schools based in very different locations. 

Can you tell us a bit about your current role at Harrow International Schools?

My role involves an oversight of everything to do with Digital Education within Harrow Schools in Southeast Asia.  I am currently heavily involved in reinventing the digital literacy curriculum including that of STEAM and Innovation. The aim for our pupils is to develop from consumers to producers to becoming digitally intelligent. Pupils have come back from the pandemic much savvier, and now more technology literate so, it’s time to reinvent the curriculum to ensure that they receive the relevant skills they need today and for their future.  

“The aim is to provide our future generations with skills and competencies to develop their digital intelligence so that they can face real world challenges with both resilience and endurance”

I am also involved in ensuring that the use of technology is shaped by a well-developed strategic plan aligned to the vision for the schools. This includes all things from developing digital leadership across the school to ensuring that our teachers are trained with the relevant skills they need to meet the demands of the pupils in the classroom, in a hybrid setting or completely online. Part of this role dictates that all of our educational technology (ICT) applications and tools are fit for purpose and streamlined to improve the efficiency of school-based processes and procedure in our schools. 

Additionally, I support the creation of the digital professional development platform, known as the AISL Academy. Taking a digital perspective, I look to ensure that we partner with the appropriate providers to provide the skills, courses and teacher training required to produce digital learning that is impactful, and which securely meets our Harrow standards and competencies in using technology within teaching and learning. 

Neelam Parmar, Director of Digital Learning and Education for Harrow International Schools in Southeast Asia catches up with Habitude founder.
Neelam Parmar, Director of Digital Learning and Education for Harrow International Schools in Southeast Asia.

What is the proportion of digital learning going on in the schools post-pandemic? 

There was a time recently when a few of our schools were functioning online while others were back in the physical grounds of the school. This was mainly down to the fact that there were covid outbreaks in that area and hence, we had to protect our students, teachers, and community. As a result, we have had to work with many different models of learning, using technology in the classroom, in a blended approach, going hybrid and in some cases and/or moving completely online. The common thread among all these different models of learning was to ensure quality of learning was continuing to take place, based on solid pedagogical practices for teaching and learning, assessment, and monitoring progress. 

In the UK, Harrow has an identity that comes to mind.  But what does it mean to be a Harrow School in Southeast Asia? 

Harrow Schools align themselves to the Harrovian values of Courage, Honour, Fellowship and Humility.  This approach focuses on developing the whole child and with this in mind, there is a delicate balance with how our schools are set up in Southeast Asia, along with the culture and the country they are placed in. We need to ensure that we embrace the key values and integrity of Harrow, whilst meeting the expectations of the country and their regulations.  

What would the differences between a Harrow school in China and one in Bangkok look like and how do those local cultures and values integrate with the school? 

Our Harrow school in Bangkok is an international school as is the same with Harrow Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen and Haikou. The International schools are independent day and boarding schools for students 18 months to 18 years. All classes are conducted in English.

Our schools in China, Harrow Nanning, Chongqing, Haikou, Zhuhai, Longgang, Qianhai,  provide for a life changing bilingual education that integrates the best of the East and the West.  They are taught by predominantly international teaching staff where English is used extensively (as well as Chinese) to teach the compulsory Chinese National Curriculum content. In essence, our bilingual schools are a marriage of two educational systems of the British and Chinese curriculum. Our bilingual curriculum is developed to produce students who possess Chinese characteristics with a global perspective.

Aside from mirroring the Harrow UK curriculum, what other elements shape the culture of Harrow International Schools? 

Our schools focus on maintaining tradition and pursuing excellence. Our schools cultivate 450 years of Harrow tradition and blend that with innovation. Southeast Asia as we know is growing exponentially in innovation, particularly within the digital space. We look to infuse tradition, values, ethos and culture with 21st century learning and incorporate new experiences, trends and expectations within an interesting matrix. Academic rigor, progressive teaching methodologies and a distinctive curriculum is key to our innovation. 

How do you get those systems and processes into the schools? How do you define, track and monitor your work in spite of the geographic challenges posed?

Like with any group, there are a set of generic processes, policies and systems that are necessary and applicable, and which can be personalised to suit the independent nature of the schools. Through regular meetings, discussions, and dissemination, we are able to get these systems and processes into schools. There is a set structure and organisation in place to help this workflow. I don’t believe we are using an integrated or automated approach similar to the Habitude system although this may differ in terms of ICT project planning and execution.  

Across the group, what thinking and decision-making sits locally, and what is common no matter which school you are in? Is there much done centrally from an operational perspective or is that left to the schools? 

From a digital perspective, our ecosystems are pretty much common across the board with a few exceptions. Our main software, applications, processes, and policies tend to be quite common too. Much of this is done centrally and our aim is to do as much of the heavy lifting as we can to support our schools.

However, each school also has its own strong identity and as a group we seek to preserve their school values, fostering their independent vision and culture. So, while the schools develop their own informed view of what works for them and what they need, we get the added benefit of sharing best practices with one another. From a digital learning perspective, while the group can offer direction and clarity for their schools, we are there to support and challenge them to progress further and with determination in this fast-moving technological landscape.

Lots of people reading this will be people from Multi Academy Trusts in the UK.  One of the big factors there is the identity of the trust versus the identity of the school.  Some trusts, United Learning being a great example, are so geographically spread out that every demographic you can imagine from the UK is covered.  Coastal, urban and lots of different types of pupil demographics. 

How do you cater for the differing student demographics between schools? 

Our schools embed the Harrowian values. They are premium schools catering to a group of people with a particular set of values. We have schools that have created and are creating an identity for themselves. For example, our newest school in Appi, Japan will include a ski centre which will become part of the school day and will weave itself into the curriculum. Two of our other schools, Harrow Hong Kong and Harrow Shenzen are currently undergoing major digital transformation and will serve as our digital flagship schools. So, while we set policies and processes as a group, schools take the opportunity to define themselves as they see fit for both their students and parents, valuing the ethos and culture of their respective countries.   

A young child skiing. In Japan, Harrow International Schools have created an outdoor school with a ski school attached.
Harrow International Schools have created an outdoor school with a ski school in Japan. Image by Georg H from Pixabay

What's new that you are working on that you're particularly excited about?

I am very excited about our new STEAM innovation centers that are currently in development. STEAM can be defined in many ways - they can be seen as an amalgamation of single subjects where you learn the skills in the classroom and apply them in context or it can be defined as a new subject dedicated to its own specialism. What we are looking to do is organically develop our STEAM centre, taking into consideration all the key part that constitute STEAM, and extend it into problem based sustainable learning projects, which are both relevant and key to our current generation. Wearable technologies, saving the planet, working with AI and robotics, lifting off to mars etc.…how will our students be able to contribute to breakthroughs of that magnitude in the future. What does this look like when we put this in the curriculum? We’ve got the energy and drive and so I am hoping we can get something quite dynamic at the end of it. This is where I am investing a lot of my energy at present. 

Astronaut on space station. Harrow International Schools are focussing on project-based STEAM learning including the practicalities of space travel.
Harrow International Schools are focussing on project-based STEAM learning including the practicalities of space travel

Thank you so much for chatting to us Neelam.  The way the Harrow International Schools are developing sounds incredibly exciting, and we look forward to seeing what the future holds. 

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