This year, students at St George’s International School will start the term under the wing of their new Principal, Dr Ruth Norris. She joins the school as it celebrates a triumphant results success, cementing its place as one of Switzerland’s top 5 rated IB schools. Ruth has set her sights on continuing to build on this academic prowess, bringing a strong leadership background at top-performing UK schools. With a strong belief in the transformative power of learning and an ethos that extols the benefits of holistic development within a diverse, international environment, she is set to lead the way in preparing students’ for life as global citizens.
ISPM talks to Dr Ruth Norris, School Principal at St George’s International School Montreux
For me, my own experience of education was key in the decision to pursue this career path. I was educated in the UK state system, then was fortunate enough to do my undergraduate degree in History at the University of Cambridge and my postgraduate at the University of Oxford. This meant that I had a wide and diverse educational experience from all angles of the UK system. In particular, I saw education as deeply powerful and transformative, and I understood how essential teachers were in that. Any child from any background can achieve anything if they enjoy and commit themselves fully to their education. So it felt very natural then to go into education and be part of the profession that makes those life-changing opportunities happen for children. It’s a real privilege.
In terms of my teaching career, I initially started by lecturing while at Oxford and worked there for a while before going into school teaching, where I worked across a real mix – from large international boarding schools to small day schools, single-sex and co-ed schools, schools with reception to sixth form and senior-only schools. Most recently, I was the head of Derby Grammar School, a private grammar in the Midlands, UK.
I’m delighted to join St George’s and continue my love of international schooling. What really attracted me to the school was the combination of academic achievement, international outlook, and a focus on the child’s holistic development, which is so in line with my own ethos.
What elements of your past experiences are you going to bring to St George’s?
At Oxford and Cambridge, I saw what premium education could really look like; how stimulating and challenging it could be when done well. I have a strong academic leadership background, most recently as Head at a high-performing school where we went through quite a significant reform to dramatically improve our academic results. St George’s already has an excellent academic foundation with recognition as a top five IB status in Switzerland, so my journey here will start with cementing and building on the academic success of the school.
The next step forward is going to be about developing a wider enrichment program, concentrating on our holistic approach to the development of children. Alongside academia, we have two other educational pillars at St George’s: sports and performing arts, which are so important for character development.
Sport in Switzerland is very individualised and not particularly competitive, which is in contrast to the fixtures and team play of the UK private school system. I think the next step forward for St. George’s’ extra-curricular offering is to develop a more competitive sports programme. The school has already made tremendous first steps towards this: we’ve developed the Sport Étude programme and we’ve got links with lots of different local sporting providers. We’ve recently hired a new director of sport who I’m looking forward to working with to develop this area and integrate it more fully into the school day.
What is your ethos and how do you encourage a love of learning in your students?
My own ethos is around the holistic development of each student, to nurture and equip them with the skills and confidence to ensure success as leading global citizens of tomorrow. Fundamentally, this starts with a love of learning, and I believe that there are three elements to this: inspiring our pupils, investing in amazing teachers, and working collaboratively with parents.
As a headteacher, you have to start with your professional capital: your teachers. You must make sure that you’ve got the right people in place who bring an infectious, unbridled enthusiasm for their subject. My approach to managing teaching staff is very liberal – I believe that teachers need professional space to flourish. They should be encouraged to be individual, to be quirky, to develop their own interests in their own subject area. Teachers should be committed lifelong learners to be able to inspire that kind of attitude in their pupils, so investing in meaningful, regular professional development for staff is also key.
I think it’s also important that the school communicates effectively with parents about the educational ethos, how we aim to bring out the best in their children, and how parents can best extend that learning environment to the home.
What makes St George’s a unique school?
Well, I have to start with the caveat that I have visited the school only a few times since coming over in August, when everything was closed down because of COVID. But the impression that I got immediately is that the teachers and the pupils form a happy and unified community.
We have over 60 nationalities here represented in our student body, and I like that the teaching community reflects the international nature of the school. I really didn’t want to come to a British school abroad; I wanted to come to an international school abroad. I believe that this environment promotes an essential education in social outcomes for pupils who are facing a very global future. It’s important that the teachers reflect this, establishing the right mindset and the right cultural environment for the children to learn in. I think this progressive, global outlook gives St George’s a real edge.
What is it that makes parents at St George’s value the school?
I have already met several of the parents and spent some time with the Parents Liaison Group. We tend to have a very settled ex-pat community here who are well integrated into the Swiss community. It’s an interesting mix of a stable community with tremendous diversity.
One of the first questions I posed to them was ‘Why this school?’. The answers focused on the school’s size and how that relates to our community and teaching ethos here. It’s big enough to be vibrant, to have great social opportunities and a community feel, but it’s also small enough that the parents feel that it’s bespoke and individual.
The educational ethos at St George’s is very much that we recognise that every child is different. You don’t just bring them all in through the door, herd them in, line them up, teach them the same way. They’re all different, and the school is small enough to be very bespoke in our teaching methods. There’s a lot of very individualised pathways for students through the school, depending on what quality of French they have or what quality of English they have, whether they want to go to a Swiss, UK or American university, whether they want to do the iGCSE route or not, whether they want to do an IB route or certificate route. Parents love that the school is tailored to the needs of their child and takes the time to understand them.
Do you think that COVID will have a lasting impact on teaching methods at St George’s?
Absolutely, in a good way. We learn from history that these moments of crisis are always catalysts for change, and we can now start to reflect on the changes that COVID has brought us. Of course, for teaching, it’s technology. ‘Technology for Learning’ was already becoming a buzzword within the profession before COVID hit. Many schools were looking at going online with some trepidation and in a very rudimentary way. Now, teachers are learning and benefitting from how slick and integrated some of these platforms can be.
So, for the future, we’ll be cherry picking the best features of the technology and transferring that back into the classroom. We recognise that nothing replaces a face-to-face experience – something I think that we have all learned during lockdown – but there’s a lot that we can now integrate into classroom learning around, for example, managing cover lessons or homework. I think that’s going to be something very positive to take forward at the school.
How are you supporting pupils’ mental health and wellbeing with the return to school?
Wellbeing is high on the agenda, but I don’t think we yet fully understand the impact that COVID will have had on young people’s mental health. We’re looking ahead and investing in school counselling services and pastoral welfare so that we’re fully prepared to support our students when they return.
I think it’s also important to foster positive mental health practices within their education too. Making time in the day for them to understand their emotions and their relationships with other people and to talk to them about their experiences are a natural part of schooling. It’s something we continue to discuss and develop in our senior leadership and educational leadership team meetings.
What do you think the major challenges will be facing students and the education sector in the future?
That’s a big one. Ultimately, for both, it’s change. Over my lifetime, I’ve already seen huge amounts of change. Technology has gripped the world and has brought heightened communication, awareness, and challenge.
For education, the world is changing too fast for a specialised curriculum to keep up. It’s always going to be out of date. I think a skills-based education is much more relevant: equipping pupils with the versatility to thrive in a world that is going to be vastly different five, ten, twenty years after they leave school.
As an educator, you’re always preparing pupils for a future that’s completely unknown. In my previous role in the UK, I worked closely with large local employers, like Rolls-Royce and Toyota, who are all prioritising ‘soft’ skills in their staff. Employers want to see the academic side and the practical, creative, problem-solving skills which will enable people to grow and change to manage future unknowns.
The challenge for students is to recognise and cope with the coming changes; the challenge for education is to keep it current, topical, and skills-based, with flexibility and versatility built in.
What is your vision and ambition for St George’s graduates? What would you like a St. George’s graduate to be?
There’s a long list! Obviously, I want them to have all the right academic doors open to them and to have the world as their oyster. I want them to be able to pursue whatever it is that they choose to do next.
I’m very determined that St George’s graduates will not just be academically successful; I want them to be world-ready, with the ability to cope with change. I want them to have the problem-solving, creative thinking, powers of reasoning and resilience to thrive. They will have benefited from the all-important character development which wraps around their academic grades and makes them stand out.
And then the pinnacle to all this is the expectation that St George’s graduates will understand the world from a global perspective. They will have appreciated the experience of diversity that they’ve had here, being around people of different cultures, backgrounds, languages, and religions. I want them to understand that there is a whole melting pot of humanity and to be a global citizen when they come out of here.
How was the move to Switzerland and how will you make the most of everything the country has to offer?
So far, we’ve loved every second of it. We’ve been really well supported in making the transition over to Switzerland in August last year. We’re up in the mountains, overlooking the lake – it’s incredibly beautiful. As a family we’re really big into water sports, like paddle boarding and water skiing, so having the lake on our doorstep is perfect.
Switzerland is an interesting country; it’s got very high standards for absolutely everything. You get the impression that if you accidentally ruffled a few flowers by the lake, that somebody would have immediately arrive and put them back in order. And I think that extends to the culture; there’s a tremendous sense of mutual respect for one other.
It’s also a lovely, safe environment for families. I can see as a parent that Switzerland offers a very outdoors-y, natural childhood. The number of children that are walking around in friendship groups without their parents makes my children very excited; they know that they can go and enjoy this environment independently. I have two girls aged 11 and 9 who are enjoying their summer holiday at the moment, thinking that life is all about flip flops and swimming. I’ll have to burst that bubble at some point! But, like me, they are very much looking forward to starting a new adventure at St George’s.
About St George’s International Boarding School in Switzerland
Founded in 1927, St. George’s International School is a premium day and boarding school for boys and girls from 18 months to 18 years old, comprising over 60 nationalities. Located in Montreux, the school has magnificent views of the Alps and Lake Geneva.