Jonathan Taylor became Principal of International School Zurich North in Switzerland in August 2019. Before this Jonathan was Head of North Bridge House School in Canonbury, London for five years. He made the move after leading one of Dulwich College’s five schools in China.
Jonathan is married to Rachel, and has a daughter, Sophia. Under difficult circumstances, three weeks into our enforced COVID-19 quarantine, we interviewed Jonathan via video conference, with only minor interruptions from each of our children!
Here’s what he had to say about his new school, what has shaped him as a school leader, and his vision for the future.
When did you arrive in Switzerland and how have you found it so far?
I arrived in August 2019 and have been really enjoying my new life here. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter have had to stay on a little longer in the UK due to complications with the sale of our house (and are now stranded due to coronavirus!), but that’s given me more time to focus on work in the first year, which I think is important. It’s also given me the opportunity to do a lot of exploring of Switzerland. I’ve been down into Ticino, across to Montreux, Lucerne and Bern, and up to Schaffhausen. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Switzerland in all its diversity.
Very nice. What’s your hobby?
Well, from between the ages of 3 and 40 it was football. Unfortunately, for the last three years I’ve not played competitive football largely because of a serious operation on my back. Sadly, it brought my playing days to a premature end.
I’m still searching for a replacement. I do a bit of cycling, but it’s not quite the same.
What inspired you to pursue a career in education?
After studying History and Politics at university, I spent two years teaching English in Greece and had a fabulous time. I enjoyed the teaching and the experience made me realise that I wanted a career where I could work internationally, so I went back to the UK and completed my Post Graduate Certificate in Education qualification. I’ve worked in UK and international education ever since.
What was it like working in China? Were you playing a role in setting up Dulwich there?
Yes. Dulwich have had international schools for a while, but in 2010 they set up a school specifically for Chinese students wishing to study GCSEs and A levels, which is my speciality.
I was involved from year one of the project, and it was a really exciting opportunity. It was fascinating to see how the Chinese do a lot of things differently, things where you think there is only one appropriate approach, but over time you think, “I can now see the logic in that. Oh, that’s a really good idea.” It really shifted my thinking.
I also completed a Masters in Educational Leadership while I was out there. That involved comparing Western and Confucian education, trying to find the best of both worlds. This heavily influenced me when I came back to London and was Head at North Bridge House. I tried to bring in some of the most effective ideas from Chinese education.
Other than your time in China, how have your life and career experiences informed your approach to work?
As I touched on with the experience in China, I think the more perspectives you can acquire, the better. If you look at things purely through a monocultural lens, it’s quite a limited perspective. I think the time I spent in Greece, China, and New Zealand, and even in the UK state and independent sectors, has changed my thinking, and probably made me a little bit more flexible and open minded.
My Masters degree also allowed me to evaluate different approaches to education and gave me a wider perspective. For example, looking at something like rote learning which in the UK we have a very negative perception of, compared to China where they see it as foundational level work that has to be done before students can be creative.
I think my international experience also explains why the schools I lead have such a strong commitment to globalism and internationalism. It’s one of the things I like about working for Cognita. We have schools all over the world, and there are lots of opportunities that come with that. It’s led me to put additional emphasis on language learning, on international trips, and other things which promote students as global citizens.
Within that framework, how do you personally think that you get children to do their best academically?
First and foremost, through high expectations. We frequently underestimate what children are capable of. For example, in my previous school, we wanted to prioritise the children acquiring a proficiency in a foreign language. We decided that from Grade 7 the students would just learn one language instead of the usual combination of French and German, or French and Spanish. We front loaded the curriculum, with a view to the students sitting GCSE in Grade 9, and then by Grade 11 they would hopefully be at A level standard. Initially, some teachers felt that it wasn’t possible, because they were so used to Grade 7s working at a particular level in a language. But that programme is in its third year now, and it’s incredible.
I remember one of the Spanish teachers telling me excitedly: “My Grade 8s are better than my Grade 11s.” Unlike the teachers, the students had no preconceptions about what Year 7 were expected to achieve in language learning so simply rose to the challenge.
That’s a good example of how we often have particular expectations for children at each age, but they’re often capable of far more.
In terms of your current school, at ISZN, what makes the learning environment special?
We have a really strong community feel on both our Primary and Secondary campus. They follow different curriculums, starting with the International Baccalaureate and then going on to GCSE and A level, but both have a high teacher to pupil ratio, so there’s a real understanding of the students by each of the teachers. That level of support and individual guidance between the teachers and the students, whether that’s in Grade 2 or Grade 10, is probably our biggest strength.
Do you have any principles and philosophies that you’re bringing into the school, or that already exist in the school that you see as particularly valuable and that you want to keep?
In Secondary, I’m trying to promote a much more evidence-led approach. One of the first things I did was to lead a session on evidence-based teaching; the principles behind it, what the science of teaching was telling us about good practice and less good practice in this area. Lesson time is finite so it’s critical that teachers spend time focusing on strategies that work effectively.
And are there any areas that you want to develop in the school?
The one thing I’d really like to see more of in the school is sport. I’m a frustrated sportsman at heart! Team sport has been incredibly good to me. Wherever I’ve lived in the world it’s allowed me to integrate quickly and brought me enormous pleasure.
Because we’re a small school, perhaps we’ve not always placed as great an emphasis on sport as we should have done, but I’m keen for us to be much more involved in local and national competitions.
What do the parents value most about ISZN?
I think two things. One, you know that your child will enjoy going to school. They will be supported, encouraged, and given opportunities. The other thing is the level of communication from the teachers, the school leadership and the administration. That is what parents feed back to us regularly. They really appreciate the opportunity to be very involved in their son or daughter’s education and contribute to the school.
What are the main trends that you see in education at the moment, and what challenges do they present?
I think bilingual education is going to be a huge growth area for international schools, with a need for schools to adapt and adjust to the fact that speaking only one language is incompatible with our globalized world. There’s an increasing desire from parents for their child to learn the local language. In Switzerland, it seems nonsensical to me that you wouldn’t want your child to become fully proficient in French or German.
The other trend is that we’re moving away from exams being almost the sole measure of education. I think exams will remain important, but a good education will increasingly be measured by other metrics, too. What those turn out to be remains to be seen, but we need to do more in terms of building skills and competencies, and adapting the curriculum model to prioritise what’s important for children, for example studying Mandarin, or learning about sustainability.
Finally, how are you equipping your students for future success within that? Are you going to work on delivering what you’ve just said?
A lot of that, as I say, comes through the curriculum. We’ve undertaken a radical overhaul of our Grade 6 to Grade 8 curriculum, which will come into effect in August. We’ve also changed the school day slightly to take better account of the fact that teenagers have different circadian rhythms to adults, so we should be starting school later to get the best out of them.
Also, we’ve introduced the International Project Qualification (IPQ). Students previously undertook four A levels. However, now they do three A levels and the IPQ, which strengthens skills of research, investigation, and critical analysis. I think getting a curriculum that really suits the needs of the future, and maximises the students’ engagement and enjoyment is probably the single biggest thing that schools can do to set their students up for a successful future.
Excellent. And how have you dealt with Coronavirus and do you think it will have a long-term impact on teaching methods?
It’s been incredible how effectively we’ve transitioned to online learning. We took this seriously early on and realised what was coming so we were well prepared when the time arrived.
I do think it will change teaching methods. However, teachers will have seen the benefits of what they can do online. As a result, they will be less sceptical of technology’s role in education, and more willing to embrace it.
Find out more about International School of Zurich North here
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