Meet the Headteacher; George Walsh, Institut International de Lancy, Geneva

Tell us about your background and what made you choose education as a career?

Originally born and raised in the Ribble Valley, Northwest England, I am delighted to introduce myself as Headmaster of Early Years and Primary at Institut International de Lancy, Geneva. I am an experienced leader in global education, and I have held key positions in the United Kingdom, South-East Asia, and Switzerland. My passion for teaching started when I was a student myself. My teachers always inspired me, and I have many fond school memories.

Later in life, I realised the capacity schools have to influence the lifelong development of the individuals within their communities. Knowing this, my vocation as an educator was born. Fast-forward several years, I now find myself in the privileged position of shaping the ethos and values of such a prestigious and highly respected Institut in the hope that IIL students will receive the same experience that I once did.

I am also fortunate to have been invited to work alongside the Council of International Schools in their mission to assist top- performing international schools with their ongoing development. I am proud to contribute towards raising the standards of international education across the globe, with the hope that more children will grow up in a more tolerant, peaceful, just, and sustainable world. 

How will your experiences and philosophies inform your approach as Headmaster at IIL?

As a practising Catholic, my faith drives my philosophy and approach as Headmaster. Although IIL has evolved into a diverse and inclusive community since its foundation in 1903 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Lyon, Christian values remain at the heart of everything we do. I consider every school day a blessing, and each lived to its fullest through work, play and laughter. Therefore, I set ambitious expectations of personal achievement in an environment where people treat each other with compassion and grace. As a result, students become well-rounded, harmonious individuals prepared to serve others. This philosophy makes IIL an extraordinary place and is why I remain committed to its continued development in the years to come. 

What is your vision for the school – will you be bringing anything new in or changing anything? Are there any areas that you want to develop in the school?

My vision for the school is encapsulated in our three key guiding principles: learning, well-being, and citizenship. In other words, a school with high-quality teaching and learning is conducted in a safe and happy place where people take care of each other. This sounds basic and what most people would consider a minimum requirement in any well-resourced international school. However, I have seen far too many schools trying to do the next best thing to stand out from the crowd in increasingly competitive markets in recent years. So much that they are juggling so many different new initiatives that they lose sight of the original purpose of their existence.

One of the key areas I will be looking to develop, running across all three of these guiding principles, is global citizenship and intercultural learning. We are currently conducting an entire curriculum review to ensure that the contextual themes we use are relevant and meaningful to the changing needs of our students. For example, I noticed that most of our curriculum units had themes linked to British culture when I arrived—for instance, Tudor England or the River Thames, as particular case studies. However, with over 97 different nationalities represented, our curriculum was no longer relevant to most students.

At the forefront of our new approach are the Four Cs: Communication, Conflict, Conservation and Culture. The desired impact, measured in 2023, will show that our students have started understanding the differing attitudes towards these key global issues. 

How do you encourage a love of learning in young children?

Instilling a love of learning in young children is deeply rooted in our second guiding principle – well-being. For learning to manifest itself, young children need to feel safe and happy in the environment where they spend most of their time. Our hand-picked team of outstanding teachers are experts in creating a welcoming, innovative and engaging space for children to develop their creativity and curiosity. 

I am also a big believer that learning should be fun, especially for children in Early Years and Primary education. My best school memories include working on projects with my classmates, getting messy with gooey Science experiments, and giggling at the teacher’s funny character voices during our class novels. I think children today are still the same as when I was young – they will love learning new things forever if they find enjoyment in their earliest school experiences. 

Apart from the excellent city campus and facilities at IIL, what is your favourite thing about the learning environment that makes the school so unique?

Cohesion. We are blessed at IIL to have strong working relationships between our three English, French, and Bilingual divisions. Although our Institut has these three well-established sections, each with a unique culture and programmes of its own, it overjoys me to see such a solid togetherness between school leaders, teachers, students, and parents. This sense of school citizenship demonstrates our passion for inclusivity and collaboration. 

What do parents of IIL value about the school?

Our strong sense of community. In the short time that I have been at IIL, it is clear that our parents, students and employees love to share their support for our common goals. This was immediately evident soon after I was appointed as Headmaster, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The community rallied together in adopting sanitary measures and online schooling.

It was heartbreaking to see their sudden detachment from a place they had grown to love as a hub for community friendship, guidance and shared experience. Our active Parents’ Association is IIL’s main and longest-standing community partner in Geneva. The school leadership and the association work closely on projects that provide the best opportunities for those in and around our school community. An extensive network of volunteers from the association is responsible for assisting our new families integration into the school community, whilst other working groups focus on humanitarian projects or organise events, parties and celebrations. 

Which philosophies are you bringing into the school?

In the last 18 months, I have recognised two areas that stand out as being extremely valuable to the school and its students. The first is our bespoke language programme in Early Years and Primary. Each student is given a tailor-made pathway, created to suit their language profile, with progression opportunities and add-ons to support their developing skills. This language pathway is mapped-out in collaboration with parents during the enrolment process and ensures that all needs are considered.

Because the programme focuses on competency acquisition, students can quickly develop their second or third language skills from speaking and listening to more technical skills in reading, writing, and grammar. For families at our school for 3-5 years, we want to ensure their children develop enough language skills to get the most out of living in Geneva in this relatively short time. On the other hand, we must challenge students further to have more choices in secondary and higher education. 

Students who develop advanced competencies in their second or third language can explore our Bilingual IB Diploma, Swiss Maturity Diploma or French Baccalaureate qualifications. 

The second valuable area is STEAM. Our dedicated laboratory, housed in the original school building, provides students with the most engaging space for creativity and problem solving I have seen in my career to date. In STEAM, students are encouraged to bring project ideas of their own, and these often involve elements of coding, robotics, 3D printing, laser-cutting and multimedia. I will be honest, a lot of it goes over the top of my head, and it is undoubtedly an area of my development to better understand. However, I know this area of our school is one of the most valuable because whenever I visit, I am always amazed by how passionate, informed and focused the students are to work on their projects. 

Have you seen the process of new students arriving, and how do you manage that – especially now? Do you think Covid will have a lasting impact on teaching methods? 

The magnitude of change to our admissions process has been phenomenal over the last two years, as I am sure has been the case in most international schools worldwide. Due to the recent health measures, international schools, including IIL, have had to adapt quickly to support prospective families in their search for a new school. Irrespective of the ongoing situation, it is so important for international schools to get this process right, as finding the most suitable environment is often the number one priority for parents. This is even more significant for parents who are managing a family re-location at the same time. I have found that taking the stress and anxiety out of such a complex decision and forging a home school partnership around the child(ren) ensures that their integration is blended to meet their circumstances.

The development in technology and the upskilling of administrative personnel has been vital in making this process smooth and interactive for all parties involved. The introduction of video meetings, virtual tours and inter-school collaboration has made this possible in difficult testing times. I think there are a lot of positive developments to take from what we have learnt in recent years, especially concerning the lasting impact the global pandemic has had on teaching and learning.

Children will inevitably have suffered gaps in their education and delays in their social and emotional development as a direct result. However, teachers, students, and parents have been incredibly resilient when faced with these new challenges and increased demands. We do not know the full extent of the long-term effects of Covid-19 yet, but I am confident that what we have learnt has made teaching and learning safer more efficient and opened a world of new and exciting opportunities. 

What do you think will be the significant challenges facing students and education in the future?

The latest research and data suggest that students’ ever-increasing exposure to the digital world is changing how they engage themselves in the classroom or beyond. 

The proven effects are unknown, but clear advantages and disadvantages are starting to emerge. I have personally observed that children exposed to high levels of gaming, for example, are becoming more dependent on visual stimuli to keep them focused and productive. Furthermore, children in the 21st Century have access to masses of information at their fingertips. Unfortunately, this information can often be misleading and intentionally targeted to influence a young and vulnerable audience. 

Moreover, teachers and parents regularly raise their concerns about the psychological health impacts of social media on students. Clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and addiction are rapidly rising in young people. It is our duty as educators to support, guide and equip students, and their families, to better understand the risks and offer strategies to help them cope with any issues that arise. 

How do you equip students for success as they get older?

Our Early Years and Primary Learning Pathways is a structured approach to developing personal traits and competencies that prepare our students for success in the future. In the Early Years, explorers (3-5 years) are encouraged to ‘have a go’ by learning how to be experimental, curious, confident, and cooperative. These are the skills that enable our young children to remember more about the world around them, give new things a try and begin to share and work together as part of a team. At the end of Primary School, navigators (9-11 years) are encouraged to ‘lead the way’ by showing leadership, skill application, problem-solving, and focused attention and ownership towards their own goals and objectives. 

Many of our Learning Pathway traits and competencies are developed through student-led learning, like those described earlier in our STEAM programme. However, it is the responsibility of the senior leadership team and me to continually assess the skills that will be required in 2030 and beyond, ensuring that our programmes and approaches are adapted to give IIL students the very best chance to succeed in their futures. 

How are you personally finding Switzerland and everything it has to offer?

Since I arrived in Switzerland, I have loved every second. I have found it easy to settle and make lots of new friends. I even met my future wife here, although Covid-19 has put a stop to our wedding plans for the time being! I am particularly impressed with how Switzerland values family life. With businesses being closed on Sunday’s and the beautiful scenery on everyone’s doorstep, it is hard not to spend quality time with loved ones – no matter the season!

Since moving to The Alps, I have become an avid skier and cyclist, which keeps me busy when I am not working. At the same time, I am starting to take advantage of the handy location in Europe for travel, gastronomy, and fashion experiences. My only regret is that I did not work hard enough in French lessons at school. I am now suffering the consequences! 

About Institut International de Lancy (IIL)

Institut International de Lancy (IIL) is a leading international school in Geneva balancing academic excellence with citizenship. IIL has a child-focused approach to learning that combines creativity with critical thinking and encourages collaboration alongside autonomy. IIL school welcomes students from nursery school through secondary education, aged 3 to 19, preparing them for major certifications, including the International Baccalaureate (IB), IGCSE, Preparation to the Examen de Maturité Suisse, Brevet des Collèges and French Baccalaureate. 

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