Cover Story

Showing some respect

September 12 - 18, 2018

Gulf Weekly Showing some respect

DR Simon Watson has flown into Bahrain with his family from Malaysia to take over as principal of St Christopher’s School, replacing veteran educationist Ed Goodwin who sat in the principal’s chair for 23 years, writes Stan Szecowka.

He’s already set out to win the hearts and minds of his 400-strong team of teachers and support staff with an open, inclusive style of management and he plans an all-out offensive to bring the whole community on board.

Simon, 50, from Devon, first carved a career in the UK before culturing it on the international stage with stopovers in the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Denmark and Malaysia and he portrays a quiet confidence. He knows what he wants and he knows how to achieve it.

 “I have a lot of respect for what Ed has done here, he has created a wonderful school,” he said. “My style would tend to move towards the more collaborative, looking for ways we can involve the community, whether it’s teachers, students and parents, looking at how they can identify the areas to be worked on.

“With a school like St Chris, where things are in place and things are working, we’re not really looking to shake it up a great deal – we’re really looking at building on its strengths, looking at identifying the opportunities.

“We’ve already had a big session on the first day of term with the staff (before the school opened its doors to the pupils). It was workshop-based, getting their feedback and they were very appreciative, they liked it.

“We talked about values and I shared my three – passion, empathy and mutual respect. I talked at some length and I got them to list their own values.

“I think that for me ‘mutual respect’ is significant because we have to respect the children we teach and they, in turn, will respect you.

“I emphasised the relationships between children, adults and children, and with parents, and how important it is to make sure we get the right boundaries between being welcoming and maintaining the safety and security that we all want. It was quite an interesting session.”

He added that when it comes to reaching out and embracing the community, he’s not only talking about his own teachers, pupils, parents and the school’s governors, but other learning establishments, businesses and organisations in the kingdom. “Those relationships might already exist but I need to feel what they are and maintain them, and, if they’re not there, to establish them,” he said.

Simon was also ‘really looking forward’ to the children getting back to school and ‘seeing what it’s like, getting the noise and the buzz around’.

He was well settled in Malaysia as principal of one of the country’s leading schools, Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar, and was also chair of the Federation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISIA) … but the lure of St Chris and its expansion plans proved irresistible.

“I was there for seven years and really enjoyed the school, enjoyed working with the students, the staff, and the governors were very supportive.

“Now there are new challenges, new opportunities. St Chris has a good reputation so it’s about coming to a school that is already at a high level and taking it further.”

He admits it’s a ‘different sort of challenge’ to his last port of call where he ‘had to lift it up quite quickly’.

One big draw was the planned move to open a new St Christopher’s secondary school which has been bubbling in the pot for years.

“It was a big attraction,” he admitted. “I had done a lot of building work at my previous school, building a new primary school, refurbishing and bringing on new buildings, so I have a lot of experience.

“Coming here, with the potential of building a whole new senior school, doesn’t happen very often in a principal’s lifetime, so that was a great opportunity that I wanted to take and, hopefully, it will come to fruition.”

Sources have told GulfWeekly that land close to the infant and junior school site in Saar has come close to being secured but a few planning issues, not related to the particular school project, between the land’s owners and relevant government departments, still need to be ironed out. “It would be good to get a site that is closer and more accessible,” he said.

The currently cramped secondary school is situated in the packed Isa Town education quarter and Simon has still to meet with Tim Murray, the chair of governors’ of the not-for-profit school, and the consultants the school is working with on the project, for an update.

St Christopher’s started from modest beginnings in 1961 in a villa and now caters for more than 2,300 pupils, aged three to 18, from around 70 nations.

Being the father of four daughters has provided him with plenty of homework when it comes to understanding children. His wife, Dr Lucy Bailey, is also a respected educationalist, worked as an associate professor of education at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus and has taken up a lecturing post at Bahrain University.

Their eldest daughter, Analysia, 18, is studying at Harvard University in the US, and the three youngest, Pietta, nine, Katiyah, 13, Miranne, 15, are, like their dad, settling into new school life at St Chris.

The family has been pleasantly surprised by the warmth and hospitality they have encountered since touching down here on August 13, something long-standing expats perhaps take too much for granted.

“We travelled with Gulf Air which was a great flight – we’d never flown with them before and it was really good,” said Simon. “We landed and everything was so smooth at immigration, which compared to previous experiences in other countries, was amazing!

“Everybody we have met so far, whether they are expat or Bahraini, has been so welcoming and friendly. Only yesterday we went to one of the local restaurants in Isa Town to sample some traditional Bahraini food. They were so nice, falling over themselves to give us what we wanted, whether we wanted spicy or not spicy, whether we wanted eggs. They were so friendly and they even ended up taking photographs of us to put on the board.

“I think the overwhelming feeling and experience is the fact that Bahrainis are so welcoming, so friendly and really happy to help wherever they can.”

One thing he will not be doing immediately, is looking for a central role within the British Schools of the Middle East (BSME) platform. Ed held a similar position in the schools’ organisation as Simon enjoyed in its Asian equivalent.

“I think an organisation like BSME gives opportunities to the students and allows them to participate at different levels so I think that’s really important for the school.

“For the teachers there’s lots of professional development opportunities too which might not be available within one institution.

“There’s a network allowing head teachers to talk about the latest issues and also initiatives coming out of the UK. Conferences and workshops can be staged and experts invited over and hosted with costs shared.

“It’s an important path for the school but I’m not looking to become involved in BSME in the same way as I was in Asia. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few years but, at the moment, I am focusing on St Christopher’s.”

Simon is being supported by his top team, senior school stalwart and head Nick Wilson, Ian Fellows, head of the junior school, who moved up this school year from the infant school, and his replacement in that position as head, newcomer Nat Dickinson.

His message is simple: “Come with an open mind and ready to embrace the new leadership of the school and look at how we can become an ever stronger community,” he said.

“I’m a different person to Ed and consequently the way I will run the school will be different. My leadership style will be different and it will be interesting to see when you ask me these questions in a year whether I have achieved what I had initially set out to do.”

Noted. It’s already in the editor’s 2019 diary.

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