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Arnett Edwards on Being Head of a UWC College

30 August 2017

"I don't want to focus on IB results because that’s not what we’re looking for. We want young people to make a difference in the world, and that’s our focus. It’s not the university part. It’s not the IB part."

Arnett Edwards, current Head of UWC Li Po Chun in Hong Kong (LPCUWC) - the college celebrating its 25th anniversary this year - and Hannah Tümpel, Director of Communication and Engagement at UWC International, met to talk about Arnett’s journey to Hong Kong, whether he would have joined UWC when he was 16, his role as current chair of the UWC Heads Committee, what keeps him awake at night - and his dream to join UWC Red Cross Nordic as an intern. 

Hannah Tümpel (HT): You are the Head of LPCUWC. When did that journey start?
Arnett Edwards (AE): That journey started quite amazingly in 2011. And I cannot believe sitting here now that it has been as long as six years. In fact, I worked in two other schools in Hong Kong before joining LPCUWC - and I stayed at both of them for six years each. So LPCUWC will now become the school I have worked at longest in Hong Kong. 

HT: And how exactly did you end up working for LPCUWC after working for other international schools in Hong Kong?
AE: I knew something about UWC since 1990, since back then we went to visit UWC Atlantic College with my school in Birmingham. What really struck me about UWC Atlantic College was the multiculturalism and diversity, as well as the services they provided such as the lifeboats. I was impressed, knowing that students were given full responsibility to pursue activities like that. It really stayed with me. Starting to work in Hong Kong, I then, of course, heard a lot about UWC SEA - since it is so well known across Asia but I knew much less about LPCUWC until I went to see it. 

HT: So you then went through the interview process at LPC. What were your thoughts? What was surprising?
AE: Again, the multicultural aspect. I had worked in several other international schools but UWC LPC struck me immediately as being very different because the students were coming directly from the home country. At UWC, they were not directly expats, and you could see that made a big difference. And the UWC mission made a big difference. I still laugh about how one of the teachers asked what my experience with peace-related work was, and I gave some awful answer because, really, I didn’t know very much at all. But, for me, the mission is one of the very strong features of what a UWC is about, and it didn’t take me very long to realise that. 

HT: Looking back over these past six years, what are the achievements you are most proud of?
AE: I don’t really like talking about it because it’s not about me. The approach I try to take is one that comes from within the college itself. 

HT: But there must be some changes you have implemented which you feel have been successful? 
AE: When I started my headship at LPCUWC, I felt that the school was not really clear on a direction on where it was going, so one of the first things I did in my first year was to develop a very simple strategic plan. Just ten goals were set out, and we would look at them every year in terms of how we were doing. I’m pleased that many of those have been achieved. For example, one was about communication, and connecting our different groups and stakeholders. We’ve got an amazing UWC graduates organisation in Hong Kong and an amazing National Committee, and we wanted to develop that connection. We now have 80 UWC alumni as mentors for our students, we send out regular newsletters, and we have an active Facebook page. 

Another area that has really developed has been the outdoors. This was very much inspired by UWC Pearson College and how through the location of the college they have always placed such an emphasis on the outdoors. Seeing that triggered me to think about how we could do something similar in Hong Kong - since its setting with access to an urban city but also to the countryside is so unique. There are a number of educational policies that you’ve got to follow, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still do those things. Now we have kayaks being used, a dragon boating team, rock climbing, and a program with Outward Bound. 

HT: If we go back to six years ago, when you started, if you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
AE: In some ways, it’s never all over until the fat lady sings. What I mean by that is that, if you’re going through all sorts of things, if you get to X, you’ve actually only got to Y, because of all the issues that can happen. That end goal keeps moving.

HT: Many UWCers go home after a year, or two years, and they find they don’t fit in so much anymore. Do you experience the same? 
AE: I don’t think so. I feel so lucky. The average student only has two years at UWC, I’ve been there for six years. I think in terms of my educational career, it’s going to leave the biggest mark on me. Still, now, you make mistakes. In terms of really thinking about values, sustainability, peace, what does that mean? Things like friendship. It hit me again, when I was in in New York at the event organised by UWC International with Teach for All, there was a whole group of UWC LPC alumni who all wanted to see me. I thought that when I retire, there will be all these people who’d love to connect with me, and that’s quite a unique thing.

HT: Talking about other UWC schools and colleges: Have you visited all the other 16 by now? 
AE: Nearly all, yes. The only two I haven’t been to are UWC Costa Rica and UWC Dilijan. 

HT: UWC people often say that when one goes to visit another UWC school or college, it feels weirdly familiar. Do you feel the same on other UWC campuses? 
AE: Definitely. Which is interesting because often when the students talk about the different colleges, they talk about the differences. But really I think there are more similarities than differences. You could sit in any canteen, and you would be having the same deep conversations about world affairs, identity, culture and so on, whichever UWC you were at. In the other international schools I worked for, you would not hear those same conversations.

HT: Why do you think that is?
AE: Because there’s not the same diversity in those international schools. Even when there is an international diversity, the students develop a sort of “mono sub-culture”. One of my concerns, when I took the job at UWC LPC, was that if we take all these students from all over the world all we would do would be to create this separate, mushy culture. I was really quite worried about that because I could see that happening at other international schools. But it is not what happens at UWC. The way I describe it is like this: let’s say a student from Ethiopia, arrives at UWC. This student will be bombarded with all sorts of experiences, but what essentially comes out at the end of that two-year experience is an Ethiopian, but with a few things changed. But that Ethiopian part of the student is still there. And that I think is just fantastic.

HT: Heading a school in Hong Kong, you act in a quite specific political context. Tell me about how this affects the life at LPCUWC. 
AE: It’s a source of discussion at the college, and when we have our global issues forum when all the college community comes together for an hour, that is a topic that is often discussed. And what I really like about it is that there are so many different, nuanced opinions. The students, and even the staff, would be active in terms of that discussion. Interestingly, the Hong Kong government, because of the rise in localism, has been interested in how best to manage that in terms of education and they are quite worried about teachers who perhaps believe in localism indoctrinating some of the students. At UWC I don’t see that happening because the students make their own minds up! Even if a member of staff were to make a very strong statement, a student would most likely come back at them with an equally strong statement. We create that safe place to allow that to occur, which I think is really important. You can allow different people to have different opinions.

HT: You mentioned your leadership style, and not wanting to have the term leader ascribed to you. Tell me more about your approach and style as Head of UWC LPC: Empowering? Bottom up?
AE: I would hope so! I really try to do that. We actually don’t call ourselves a Senior Leadership Team, we call ourselves a Focus Team because we believe our role is to focus on the UWC Mission and values. And then we have different teams, who are working on different topics which have been defined as a focus. An example of that is all the proposals for the school trips are dealt with by a separate team comprised of students and staff. They have a budget, they know what they’re doing. I don’t need to get involved with that. That’s the kind of approach I’d like to work with. 

HT: You are also currently the chair of the UWC Heads Committee, i.e. the group of all Heads from across the 17 UWC schools and colleges. What sort of experience was and is that?
AE: That was a very humbling experience. I’ve gained a huge amount from it. The heads that we have in the movement are some of the most inspirational educational leaders I’ve come across, and they are all deeply passionate about what they are doing. We don’t say that enough. In my previous jobs, there were a lot of cynical heads, with nowhere near the same passion. UWC is very blessed to have the leaders that it’s got. 

HT: So the heads meet twice a year. What for you are the most important things happening during that meeting?
AE: I think it’s much more than the business. I think too there’s a great deal of professional development, meeting together, hearing from other people, and sharing best practice. There’s also a personal aspect. A head’s job can be a lonely one because you’re personally responsible for a lot. It is important to have peers and mentors one can talk to about this. People who can be there professionally and personally as you go through different journeys. Something I often talk about with students is that as you move through, it’s important to have a group of mentors. I’m really lucky to have lots of people I can go to, and not everyone has that. 

HT: Tell me about one of the projects you implemented as chair of the Heads Committee? 
AE: One of the things we’ve tried to do is to start getting different faculty members from across all UWC schools and colleges meet and connect. Last summer we had, for example, the “Pastoral Care Conference” during which pastoral staff from across all schools and colleges met at UWC Pearson College. This year we had a conference focussing on English as an additional language at UWC Atlantic College. I think such meetings are really good because they bring people from different schools and colleges together. I also believe that going forward such collaboration will be easier since we now have a Director of Education at UWC International. One of the challenges for the heads staying connected between our meetings is that after the meeting we go back to our colleges, and we get too tied up. Whereas now, we can make some decisions and we’ve got someone who can keep following through. 

HT: Let’s talk a bit about your own story. Where do you originally come from, what was your family setting? 
AE: I come from a small, rural, not diverse, area. I was brought up in a small village post office in rural Hampshire. The bungalow was attached to the shop. My Mum didn’t go to university, my Dad went to university for a year but dropped out. 

HT: So, the 16-year-old Arnett, would he have applied for UWC had he known about it? 
AE: No. I was the quietest student. I’d never put my hand up, quite shy, very introverted. If my teachers could see me now, they’d be shocked! 

HT: How was your education influenced by your background? 
AE: All decisions on my education, I had to make myself. Nobody from where I came from helped me to open up through education. In Basingstoke, where I’m from, you went to a state school from ages 11-16, and then you went to either a sixth form college to do A-Levels, or a technology college to pursue more vocational jobs. So I went on to do A-Levels and, actually, the sixth form college was really difficult. My parents bought me a moped at 16, and the day of my birthday, I was driving around on the forecourt, and the police stopped me, thinking I was only 13. They didn’t believe I was 16! I had to run into the house to get my license.

The adjustment to sixth form was really hard. It was a lot bigger than anything I was used to, and I actually didn’t do very well in terms of my A-Levels. However, quite early on, when I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted to go into teaching. I had this great history teacher, Mr Taylor, who I was in awe of.

HT: What made him great?
AE: He had great knowledge, but also I just loved the way he’d teach. It had a real structure to it. 

HT: What did you do after your A-levels to go into teaching? 
AE: I had two options, either to go into teacher training or maybe I could go into university. Continuing my love of history, I applied to Bristol University for Economic and Social History. When I got the grades, I was two points away from getting in. I was highly discouraged from ringing Bristol because of how strict they were - and I was a timid kid. I heard nothing from them for weeks and weeks. In the end, I decided to ring them and: got a place. 

One of the things I’ll never forget about that, is for graduation - which I didn’t want to go to but my parents really wanted to. My parents had never left the shop before! - we spoke to a lecturer and it turned out he was the one who years before had picked up the phone when I rang. 

When I did my teacher training. They wanted to send me to this very leafy, nice school on the suburbs of Bristol. And I said I wanted to go to an inner-city school. I wanted to know that I could deal with it, so they put me in this really tough school. It was a really good experience. 

HT: What was a lesson learned from your teacher training you still remember? 
AE: When a lecturer came to observe my session, his feedback afterwards was that I was too polite. I said: “I’m sorry, you can never be too polite”. In the shop, we always used to say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’. I was never going to change doing that, because that was a value I’d grown up with.

HT: Coming from a state school background, how do you feel about now being in a private school system like UWC? 
AE: In a sense, we’re not the typical “private and expensive” school. I did think about it when I was working at other international schools. But at UWC, when we are giving those humble kids that opportunity, you know you’re really giving them something. When I see some of the quieter students, I can really relate to that, and seeing them develop is amazing.

HT: How do you think UWC can be better in accommodating quiet students? A lot of selections really favour more outgoing students. 
AE: I don’t think that’s the case so much in Hong Kong, so maybe it balances out. We have a lot of very quiet, humble, respectful students. We can always do more to accommodate them, but because we’re such a small school, and we have something like 70 extra-curricular activities, we can provide opportunities for everyone to lead. I try to go to some of the smaller groups, where you will see some of the quieter students leading. When we do the music nights, you see some of the students actively encouraging the quieter students to perform. The challenge can be in the big college meetings.

HT: After six years as head of a very specific school, what keeps you awake at night?
AE: Finance, unfortunately. If we want to do even more in terms of diversity, that’s going to cost us. If you look at our repair and maintenance bill: there is a lot of cost. Some of our facilities are now 25 years old and we have not touched them, how do we upgrade those? We’re putting every last dollar that we can into scholarships. Another cost is that education is becoming more expensive, because it’s getting more and more individualised. So many of things like mental health issues is about one-on-one support. How do you build that in? You need more resources.  I think the work UWC International is doing in terms of funding will significantly help. I’m an optimist about it, but that’s the challenge. If we can get that right, then the rest falls into place.

HT: So if you could wave a magic wand and you could take all financial problems away, what UWC project would you like to work on? 
AE: I would like to have the opportunity to look at the UWC educational model and the IB, and how we can make those two fit together better. How can we incorporate some of the things we value so much, like a project based approach to learning, into the IB. How can we give students the opportunity to have the project work they do count towards their IB instead of being just an “extra”. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that were part of the curriculum?

HT: It’s interesting you say that, because many people always perceive LPCUWC as very focused on “traditional” academics. 
AE: I get so frustrated with that. I think there’s two reasons for that. One is that it comes from within the students themselves. The second is that yes, in one way, the students do work hard in terms of academics, but I think UWC LPC also does the other bit really well. We have a project week that all students will go on irrespective of money. We have a huge number of extra-curricular activities.

HT: Do you publish IB results?
AE: We do. However, when we have our open days, I’m probably the only principal in the whole of Hong Kong who doesn’t present IB results or university destinations. We do put IB results in our packs because we often get asked about them. But I actually make a point of how we won’t talk about it in the presentations, because that’s not what we’re looking for. We want young people to make a difference in the world, and that’s our focus. It’s not the university part. It’s not the IB part. 

HT: Some UWC colleges and schools are currently looking for new heads. What is the one requirement you really need to have to become a UWC head?
AE: I think there are two things really. An understanding of, or belief in, the UWC values. It doesn’t mean you have to come from the system. You’ve really got to get how it’s different, and the importance to that. Linked to that is enthusiasm and so on. The other aspect is to be aware of how you are also part of a bigger system. Yes, you’re head of one school, but how do you also fit into the local system, such as the Hong Kong National Committee, but also the more global system, such as the Heads Committee. 

And then I think so much of it is about context - the locality of where the school/college is. You need to look for a head who can empathise and understand in terms of that. But you also need to look at where the college is in terms of its development. So you’re also looking for that person to be the right person at this stage of the college’s development. The size of the school/college is also important. I think it’s very different to be head in a very small school than it is to be head a very big school. My old boss would never do some of the things I do at LPCUWC, where I really have to roll my sleeves up. He wouldn’t have had to do that to the same degree, because he managed a school of 1700 students. 

HT: If you could give three wishes to the UWC movement, what would they be?
AE: A big wish would be for a really strong financial future. If we suddenly had one or two big investors, it would make a huge difference. The second would be that we could really make a difference in the world. There’s never been such a stronger need for our style of education. We’re about the values, and celebrating difference. In a sense, we don’t have to do anything new, we just have to continue what we’re doing. A third wish is that sometimes I fear we’re too critical. I wish we’d be more celebratory about what we’re doing, but in a humble way. We don’t have to sing it from the rooftops, people will naturally find out how good we are.

HT: You end all of your emails with ‘In Peace’, is that a UWC thing?
AE: No, and it’s actually very pertinent that you mention that, because really it came from being inspired by John Walmsley (Edit: Former Principal of UWC Atlantic College who passed away in summer 2017), because John always ended with ‘In Friendship’, and I was really taken by that. It suddenly came to me sometime in my first year at UWC LPC. There’s not a religious element to it. Often, when I write an email where you’re going through a bit of a conflict, and it’s actually a useful phrase to have at the end. It means that you’re more thoughtful, in terms of dealing with that.

HT: What do you miss about the UK?
AE: Bread. 

HT: And if you had to take a visitor to your favourite place in Hong Kong, where would you take them?
AE: It would be a day where you could see properly the contrast of Hong Kong. So it’d be a walk that goes through some of the volcanic regions, then to a seafood restaurant, then a boat to Sai Kung, and maybe a drink at one of the high buildings somewhere. 

HT: If you could choose another UWC school or college to go to for six months, where would you go? 
AE: Maybe UWC Red Cross Nordic, although my brain is telling me to go to UWC Costa Rica!

HT: And which role would you like to have? 
AE: It would be great not to go as a Head. I’d love to be an intern. I’d love to be there to just generally help.