As we enter a new school year, hopefully marking a return to near-'normality' for a cohort that's been yo-yoing in and out of classrooms for the past 18 months, we sat down with Alastair Land, Harrow School's Head Master, to discuss both the School's responses to the pandemic and how it's developing its offers for the future, both in-person and remote.
About Harrow School
Harrow School was founded in 1572 under a Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. The flagship School has an enrolment of more than 800 boys, all of whom board full-time. Harrow's history and influence have made it one of the most prestigious schools in the world. It is located in Harrow on the Hill in north-west London along with other elements of the John Lyon's Foundation.
- Alastair's priorities as Head Master
- Responses to the pandemic and what Alastair would like to take forward
- Development of Harrow School Online
- Staff's roles in discovering and trialling new technologies
Watch the highlights here, or read the full interview below!
The interview in full! 👇
Brighteye: It's wonderful to be speaking with you today, Alastair. Could you speak us through your career to date?
Alastair: Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this.
You've invited me to talk about my career- the word career implies a structured, measured, thoughtful approach to life!
When I left school, I was aware of the fact that I really liked the idea of being a teacher. And I had a general love for school and academic things. I was very lucky to have a gap year during which I worked overseas as a teacher for a full year. This experience didn't dissuade me from entering the profession, it did quite the opposite.
After university, I got my first job, which was in teaching. I taught for nine years at Eton and did all of the things that you do in your 20s whenever you're starting any career, which is lots of things that are immediately relevant and fulfilling and lots of things that didn't feel immediately relevant, and indeed might not have been fulfilling! But they have all turned out to be relevant and useful in the long term and provided some very, very powerful experiences. I was then fortunate to become House Master of Scholars at Winchester College which I did for nine years before coming to Harrow as Deputy Head which I did for nearly four years.
After this, I moved to Derbyshire, to be Head Master of Repton school. I spent three years in what is a wonderful, ancient, fantastically progressive establishment, before, much to my amazement, returning to Harrow in 2019 to be Head Master. I’ve now been in this role slightly more than two years.
Brighteye: In your role as Head Master, could you tell us about your priorities, both from a specification perspective as well as your own personal priorities in the role?
Alastair: That's a very interesting and very broad ranging question- it strikes at the heart of why anyone gets involved in education. My overarching priority is ensuring that the pupils who are in my school, as it would be for any Head or Principal, are having the best learning and educational journey that they possibly can, so that when they do the thing, which is enigmatically, the most important thing about school, which is leaving it, they leave absolutely set for the real world.
"My overarching priority is ensuring that the pupils who are in my school, as it would be for any Head or Principal, are having the best learning and educational journey that they possibly can, so that when they do the thing, which is enigmatically, the most important thing about school, which is leaving it, they leave absolutely set for the real world."
With this in mind, I suppose my number one priority is understanding the real world into which the boys are going and understanding how our education can do the very best job it can in equipping them to be successful. As part of this, we must recognise that in any given year group, there are 180 leavers and that they are individuals, and therefore, the way in which they meet the real world will be individual. This means we need to make sure that our education is both relevant and contemporary, but also that it has all the enduring key features that education always has had, in terms of building character, understanding what human relationships are, how they build together, and how you can build self-efficacy for every individual so they can thrive as an adult. These are my top-level priorities.
But, I am also conscious of the role independent schools play in their wider communities. I agreed five priorities on this with the governors when I came to post. These priorities have evolved in the past 18 months, as we responded to the prevailing circumstances we have all been going through. But we have maintained focus on the original five-point strategy so that it’s not merely intact, but actually unfolded.
Brighteye: You’ve just mentioned the ‘prevailing circumstances’. How did you respond in the immediate period following the announcement of lockdown? Had you done any 'apocalypse' planning for an event like the pandemic?
Alastair: Like all institutions, we have an incident management plan ready to be activated if necessary. And interestingly, we had done a few tabletop exercises with key members of the management team in 2019 to rehearse ourselves and test our resilience for the event of a forced closure and see how we might respond. But of course, most of the scenarios that we've allowed ourselves to think about haven't involved, particularly for a boarding school, the idea of not having any pupils on site at all. This scenario was far more disruptive to our normal operation than our worst-case scenario.
I do recall, though, early in January 2020, when the coronavirus was beginning to be covered in the news and we were beginning to get the first indications of what it would be like, speaking to my two Deputies informally one morning: “well, we have this platform, we have the Virtual Learning Environment, we've got the hardware, we've got the software; what would it be like if we did move everything online?”. We thought we had the theoretical capacity to deliver a virtual curriculum, or at least that’s what our excellent IT team were suggesting. We certainly weren’t perfectly prepared, but at least we had prepared people, we had taken the opportunity to train people in delivering effective remote education and in how to use our chosen software and hardware.
"I do recall...speaking to my two Deputies informally one morning: “well, we have this platform, we have the Virtual Learning Environment, we've got the hardware, we've got the software; what would it be like if we did move everything online?”."
It felt momentous when I had to sign a letter saying to parents that we were temporarily suspending educational operations on the hill (the School), which is quite daunting when you haven’t quite done two years in post! We gave ourselves 48 hours off and then the next week, we delivered the final week of term fully online, which proved a powerful and vindicating moment.
Brighteye: Experiences will have varied greatly, depending on existing levels of IT infrastructure. How has Harrow supported other schools in the area with challenges they’ve faced during the pandemic?
Alastair: The first point I would make is that we have very developed links and partnerships with schools in our immediate community, predating the pandemic. We have been carefully and appropriately building trusting relationships so that we are integrated into our local community. This meant we were starting pandemic-related partnerships with this trust, but also in the knowledge that we don’t just have the answers because we are Harrow School- that’d be a ridiculous assumption to make! We asked schools to tell us what they need and then we tried to help however we could.
I think our work with other schools has developed into two lines: firstly, we are working with a couple of nearby local authorities, providing some one-to-one staff-to-pupil mentoring and tutoring which focuses on looked-after children. I hope and believe this will continue to develop after the pandemic. The second line is our fundraising which relies brilliantly on our young teenage enthusiasts- this year's annual fundraising effort is going to be targeted towards assisting local young people. This includes, as in 2020, working with local charities so they can make the most of all of our facilities, as well as raising funds to equip primary schools with Chromebooks to attempt to bridge the digital divide. We also worked with some local foodbanks. The whole experience led me to reflect humbly on the level of intervention that was being asked for and this was really instructive and gave me pause for thought.
"I think our work with other schools has developed into two lines: firstly, we are working with a couple of nearby local authorities, providing some one-to-one staff-to-pupil mentoring and tutoring which focuses on looked-after children. I hope and believe this will continue to develop after the pandemic."
Brighteye: We noticed that you had created Harrow School Online in 2019, incredible timing given the events of 2020 and thus far in 2021. Why did you introduce this initiative and what’s the long-term aim of the school?
Alastair: Harrow School Online, which seems like a child of our times, was something that the School had been thinking about before I came on board in 2019- the idea was first discussed in 2018. There was recognition, in concert with our commercial partner, Pearson, that there was an opportunity for us in the online space. And of course, the market is now very crowded, so it proved an opportune initiative. We recognised there was a segment in the market for very high-quality online education, applying the Harrow model to the online context. Our Heads of department in Harrow shape the framework and structure of provision, which can be undertaken anywhere in the world without the need to board, as we do at the Harrow site. It allows students to flex school to their lives, such as if a student is a very high-level performer in sport, music or drama. Similarly, there might be familial approaches or circumstances to learning that mean they’re learning at home.
"We recognised there was a segment in the market for very high-quality online education, applying the Harrow model to the online context. Our Heads of department in Harrow shape the framework and structure of provision, which can be undertaken anywhere in the world..."
We went online with a programme that was focused on sciences, maths and economics for the first few terms, with a view to expanding this offer in the coming years, building on our learnings from the period of operation during the pandemic, both with the online School and with the School going online.
Brighteye: How has demand for the online School evolved during the pandemic?
Alastair: It's an interesting phenomenon. Independent education in the UK is a very small slice of the of the school-going population and it occupies a much larger slice in many other geographies around the world. In the United Kingdom, people tend to be quite fiercely tribal about independent education. So if you're with a school, you tend to remain ‘loyal’ to your school, similar, in a way, to loyalty to banks before it became considerably easier to switch! In other parts of the world, people are slightly more consumerist about fee-paying education- they’ll pick the best option for them and change it if it doesn’t work out or if another option is more appealing. As such, it’s really important for us to be able to articulate the value of what we are doing and how it’s different from comparable offers. This is particularly true at Sixth-Form, given the importance of the results that you receive at the end of the phase, in terms of unlocking further education and university, training and employment.
"In other parts of the world, people are slightly more consumerist about fee-paying education- they’ll pick the best option for them and change it if it doesn’t work out or if another option is more appealing."
It’s important to remember that we are selective, too, meaning the model doesn’t necessarily scale instantaneously, even if there is enormous appetite for the programmes.
Brighteye: Is there information you can share on what solutions you're using in the online school?
Alastair: Being a family of schools (including Harrow School, all of the international Schools, Harrow School Online and John Lyon’s School), all part of the same foundation, while schools have autonomy and operate independently to a degree, you find that everyone’s got a different solution to the same problem, because the initial problem you’re solving varies. So, for Harrow School, we know that every pupil and teacher in the school has the same piece of hardware to the same specification, maintained by the same staff, all running the same software. We have already built considerable competence in Microsoft’s OneDrive, Teams and Firefly, our work management and school/home relationship solution.
"So, for Harrow School, we know that every pupil and teacher in the school has the same piece of hardware to the same specification, maintained by the same staff, all running the same software."
Interestingly, Harrow School Online employs different software, based largely on the fact they know they’re dealing with a range of hardware and software (dependent on what the students choose to use).
But what they have learned is that an online school- as opposed to a school that has gone online, then hybrid, then fully on the ground, and then done that loop once through again in the space of 16 months- needs solutions to different problems. They’re not trying to do fully synchronous live content all the time, as with a physical school. As an online school, you're meant to be offering a huge amount of asynchronous self-study resource for the pupils to engage with independently. You therefore have different trade-offs.
"As an online school, you're meant to be offering a huge amount of asynchronous self-study resource for the pupils to engage with independently. You therefore have different trade-offs."
Brighteye: To what extent were your hardware and software fully integrated and utilised within the school prior to the pandemic compared to now?
Alastair: The extent to which they were known and integrated was, I would say, nearly complete, but ‘nearly complete’ in the context of operating on the ground. So the biggest change was evolving our use of the technology we already had in place and knew how to use in most contexts, ensuring as much continuity as possible in as many aspects of the school as possible. For example, I have become quite expert at talking like this to my Surface Book, in various locations around the school, and editing recordings to share with pupils, staff and parents. I was struck by how quickly the team managed to build new skills in producing and delivering content digitally as well as receiving and reviewing work- they managed to make leaps within only a few days. I was pleased that we were also able to proctor tests and assessments in a way that still had rigour and reliability. It wasn’t seamless but it worked!
"I was struck by how quickly the team managed to build new skills in producing and delivering content digitally as well as receiving and reviewing work- they managed to make leaps within only a few days. I was pleased that we were also able to proctor tests and assessments in a way that still had rigour and reliability."
Maintaining the school’s culture was possibly the most challenging aspect of the digitisation.
But it did lead to some amazing and astonishing feats of creativity. For example, in February, we would normally have a day where many of our alumni would have returned for what’s usually a festival of sport. Obviously, we couldn’t do that that in 2021 (it takes place in February). The boys on the ‘culture’ side of the school said, “we're going to step into the breach, and we're going to do something completely different.” They curated a beautiful online gallery of Art, produced recordings of music and spoken word drama and a whole sequence of performances. It was inspiring to see such courage and cheerfulness in the midst of morale-sapping circumstances.
While our teachers enjoy taking ownership of their lessons and developing their own content, it’s inevitable (and sensible) for teachers to share their resources and help eachother reach an ever-higher standard of teaching with improving resources.
We do utilise some external content, but only once it has been rigorously vetted and adjusted if necessary to suit an individual teacher’s needs.
Brighteye: What’s the governance behind your digital approach and approach to procurement?
Alastair: It starts in departments where there will be an IT champion for the department working closely with both academic colleagues who are the pioneers in exploring and understanding new technologies. Staff are actively encouraged to pursue interesting new technologies. There are also non-teaching staff in place, responsible for providing the infrastructures and making sure the networks are working effectively and support the technologies that teaching staff are keen to use.
"It starts in departments where there will be an IT champion for the department working closely with both academic colleagues who are the pioneers in exploring and understanding new technologies."
Sitting above the department IT champions are members of our governing board who are responsible for our school-wide approach to digital, including budgets and ultimate purchasing decisions.
Brighteye: How do you consider whether tools are working?
Alastair: Like many institutions, we run the Microsoft Office Suite and choose to utilise complementary hardware. And on these foundations, we have had to do everything from the Head Master’s goofy weekly videos to making sure we can submit data to exam boards for teacher-assessed grades that we know need to stand up to scrutiny. It has been an intensive trial!
As you would expect- and acknowledging that providers probably didn’t design their products for the levels of dependency we have seen in the past 16 months- there have been some things around the margins that we think could have been neater or more intuitive but at no point did the systems fall over and at no point did we consider ditching the whole thing and starting over. It was particularly pleasing and impressive to see providers improving their products throughout the course of the pandemic- functionality improved markedly and more features were continually added. Some of these edits were quite simple but made a big difference, such as seeing more pupils on screen which makes it easier to manage the group digitally, as well as being able to split the group in rooms for group work. Of course this only worked where students were in sufficiently similar time zones- asynchronous learning was necessary in part as we have pupils whose homes lie in all corners of the world and across highly variable zones. Had we tried to run synchronous learning throughout, we would have been running near-24 hour operation.
I think we need to be extremely grateful that these systems did work.
Brighteye: What didn’t work?
Alastair: There isn’t a specific thing or piece of ‘ware’ that I would say was poor. But I think we did reach the limit of acceptable screen time as human beings- I would say this given my age and being a biologist by training! Particularly when you are dealing with young people growing up, there comes a point where they need to be with other young people and need to be undertaking education away from a screen. If teaching in the physical classroom, we would never use a single mode of delivery- you might run a practical, a game or some other kind of interaction. You can mimic some of these activities on screen, but you can’t make it work all the way through. The limitations are human rather than technological- for instance, our dedicated online school doesn’t attempt to be a full-time synchronous school, it has to provide a blend of experiences.
"I think we did reach the limit of acceptable screen time as human beings- I would say this given my age and being a biologist by training!"
Brighteye: What’s your vision for the school of the future, perhaps 5-10 years down the line?
Alastair: A lot is defined by institutional or national courage and who is running the school or system. But what’s in my mind’s eye is taking the best of what we just learned and the best of what we know from our traditional provision and turning it into a new school model, where perhaps we don’t have the expectation that every student be in school all of the time. We might expect them to be learning at a distance because for a period of time, they might be off doing a project for 6 weeks which has enormous educational value that they couldn’t do in school. We could be looking at the education journey more flexibly. I will be looking into how we can certify, authenticate and make part of the portfolio programmes along these lines, enabling more independent, flexible learning.
"...what’s in my mind’s eye is taking the best of what we just learned and the best of what we know from our traditional provision and turning it into a new school model, where perhaps we don’t have the expectation that every student be in school all of the time... We could be looking at the education journey more flexibly."
Brighteye: And, as interesting people read interesting things, what are you reading?
Alastair: My children are 9, 4 and 2 and so most of my words per day are targeted at the three little ones. In my own time, I seem to be in a non-fiction phase. I am reading an astonishing memoir, called ‘I’m a girl from Africa’ running through what it’s like leaving home and establishing yourself in society. It makes you feel rather uncomfortable but is well worth reading. A second book I’ve been reading was brought to my attention by a student during an elective I was teaching on human evolution- it’s called ‘1177 B.C.: The Year Civilisation Collapsed’- it certainly made for interesting reading during the pandemic and certainly introduced me to many theories I hadn’t previously considered!