Interview: Julian Thomas on taking ISM to the top

As the new Director of the International School of Monaco, Julian Thomas has set himself an impressive goal – to make ISM one of the best educational institutions in Europe.
Monaco Life sat down with Mr Thomas during the first week of school to talk about his ambitious plan, his tough personal challenges, and how he hopes to shape the decision makers of tomorrow.
Monaco Life: You arrived from the United Kingdom to join ISM as its new director in June. What was the deciding factor for you to take up the position here?
Julian Thomas: I have been in education for most of my professional life and most recently I was the Master of Wellington College in Berkshire. I first worked with ISM as educational advisor to the Board of Trustees, and I really enjoyed seeing the school in action – meeting the staff and board – and I was really impressed by their obvious enthusiasm and excitement about taking this school forward. I like to be leading a school that I can develop quickly and this school has so much potential. My five-year plan is to have ISM ranked among the top schools in Europe. It is not just a pie in the sky, they are not just words, I truly believe that we can get there because all the foundations are here – fantastic staff, a very committed and supportive board, and a whole school community that is clearly getting behind this ambition.
We have a new school building that we are looking to move into in 2023, so that is also going to be a big step forward for ISM.
What will the new school building in Testimonio II mean for the school in practical terms?
We will have around 700 students in the new building, so that is an additional 30, and we are aiming to have satellite campuses as well. The most important aspect is that it will be is a purpose-built school building which is going to offer all of the facilities and infrastructure that you would expect of a top European school.
What is your relationship like with the ISM Board of Trustees?
The board shares my passion for making the school the best that it can be. In many cases, they have seen their own children go through the school, they have children currently at the school, or they have friends, family and acquaintances who have children at the school. So, there is a real sense that “this matters”.
When I talk about the staff I employ or the people I like to work with, the phrase: “It matters” is really important to me, because if something matters to you, then you will be genuinely committed, and if you are genuinely committed, then you will be able to take things forward. What I found in the board was total unanimity in the fact that they care and it matters to them.
Positioning the school as one of the best in Europe is a very bold ambition to have. How do you plan on achieving that?  
I think you can only make that statement if you feel that all of the foundations are in place to get there. To become one of the best schools in Europe, we must move forward in every way: for example, we want to have outstanding academic results; to achieve that we need to have outstanding teaching; to achieve that we need outstanding training; and so on. There is a sequence of events that needs to take place. We must ensure that every link in the chain is strong.
To be one of the best schools in Europe we also need an outstanding extracurricular programme, so students can extend their interest beyond the classroom and develop passions in life. For example, we have great partnerships with the Monte Carlo Country Club, the Yacht Club of Monaco, the Stade des Moneghetti and the Cap d’Ail Stadium… where we can use their facilities to create outstanding extracurricular activities. We are also taking advantage of the incredible environment in which we are situated, like the sea and the mountains.
To summarise, becoming a top school in Europe means great academic and teaching results, great extracurricular activities, and added to that, fantastic pastoral care – making sure our student feel happy, safe and content.
It is also really important to me that they leave us as confident individuals without arrogance. Finding that right balance is really important to me.
Are there similarities that you find with ISM and the other schools that you have headed in the UK?
The background of parents at ISM is not dissimilar to my previous post at Wellington College, and indeed many parents in Monaco have considered a school like Wellington in the past. What I would like is for all parents in Monaco to consider that they have one of the top schools here and won’t want to send their children elsewhere.
Every child, regardless of who they are or whether they are from fortunate backgrounds, deserves the very best education. You might actually argue that for people who are going to be decision makers and in positions of influence, it is even more important that they are grounded in social and global responsibility, and to have confidence without arrogance. All of these things, I think, make our job doubly important.

Julian Thomas competing in the Marathon des Sables

How do you like to challenge yourself?
Outside of my professional challenges, I like to personally challenge myself in some of the world’s most extreme environments. Some of the most notable things I have done is trekking the South Pole from the coast of Antarctica, running the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara Desert, and rowing the Atlantic Ocean. All of these things inspire me in a number of different ways. Firstly, it is wonderful to be in unique, beautiful locations in nature, experiencing things that few people get to see. But it also gives me a real sense of how important it is to develop a mental resilience because, while these things sound like a physical challenge, the true challenge is mental. Rowing the Atlantic and staying mentally focussed and resilient is like preparing to study for your IB and needing to keep going despite the ups and downs, knowing that it is going to be a long journey and you have to keep going until the finish line.
Understanding the importance of mental resilience is something I like to bring into schools and it means that all of these things I have done in adventure actually have an impact on the way I lead a school.
ISM has just become a “sister school” of King’s College School in the UK. Can you tell us why this is significant?
It all goes back to our ambition to improve and be the best that we can be. There was a real sense in the board that they wanted to learn from the very best; they wanted to seek a relationship with a school that could a) help us improve, b) give us an understanding of what’s possible, and c) give us opportunities in the UK with one of the best schools in the world. It puts ISM in an ideal position to learn, grow and develop as a result of that relationship.
In practical terms, it will ripple through everything that we do at ISM. There will be connections between the heads of departments, particular sections and teachers of each school where thoughts, ideas or needs can be discussed with their counterparts. King’s also runs a brilliant staff training programme which we are now part of.
For students, there will be exchanges, fixtures, and collaborations, for example joint lectures via Zoom, joint orchestra performances, visiting the UK and being part of King’s College School life for short periods of time. There will be staff exchanges as well, which we hope to see more of.
The partnership will develop over time, and both schools are excited.
What does King’s get out of the partnership?
They, like us, know that they still need to develop and learn all the time. There is plenty that happens at ISM that we would consider to be excellent and that they can learn from too. All along we have said that this is a sister-sister relationship, not a mother-daughter relationship. ISM school will remain a completely independent, non-profit association.
You took over as director in perhaps the most challenging year in our lifetimes. Do you feel prepared?
I see this as probably the most challenging and exciting moment in the history of education. We are adapting so quickly to the new challenges, and it’s a challenge that keeps moving. The rate of progress in upskilling and innovation is astonishing, and that’s because we need to do it – as they say, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Staff are making huge strides in hybrid learning, IT and digital skills are moving at a huge rate, and our classrooms are changing. For example, 45 of our classrooms will have state of the art conference facilities within the next three weeks. You can’t not be excited and inspired as a school leader at this time in education, and when we finally come out of all of this, it will be very different than when we went in. I want to have a new style of education on the other side.
Obviously, parents are very concerned about their children amid a rise in Covid cases in the Principality and surrounding areas, so where does the school stand on safety?  
We have sent parents a document which outlines all of the safety measures that are in place, which includes one-way systems, hand sanitizing stations, and masks for all students aged five and over. We work very closely with the Monegasque government and as the situation evolves, we will adapt.