Stuart Burns is the new man at the helm of the International School of Monaco. His experience is extensive and incredibly diverse, from heading up some of the most privileged schools in the UK to working with the government to develop educational programmes in disadvantaged districts of London.
This lover of languages spoke to
about his three-pronged approach to education and how he plans to bring out the best in his students at ISM.
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Monaco Life: What brought you to Monaco?
Stuart Burns: I have had a really exciting and enjoyable career. I worked in some big brand international schools like Brighton College and Dulwich College, where I was senior master, and Stanford, where I was head. I also worked in some very tough areas, for instance founding schools in Olympic Park for the government and trying to bring about change in the UK academy’s programme, which is really about revitalising education in those areas. I was introduced to the board here at ISM through the work that I was doing with the UK government, and they very kindly gave me the opportunity to work with them in Monaco. I was fulltime behind my desk by the end of July.
Do you come with a family?
I am married to Claire; we have been married for 22 years. Our daughter Hannah is at Edinburgh University and she is about to turn 20, and our son Mark is at a school in Kent and he has one more year to go. I would have loved him to experience the IB here, but unfortunately the timing was one year out.
Apart from ISM, what else drew you to the region?
I love languages. I studied languages at Cambridge University, particularly French and German. One of my first jobs was in a French school in south-west France for a year. So, I appreciated the chance to speak French here. I also think that the opportunity to come to a place like Monaco doesn’t come around all that often, so you take it when it is presented to you. In the UK, I have headed up private schools and state schools, so I thought: “What can I do now?”. I want to bring fresh energy to this position, and it’s a great opportunity to come to a country that I love.
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Can you tell us about ISM and your interpretation of the school?
We have a wonderful mix of nationalities at ISM. We have a strong anglophone contingent spread over lots of countries; we have kids from Asia, France and Italy of course, but also northern Europeans, as well as the US and Australia. We had a similar makeup in the boarding houses of Brighton College and Dulwich College, so I am very familiar with that sort of environment.
There is a very committed and passionate group of teachers here, and that has really impressed me.
I also think the setting is quite inspirational, right here on the port of Monaco; it’s a wonderful place for people to come to school. And there’s a new board who has a lot of drive, so it’s a really exciting journey.
The school is 25 years old, which is a huge tribute to the people who founded it. The ISM started with a handful of children in a few classes and it has grown to what we are now, which is 670 students aged from three to 18 years. We send boys and girls to top universities in the US, Europe, and the UK. So, the school has evolved and we would like for it to be an even greater part of Monaco’s strength.
Every teacher has their own philosophy of how they approach their job. What is yours?
I keep it simple. I look for the academic ambition of a child. That means, being the best that they can be, whatever their starting point– because some children are naturally better at some subjects than others and that’s absolutely fine. As I say to the students, you are not here to be miserable because someone set you an unrealistic target, or be miserable because you are not appropriately challenged. It is about finding balance. I like to see an individual approach from my colleagues, thinking about how they can meet the needs of each child.
The second strand of my educational philosophy is around the contribution that boys and girls can make to the life of the school. The world is full of successful people, but not all of them did particularly well at school or university, or even went to university. I think success is also about exploring sports, art, drama, debating. One of the lovely things we are doing here is a model United Nations, where we invite other schools from Europe to debate. We also have a philanthropy club which, for example, cleans up after the Monaco Yacht Show. You wouldn’t normally associate that with the international school because it is part of a privileged society, but they are very serious about the environment and the world around them, and they are actually very humble and down to earth in terms of their ambitions. So, the second strand is about contributing to life and developing skills so that when they enter the workforce they will have had the experience of being in a team, speaking in public, and knowing what it’s like to deal with disappointment. All of that is very important.
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Class 12 service trip to Vietnam[/caption]
The third strand is really around the community that we have built here. I say to the students, “We are all the same; we are all equal”. We are kind and decent to each other and we look out for each other. If someone is unpleasant, we challenge that. And whether it’s a caretaker, a physics specialist, a cook or a head teacher, we all look after each other in the same way.
Given your experience working in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of London, do you think it is important to bring some of that ‘reality’ into the lives of these children here in Monaco?
Absolutely, but I have been very impressed by the parents who do a huge amount philanthropically. I don’t think you would find a single one of our parents who isn’t involved in some way in a charity or fundraising. And the children are buoyed by that. The PTA is also incredibly active. So, I like to talk to children and staff about what life is like in east London, for instance, where it is quite tough.
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Class 11 geography field trip to Iceland[/caption]
The world that these children are going into is vastly different than the world we grew up in. What challenges does that give you as a principal and how are you addressing those?
Firstly, the digital world has been with us for many years but schools have gotten away with not being particularly up to speed. Even universities don’t do a huge amount about this; they are focused on academia rather than readiness for the workplace. It’s a slow changing culture. In that case, I think there is a responsibility on the school. This has been the first school that I have worked in to hire a digital coach, who works with staff and students.
I think the ability to be on your feet and to talk to a group of people is also absolutely crucial, because in the working world they will come up against many people who can do that. That’s why debating is really important, it readies them for the outside world.
We also have a nice project that our head of secondaries has started for year 10 students, which is preparing young people for the future. He does a bit of coding, cookery, public speaking… it’s a life skills course that we run for 15-year olds. And they probably won’t get that anywhere else; they certainly won’t get that at university. So that’s an important part of preparing them for their future.
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What would you like your legacy to be here at the ISM?
I think I am here to bring an international perspective, my expertise and the experiences that I have had, particularly in the UK. There’s no doubt that the independent schools I have worked at in the UK are considered some of the strongest in the world. What I want to see here are results at IGCSE and IB. We had a great year with the IGCSE’S this year and we have a really good number of students in top universities, but we want to build on that. I am keen to make sure we go that extra mile for the students because I want them to make their own way in the world. Of course, because this is Monaco, they’ve got connections and loving families and that will get them a long way in life. But I want them to also think: “Should I be doing a profession that no one else in my family has done before?” for example. It’s about giving young people the confidence to realise that they can break out into the real world. In order to achieve that we have to challenge them in the classroom and say, “Come on you can do a little better, aim a little higher than that”. So, I think academic ambition has to come first.
Pastoral care is also important, and the work they do here for the students’ happiness and wellbeing is as strong as anything I have seen anywhere.
The other thing I think I can bring to the ISM, as we build our strength, is to take the lead locally in terms of organised sports. There is a massive ethos in other parts of the world of competitive sports, but it’s not so big in mainland Europe because kids tend to do that in their clubs of a Saturday afternoon. As a school we could become a hub for sports and utilise the amazing facilities we have in the area. We are also hosting Monaco’s first TEDX conference next October, and there will be lots of people coming to the school for that. For all of these reasons, I am very much looking forward to my future here at ISM.
Top photo: Stuart Burns, ©EdWrightimages