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GES is a community marked by its happy children who are self-disciplined with high moral values.
Following their visit, here is what ‘The Good Schools Guide International’ says about all aspects of the teaching and learning at Geneva English School.
Since August 2020, Matt Williams BSc PGCE. Previously spent six years as the principal of the outstanding Chelsea Academy in London, joining as the school was expanding the sixth form. He puts his success there down to focusing on the quality of teaching and development of staff, as well as the academic performance of the students. Prior to this he had been selected as part of the accelerated Future Leaders scheme, which takes teachers with great potential and accelerates them to headship within four to six years. Over seven years, he had leadership roles at a number of inner London schools, Parliament Hill School in Camden, Jo Richardson in Barking and Dagenham and finally what is now Harris Academy in St John’s Wood. It is his philosophy of building a strong leadership team to make education at Geneva English School (GES) relevant and cutting edge that make Matt’s approach stand out.
Mr William’s dream had always been to lead an ‘all through’ school and his strong leadership skills should support GES through changing times as the school is expanding into the sixth form. Perhaps his experience is pertinent indeed. He has certainly not been afraid to make some changes whether it be school holidays, setting in maths and English, introducing technology lower down the school or staff cuts.
Perhaps his slightly bare office, certainly in comparison with his predecessors, is a reflection of his management style: to the point. He certainly talks the talk and is without doubt passionate about education, but more importantly the young people themselves. Be it crouching down to discuss a current project with a group of young children in reception class or discussing adult to adult a GCSE student’s art portfolio, he connects well with every age group and listens intently to what they have to say.
Mr Williams clearly recognises the quality of education and high academic standards that is GES’s legacy and reputation. He is very proud to be introducing A Levels which will offer local and arriving families a wider choice and will be welcomed by many. However, he also understands that while an academic record is still highly prized, particularly amongst fee-paying parents, organisations want young people to have a wide range of soft skills that make them adaptable and innovative, which he plans to fulfil, in part, by expanding technological and language skills.
He is very aware of GES’ strong philosophy of fostering a lifelong love of learning and keen to repeat the oft heard, and very true, ‘you never see an unhappy child at GES’. Without doubt, it still is one of the warmest, most welcoming and family orientated schools in the world.
There are no academic hurdles here in the form of exams or prerequisites, though there is an English fluency requirement. A waiting list operates, with preference given to siblings, or alumni families. Students who attend GES are usually keen and motivated.
A number of past students have been awarded scholarships to some top British public schools. Sending children to UK boarding schools seems to go in and out of fashion. However, most of the students stay on in Switzerland. Many go on to attend the secondary school for the IGCSE/A Level combination. For others wanting IB, Ecolint continues to be a popular choice or indeed other local options in the Geneva area and into the neighbouring canton of Vaud, including Swiss schools that offer the IBDP or even the French Baccalaureate or Swiss Maturité.
In 2022, 43% of all IGCSE entries achieved a grade 9 and 76% a grade 7 or above (compared to 35% and 72% respectively in 2021).
2022 also saw the first cohort of students sitting AS levels: 60% achieved an A grade and 87 % were awarded A or B.
Teaching and learning
The primary objective of the school is to offer the best modern British education for children from 3 to 18 years of age living in or around Geneva, and to prepare them for higher education. The school can also prepare students for UK boarding schools (11 plus and 13 plus exams) and some students do leave at age 11 to attend other local international schools.
The Primary school does not slavishly follow the English National curriculum; it would be more accurate to say it bases its curricula on the best British education has to offer, but extends it to take in local aspects, such as language learning, taking real advantage of a rich international education and its Swiss location.
There are no SATS here (thank goodness say many parents), but teachers closely monitor children’s academic progress. Staff pride themselves on adapting the curriculum to be more international, which does give the school one of its unique points…maintaining the flexibility to incorporate the best of all educational practices. It also means that they can teach rather than constantly practice for tests.
In Primary school there is a strong emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and later science, as well as French language and technology skills such as robotics and coding. A high standard of work is expected of the children and achieved. The teaching staff consists of over 16 experienced and fully qualified British teachers, supplemented by four French teachers and six part-time class assistants (some of whom have had specialist SEN training) plus a specialist director of inclusion.
All the teachers are enthusiastic, dedicated and well-liked and respected by the parents. Maximum class sizes are 20 pupils in Reception and 22 in the other years with three classes per year across up to Year 4 and two classes per year in Years 5 and 6. On our visit, everyone was beavering away at their desks or otherwise actively engaged and very happy to be doing so. There was lots of laughter to be heard.
In Secondary school students follow a traditional British curriculum preparing for I/GCSE exams. The recent introduction of A Levels is a huge benefit to the local and international community as it offers students, who might struggle with the broad IB Diploma or even broader French Baccalaureate and Swiss Maturité curricula, the opportunity to specialise in three subjects that they enjoy and are good at.
Secondary school’s location in an office block (not so unusual amongst international schools in Switzerland) means that this is not a traditional Secondary school experience but smaller class sizes (currently around 20 students) and just two classes per year group allows for a very individual learning environment. A planned expansion of the school in summer of 2023, a purpose built sports pitch, and that students can access the lake at lunchtime are putting to bed previous mutters about the lack of outside space.
Learning support and SEN
There is a fully qualified director of SEN and a number of class assistants have had specialist SEN training to help those students with minor to moderate learning disabilities or special needs. Students are supported within the classroom whenever possible with dedicated learning assistants and booster sessions on offer for those who need that little bit further support. Some students may receive one-to-one help for speech and language support.
As the head makes clear, this is a school for English mother tongue or students who are fluent in English, however there is EAL support in both primary and secondary with dedicated coordinators and lessons. The newly introduced language academy offers classes for children in the local system to need to brush up their English skills, popular it is too.
The arts and extracurricular
This is a family school, with many opportunities for the community to gather for the different school shows, the Christmas and Summer Fairs, carol concert, ski competition or the spectacular sports day. Parents are very active participating in the events – it is an essential ingredient in the school’s family atmosphere. And many hours of hard work go into the school productions by staff and children of course.
Weekly assemblies are also a time when children can showcase work of exceptional quality as well as demonstrate their musical gifts – 30 to 40 music lessons take place in school each week. Throughout the year, the school benefits from a diverse range of visitors from the local police and fire brigade to authors and specialists in music and drama and visitors from CERN, the European organisation for nuclear research.
Art is an important part of the GES curriculum and as usual with primary schools, the walls are adorned with pictures and paintings. The excellent art facilities at both primary and secondary schools allow for a wide range in the type of art and media the children can get involved with.
In Primary school there is an extensive range of extra-curricular activities that take place during lunchtimes and after school. Free activities include: choir, drama, art, cooking and chess. Paid for include: ballet, judo and golf.
In Secondary school students also get the opportunity to do the Duke of Edinburgh International Award, the Sports Leadership Programme, Model United Nations (MUN) as well as debating, entrepreneurship, eco-club and robotics to name just a few.
There is an extremely well organised after school care programme every day.
Sport is taken seriously at GES. Football, rugby, basketball and netball teams all fielded in local school competitions and GES organises other inter-school events including cross country and athletics. The extensive primary school grounds provide ample space for football and rugby during winter and cricket and rounders in the summer. There is a five aside football pitch at the secondary school which doubles up as a basketball court. Ski camps are also available for older primary and secondary school students. Netball, a sport that is increasingly popular in Switzerland, is also played on the basketball court. A few table tennis tables also dotted around for enthusiastic players.
Ethos and heritage
The setting of the Primary school is idyllic; a 19th century country house-style building situated on a large property a short drive from central Geneva. Walking around the immaculate, well-groomed campus, one could imagine a Jane Austen film being made here. A magnificent view of Lake Léman and the French Alps beyond with Mont Blanc featured (on a clear day) makes for an unsurpassed setting for sports day each June. There is a large parking area where parents can be found chatting as they drop off their children each morning.
There are three additional buildings, the Years 4-5 classroom block, a multi-purpose hall/gymnasium and the state-of-the art reception to Year 3 building (which in our view is the ugliest of the additional buildings and does somewhat clash with the elegance of the main house). Everything is spotless in true Swiss style. Ample grounds surround the buildings for children to run and play, however, during the winter and if it is muddy, wet or raining, the grass is off limits for the children. Perhaps because they would damage the grass or more likely that they would track mud inside and dirty the shiny marble floors when they re-enter the buildings. An extensive playground with games painted on the ground encourages children to play some of the more traditional British games such as hopscotch.
The Geneva English School was founded in 1961 by a group of parents seeking primary education for their children based on the British curriculum, thereby avoiding disruption in their children’s education when they returned to the United Kingdom or were sent to British boarding schools. Its role has changed over the years and a large majority of the children now stay on for secondary education in Geneva. From a school which originally started in a church hall with seven children from 5 to 7 years of age, the Geneva English School has now grown to around 200 primary pupils aged 3 to 11 and 140 secondary students.
Even with this growth the school has definitely not lost the intimate and close family atmosphere which is unique to GES. The sense of real community permeates everywhere at both GES primary and secondary campuses – though the atmosphere is very different at each as you might expect for different school stages.
The Secondary school is located three kilometres away (just five minutes by car) in the neighbouring commune of Versoix. It is located on the right-hand side of a large office building. An architect specialising in school design was brought in to design the common areas, drama hall and classrooms resulting in a very homely feel to common areas and classrooms; both having break out areas for students to work in pairs or groups. It also has a small outdoor area for the students and the older ones are allowed to walk into Versoix or down to the lake (about 200m away) at lunchtimes. Parents can also drop-off in the underground carpark but no space to park and chat with other parents here as at the primary school.
The five-year plan does include building a stand-alone secondary school, ideally closer to the primary, there is available land and at the time of writing detailed planning was taking place.
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
A family feeling is also fostered by a school house system with four houses: Rhône, Léman, Jura and Dôle. The house system lays the foundation for a spirit of competition firmly built on teamwork as the school’s older children work with younger schoolmates from their house at events throughout the year.
Both parents and staff will honestly say that discipline is not a problem at this school. The children live by school’s core values: integrity, community, achievement, resilience and excellence and the pastoral coordinator keeps a close track of the children’s academic and personal progress.
Pupils and Parents
Established as a British school for the expat community in this very international city, the school is evolving with a more international demographic. Currently, the student body is about 40% British, 25% with a British or Commonwealth parent and 35% from the rest of the world including local Swiss families. Parents are largely working professionals, many with one of the international companies or organisations based locally. Those parents who have come from London ‘hot-house’ schools will get a surprise, thankfully the academics are strong here without the hot-house atmosphere.
Although all students learn French, which is a priority as it is the local Swiss language, English is the language in the playground and the parking lot.
There is a feel to the school that is very English indeed, not only language wise, but culturally as well. Graduates of the school reflect fondly on their days at GES; one former student relates that she loved school and never had a day or time that she didn’t want to go. It’s certain none of them want to leave when that day finally arrives at the end of year 6 even if they can now move onto the secondary school.
Parents are also very positive about the school and appreciate that there is discipline and academic achievement, built on a true sense of community and belonging. The children’s smiling eyes and eagerness to learn say it all. And lifetime friendships amongst both parents and pupils are made here. (That also includes the staff.)
GES is owned by a foundation and managed by the Geneva English School Foundation. There is a Board of Governors, half of which are made up of annually elected parents including the chairman, several external governors and the headmaster. There is no endowment as such, nor is support solicited from other organisations, which protects the autonomy of the school and allows it to create the environment it chooses. Fees are slightly lower than the surrounding international schools.
The last word
For many parents, the Geneva English School evokes strong loyalty as they see their children thrive in a beautiful setting with a dedicated teaching staff striving for excellence in the educational, social, cultural and physical development of their children. GES is a community marked by its happy children who are self-disciplined with high moral values; values they take with them for the rest of their lives.