Lessons for life

Howard Stribbell, Head of The International School of Macao (TIS)

The ratio of quality and tuition costs for internationals schools is better in Macau when compared to Hong Kong or mainland China, points out Howard Stribbell, Head of The International School of Macao (TIS), discussing with Business Daily the value of education, the evolution of TIS and expansion projects for the school.

What is your professional background and how did TIS come about in Macau?
The school opened in 2002 and I came in 2006. I was teaching at the [Canadian province of Alberta], saw an advertisement for an overseas school and it sounded like a neat opportunity. I packed up my family and we came to Macau thinking we would stay two or three years, and we’ve already been here for 12 years. In the beginning I was hoping Macau was in the Caribbean, I have to admit my ignorance.

How has the private school business developed since you first arrived in Macau?
At the time the founders looked to start an international school here, people said the city didn’t need another international school. However the school went from 58 students in the first year to 300 students when I first arrived. Since that time we’ve grown to 1,200 students and in the future we will have capacity for 1,600 students. It’s clear the Macau population is looking for international options and I think a school like us that accepts local and international students, really creates a unique context for learning. The end goal for all of our students is to go to overseas universities, primarily English-based, and we’ve accomplished that so strongly that it surprises me sometimes.

How much financial support do you receive from the government?
We’re a non-tertiary private school, which means we receive partial funding by the government. We can apply for funding for inclusive education, small class sizes or the school development plan. Every year, on average direct support from the government to our budget ranges between 10 to 15 per cent of our operation. We have the highest tuition in Macau, but I believe we offer a high quality product and experience. If you compare it to Hong Kong, the tuition would be twice as high, or three times higher in the Mainland. I have to pay my teachers the same they would receive in Hong Kong or the Mainland. Taxation here helps, but while expenses are the same, our tuition levels are lower.

What is the student age range of TIS?
From three years old to 17 or 18 years old. This past graduating class was the first time we had students graduating that had been here since pre-kindergarten.

Your school uses the Alberta curriculum. Has that offered any obstacles to convince parents in the city?
We had to get our parents to suspend their original disbelief since we use the Alberta curriculum, and who has even heard of the province of Alberta?
The Alberta province has a very strong curriculum and it outperforms the other Canadian provinces, but it can be seen as very regionalised, so how international is that curriculum?
Even now, I have parents who ask me if their kids need to go to school in Canada, which is understandable, but far from the truth.
In fact 100 per cent of our students get offers of admissions from around the world. To date we have over 250 universities and colleges providing offers of admission. Literally in every continent except Antarctica, although my daughter graduates this year and she’s convinced she will be the first one to get an offer in Antarctica.

How much have you adapted the curriculum to fit the local education system?
That was actually one of the challenges we had in the early days, to make sure we were taking this curriculum from Alberta and making it meaningful for the Macau and international context. For example, in grade four we teach Macau history, which ends up being fascinating even to the parents. We also have to make it meaningful for students that just moved to the city. So when we talk about political systems, we’ll learn about the Canadian political system, but we’ll also learn and talk about the American system and the UK system. We’ll talk about the Thai monarchy or what Australia’s system looks like. These kinds of teachings are very rewarding for our students.
We also really emphasise an international mind, and so our students really engage in a lot of community outreach. Every year we send the whole high school, grade seven to 12, overseas somewhere - from the United Nations in New York to India, to skiing in northern China or working with elephants in Thailand.
We just had a great one in Laos where they were building toilets for villages. These are great opportunities to explore the world in a way that is hopefully not a ‘touristy’ kind of way, but in a way that really embraces the culture.

What is the percentage of local to foreign students and staff in the school?
Our largest group is from Macau, with Hong Kong and mainland China making up a small number. The next largest group would be Australian, then Canadian, American, Portuguese and then British. In total 44 different nationalities.
In terms of staff, this year we have 200 staff, being 130 teachers and 70 support staff. They come from all over the world, with most coming from Canada, although over the last three years we’ve been making a much more diligent effort to have our teachers coming from a broader range of nationalities and of a broader range of experiences. Part of that is also because Macau is becoming an international destination.
It’s very comfortable to live here, people can move here with their family and don’t just come for two years and then leave, they really are looking to put down roots. This makes it easier to recruit personnel. The school is also becoming more well-known in the region and so we have the career internationals who might’ve been in a British school before or at an American or Canadian school. They’re finding out about TIS and seeking to join our team.

Have you faced any difficulties hiring personnel in Macau?
We always encounter difficulties, we’re committed to complying with government regulations, which can be a challenge at times. With an international school that is accredited by the province of Alberta, 100 per cent of our teachers have to be certified by Alberta. We’re given no wiggle room at all, so that means they either come from Alberta or they meet the same requirements that Alberta has. If they come from England, for example, they have to meet the same requirements as in Canada or the U.S. That makes it very important that they fit the same standard while following the rules and regulations here in Macau as well.
It can be a challenge. We started recruiting in November for the following academic year in September. We tend to have all our recruitment done by the beginning of February so we can process work visas until September. Every year we experience 10 to 20 per cent turn over in growth. Last year was our hardest getting teachers approved, we ran upon a couple of difficulties. We just had to work harder and make sure we complied as fully as possible.

Which countries do your graduating students end up attending university in?
Our kids are going all over the place. In fact, in the last graduating class the largest percentage of offers came from the UK. There’s a number of reasons for that, the UK has been very involved in marketing to students and they also make it easy for students to get offers by offering one exam and one admission process, with multiple universities giving multiple offers to the students. A student might get four or five offers from the UK in one application. If they apply to Canada or the U.S. they get one offer, since you have to apply directly to universities. They also have exceptionally good programmes.

Which academic areas does the school curriculum focus on more?
We really emphasise a well-rounded education, so we have a very rigorous curriculum that will get students into universities all over the world. However, we also want to make nice human beings, so we want students that are engaged in sports and athletics. We have 28 sport teams that compete locally, regionally and internationally. We also want students to have a fine arts side, either through painting and drawing to drama and musicals. We also want to make sure the students and their families are giving back to their communities and back to the world.
We have a different notion of what an international school is because we’re a constructivist school, so we believe students construct their own learning and that knowledge is not just something the teacher takes as a package and gives to the student. Critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration are essential. If a kid gets passionate about something, you hardly need to teach him, it becomes this all-consuming fire. Sometimes students have a hard time when they first transfer to our school since our students work in small groups a lot. They have to do presentations and they have to be able to take context and text from multiple sources, analyse it, come up with their own opinion, and be able to back it up or present it.

Generally, what are the most common demands from parents in Macau?
I think our parents have high expectations of their children. They want their children to go on to university somewhere. As parents, we assume that will be in our home country, even I thought that. But what happens is that the doors open up to so many different countries and the world gets so much smaller. Our kids are used to getting on planes and going through immigration to fly all over the world.
I think in Asia, families still see that value of education and parents are willing to invest money and time into their children’s education. Our parents are very actively involved and it’s an exciting part of our school, we encourage parents to take part in the school. We have open days and community days and we do a lot of extra-curricular activities. We want the school to be a real hub for the community.

What are the future expansion projects of TIS?
We opened up our north wing recently with the opening ceremony to be in early November. This new north wing will have an additional 11,000 square metres and basically doubles the square footage of our school. That allows us to open up an additional 600 seats or 400 places for new students. We had anticipated this opening, so we had already expanded our kindergarten and we have this huge group of students that we need to move around the school. Opening up this building will allow us to do that without turning away people already here at the school. Unfortunately, we still have more demand than we can meet, with many people on the waiting list. For every student we accept to kindergarten or pre-kindergarten we turn away three or four students.

How easily do graduates find employment after their time at TIS?
We are very happy to see that our students are fluent in Mandarin, English and most in Cantonese. They’re well-educated, they can go work at casinos and get very high paying jobs if they want, but none of them chose to do that, they all chose to go to university. That’s exciting for me because it means they understand the value of education. Those students are now graduating and coming back to Macau. It’s neat to see them work either at government or private positions, joining resorts or real estate agencies, and we keep following our alumni.
I think that within the next two to three years we’ll actually start to see some of those graduates have kids and send them to TIS.

In your opinion, what is lacking in the education system in Macau?
I think Macau has a very low gap in terms of achievement from poor to rich people, which I think speaks well about the equity in the education system. What’s lacking is hard to say. I see the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau (DSEJ) making very good commitments, investing money and resources to improve the system. They have long-term plans and you’ve seen things improve over the years.
They’re trying to bring a national curriculum that is standardised, which is difficult because everyone is doing their own thing. As long as they keep bringing a skill-based objective, then schools can use whatever curriculum they want and show how it complies with the Macau curriculum.