I came to Switzerland in September 2016 after more than 30 years of working in the British boarding system, where I also spent more than a decade as headmistress at two all girls’ schools.
This past year has been an interesting and steep learning curve for me as I have come to embrace the boarding tradition in Switzerland and see quite how uniquely placed we are as a country and a system.
During my time at Surval, I have been surprised at how different it is being a Principal of a truly international full-boarding school to my previous experiences.
I have met families who have their educational roots in the British boarding tradition, and it has been interesting learning about their perspectives and why those who have chosen the Swiss route have done so.
We all recognise the importance of the British boarding tradition and the impact it has had throughout the world: at its core, the emphasis on values. However, I have spoken with international families this year who are turning their backs on the UK as they consider their options for the education of their daughters – amongst their observations, is a perception that some of these core values are becoming somewhat diluted.
In defence of the institutions which I have been proud to serve in, I point out perhaps it is more a case of different priorities being foisted on boarding schools in the UK, notably the strictures of an increasingly box-ticking mentality over-burdened by regulations and the emphasis on paper rather than the person.
This has put increasing challenges on these independent British boarding schools who have also been faced with an enforced emphasis on fundraising and development initiatives for bursaries as they are expected to make themselves increasingly accessible to families who cannot afford this education.
In addition to this, the heart of the British boarding system has been dealt a blow by the changing economic situation for the squeezed middle class who have been fundamental to these schools.
In Switzerland, I have been heartened and encouraged by the number of boarding schools I have visited and their emphasis on family, either those owned for generations by the same family, or those like Surval for whom a family ethos lies at the heart of what we offer. This ethos is grounded in the values of courage, curiosity, openness and honesty and it is as crucial to a nuclear family as it is to our school.
At Surval, we are all international students, all far from home, and we all have to look after each other, just as a family should.
Although we are a small family, the fact that we are an international one means there is nothing small-minded about our outlook. We want our girls to engage in social responsibility, to understand the tremendous opportunities they each have to make a difference in the world, to develop global perspectives that will serve them in the future and help them get to where they want to be.
Our setting helps in many ways.
Every day we wake to a view of the mountains and the lake. Ours is a beautiful, inspirational and enriching environment. It’s one that provides the best of so many worlds. The natural world provides both a palette and a playground. Our location gives us easy access to cities across Europe, where our students can benefit from cultural enrichment opportunities. Just three hours from Milan and a little over an hour from Geneva airport, the world is our oyster.
Geneva itself offers an unparalleled array of institutions that lead the world in diplomacy, in hospitality and business – and we have fostered strong relationships with many of them who can help our students in developing their future maths and global perspectives.
If the wider world is easily accessible, Switzerland also offers families a location that offers safety and stability in this increasingly uncertain world. Our girls are able to walk down to Montreux with their friends where they can enjoy a delightful dinner or time shopping and exploring the highlights of this lakeside haven.
I have been a head of a school of 450 pupils that was not able to offer such enrichment that we can here. This is a very small country but the opportunities are on a large scale. And this allows us to offer each and every one of our students education and enrichment that suits her particular needs, helping her to get to where she wants to be.
If the emphasis in the UK has become more about academic hot-housing, where four year olds are being coached, this is not what we are about. We have Ivy League parents, whose own educational roots lie in the British boarding model now opting to send their daughters to Switzerland and we are delighted they are choosing Surval.
Our emphasis is not about achieving the best result for the school. It is about every girl reaching her best.
Enlightened parents are looking to place girls in a different atmosphere to prepare them for making a difference in the world and this is why they are choosing Switzerland.
By Mrs Patricia Woodhouse, Principal of Surval Montreux