Heritage Director Robert Ford: „We are working hard to make sure that we are back in September fully”

In its third year in Moldova, Heritage International School had to act quickly and firmly to make sure the educational process continued during the pandemic. Adaptability and communication were the two main values guiding the leadership of the institution towards a smooth transition and, with the help of a well trained team of international teachers, they managed to achieve the goal: not one day of classes was missed and students and teachers made the best out of the new situation. For the upcoming school year, the school is preparing, based on thorough research and documentation, to get the students back to school safely. We discussed these issues with Robert Ford, a global educator and the director of Heritage International School in Moldova.

What was the response of Heritage International School towards the pandemic? I’ve heard that your students haven’t missed even a day of school, is that true?

It is true. I am so proud of the response of our whole community towards this. Nobody could have prepared for this, nobody in any organizations has ever faced being potentially closed down for months with uncertainty. And I think it underlines the commitment of Heritage International School to making sure that we continue to deliver the quality education we always had and put the students at the heart of every decision we make. So when we saw what’s coming, at the end of February-beginning of March, we swiftly moved to a Distance Learning Plan. We already had the capabilities, we had a digital platform in school. 

Wellbeing and mental health of everybody and the students, in particular, was really important. But I’ve got to pay tribute to the remarkable team of educators and support staff at Heritage International School, for the full sight, the willingness, and the skills they had, nobody wanted to leave this as “let’s wait and see”. Doing nothing wasn’t an option for us. 

Could we go a bit more into details regarding your Distance Learning Plan (DLP)?

We had 2 days to put the DLP together and I still can’t believe that we did it in such a short space of time. The platform we used was Google Classroom, we have been using it in school anyway. We trained our teachers on how to use it. And obviously that process continued. 

We hold a regular teaching and learning training session in the morning every Wednesday for all of our teachers, we go through all sorts of topics. So their mindsets are really good in terms of adaptability. And I think it was adaptability that was really important. We did a lot of work with the students as well. They were really, really keen to make sure their learning continues, so everybody had a buy in. 

I know that in some schools around the world it was more the case of asynchronous learning, a sort of homework style package and we knew that for us that wouldn’t work. Our students needed daily meaningful routines in education. My own daughters were on the Distance Learning Plan, so I know how valuable that is from a parent’s point of view.

I would greet students every Monday, I would stand in the front of the school and say good morning and goodbye in a recording as a part of my role as a director every day. I missed meeting the kids physically. I was also learning as well. We had the last day of school online, this was a really important event for people, marking a sort of rite of passage. We held the event online for like three hours and we had the most amazing music, and speeches, and even at the end children rang the bells together simultaneously around the screens while people were in their homes.

We explained everything to parents, for us a good strategy is 10% action and 90% communication. So we knew that keeping all our communities together is essential. I mean, we have got three languages (English, Romanian and Russian) and we have got 20 nationalities, keeping them all together through this was really important.

The Minister of Education has proposed several scenarios for going back to school next year, so I wanted to know what is Heritage planning for the upcoming school year. What should parents and students expect? 

We were working on this question in May, before the schools would even close, because we need to give certainty to our community. But we’ve seen our societies working again, we can’t just be in inertia forever, we can’t just be at home atrophying. 

The world is already working under lockdown conditions, airports operating with physical distancing, and more hand washing, and people wearing masks. We have seen it in our supermarkets, on buses, so don’t think it’s a huge leap of imagination to see what a school would look like when the students return. So we shared with the Ministry, at the end of June, our proposals for how we could physically return. We also shared it with our community, of course. And for us, at Heritage, with good communication, we can fully and safely return to school on the 1st of September, to have all our students back in classrooms.

We looked at what WHO (World Health Organization) would advise and they have put together some really good advice for schools around the world. Now we are working hard to make sure that we are back in September fully with a prepared plan. 

We are putting together webinars and videos. For example, our teachers are working around the school literally with a camera to show children: this is where you come in, this is where you wash your hands, you don’t bring a lot of objects to school, because that would mean more wiping for disinfection and we want to cut down the risks of transmission. There would be temperature checks. If there are any symptoms there is an isolation area next to the medical room which has a separate entrance and a bathroom, so we can get children or adults into isolation as soon as possible. These are all things we are taking into consideration. 

At the heart of all of this is the trust and confidence of the families, and they are really important to us.

How do you think the events happening now and the decisions taken now will influence your students short term and in 20 years time? 

I think our students are global citizens, they are going forward, into an interconnected world. Because COVID-19 has demonstrated there are no national frontiers: rich, poor, European, Asian, American, it will affect us all. And that common humanity and those common solutions are really what we need to look at in order to thrive in the future. From that point of view I think this crisis had positive effects as well.

And as an outward-facing school we know our students will be mobile, they will work, they will study, they will be tourists, they will have friendships, they will have all sorts of opportunities and ideas. What the world can’t ever go back to is a closed world, it can’t go back to closed societies. And even though this crisis made us isolate, in fact, if anything, it made us more interconnected. 

Heritage is the only Cambridge School in Moldova. Could you explain what that means and why it is important?

When Heritage was set up, it deliberately wanted the international curriculum to be an intrinsic part of its education. Cambridge International Assessment is used by about 30% of international schools around the world and it is based on the British model of GCSE  (General Certificate of Secondary Education), IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) at 16 years old and A-levels at 18, which are qualifications like a diploma, baccalaureate, that allows you into the university. It is recognized by every university, every country, especially the Ivy League, Oxford, Cambridge. The reason why Heritage wanted this international curriculum is because it gives you more sorts of skills, basis, linked to qualification, linked to knowledge. It looks at education from a global perspective, it’s not abstract. It wants real-time learning linked to real-world cases.

Heritage is an innovative school. It wants to do something very different in traditional education, it wants to offer an alternative, which is based on global international standards.

We have already had several European and British, and American universities representatives coming and talking to our students. For us it is, again, not an abstract thing, we are leading them on to the next step of their futures.

Heritage has a very strong commitment to English language as well as multiculturalism. How does that work in a country like Moldova?

Having English in our school as a lingua franca allows the students to have that greater global access than they would in a normal school. The director is English, we also have Americans, an Australian, we have people from India, people from Canada. There are teachers from around the world, and that’s really important as well. And all of this helps with having a global perspective and listening, and hearing different stories.

We have many projects from eTwinning to British Council, to American House, to Global School Alliance. For us, it is natural to have partnerships and networks around the world. Our curriculum is different, our approach to learning is different. We see learning in a very different way. 

We learn about wonderful Moldovan traditions, Romanian, Russian, American. It’s such a wonderful atmosphere. It’s why I have always worked in international education. It allowed me to think about my own identity. I am sort of Welsh, and English and British, and European. But at the same time, as you can see, I am really proud about my adoptive country of Moldova. 

So, for parents and students interested in achieving an education in Heritage International School, what should they do next?

We have very extensive social media. Have a look at what we are doing, see us on FacebookTwitterInstagram, our website has all our contacts there.

Even in this crisis, we can talk. We have been speaking throughout this summer to families that want to join us, from international families to local families, who want the certainty, the values and the mission that Heritage has to offer. We are open every day, the school is never closed. We are always available and we will arrange to talk to them and if they are in Moldova right now they can come and visit the school with the safe physical distancing and following all the regulations. As I was saying earlier, adaptability was key for us, so we also created safe and comfortable ways for people to find out more about us online. We have created the first Virtual Open House, as well as a 360-degree Virtual Tour recorded at the end of May, to show the campus. 

I know everyone lives with a lot of uncertainty regarding what’s next right now, but how do you envision the future of Heritage International School? 

For Heritage International School the future starts here, the future is already happening, this is the reality. I am really looking forward to getting back to Moldova, my second home, and to start the new school year. We will have a great fourth year. It’s incredible to think it’s only our fourth year, but we have got the development of our lyceum, the onward development of our Cambridge Curriculum, more opportunities to develop global citizens and student leadership. We have a real commitment to make our students good, socially responsible leaders in our society, in our communities. 

The school is growing all the time, we are really pleased about the increase in student numbers. People want to come to Heritage and that is really positive. We have some incredible teachers coming to us from around the world and that is a real privilege. I look forward to getting the kids physically back in school and moving ourselves forward. I am going back to a Chinese proverb: “If you plan for one year, plant rice, but if you plan for 100 years, educate children”, and I think that’s really where Moldova and Heritage come together.

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