Dr Robin Lister, PhD, leans back and takes a long, deep breath when asked how the past seven months have played out.
“I guess you could say it’s been a rapid learning curve,” laughs the Englishman. “It’s definitely been exciting.”
We’re at Malvern College Hong Kong, tucked away inside the office provided for Lister’s role as founding headmaster. The school opened for business late last August within a seven-story building near the waters of Providence Bay, Pak Shek Kok, and the fringes of Hong Kong Science Park.
Today is its grand opening and arrangements are being made outside to welcome Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam. But classes are still continuing – for the moment at least – and downstairs kids are mingling in the playground.
“Starting a brand new school from scratch? I was naïve,” says Dr Lister. “The first few weeks were pretty full-on. Putting in structure, putting in the protocols and procedures. But now things are far smoother. It was quite an experience. It’s terribly fulfilling when you see everything just click.”
Preparations for the school began with the opening of the Malvern College Pre-School Hong Kong in Southwest Kowloon in 2017, before applications and admissions began for the first intake of 400 students in years one to nine. From here, the plan is for an extra class to be added each year as the first batch of year nine students move through to year 12.
Founded in the United Kingdom in 1865, Malvern College is, Dr Lister says, “dead traditional but really, really forward looking.”
Carrie Lam will later acknowledge that fact in an opening address that focuses on some of the more innovative (for Hong Kong) aspects of the school’s curriculum, including coding and robotics workshops and a Forest School program, which takes students out into nature.
Malvern operates with its main medium of instruction in English, under the International Baccalaureate curriculum, but with adaptations to suit the specific and often unique needs of both students and parents here in the SAR, including mandatory daily Mandarin Chinese speech and writing lessons.
“Hong Kong is such an international city,” says Dr Lister. “So we do the IB all the way through school. It is recognized as the best education you can get. I’ve interviewed on behalf of Harvard for the last 20 years and Harvard have told me quite clearly that there is a clear correlation between what a child gets in the IB and the type of degree they get. But if you do A Levels, there’s no correlation at all. The IB doesn’t just teach facts, it teaches children to think. Really importantly, it also teaches children to make connections between subjects. Once that lesson goes out, real learning takes place.”
In recruiting its teaching staff, Dr Lister said Malvern looked first for “passion.”
“If you can employ a teacher who has got spark, who won’t be tedious and boring – that’s what I’m really looking for,” says Dr Lister. “I don’t always get there but that’s what I’m looking for.”
He has also adapted the ways of Malvern UK school life to suit the Hong Kong set-up.
“I am trying to mimic the boarding ethos of Malvern UK into a day school – as much as I can,” says Dr Lister. “So the children, when they have lunch, sit in house groups with their teachers. So the teachers teach the children good manners, how to make small talk. That relationship between teacher and student is really important.”
What kind of student, or person, might this experience produce? An “all-rounded” one, says Dr Lister.
“I know all schools might say that but I really, really take that very, very seriously,” says Dr Lister. “An all-rounded, academically fulfilled, confident but not cocky. Malvern gets that right. We want people to be confident but also to be humble.
“The trick is to get the balance right between academic development and an all-rounded character development. That’s what I am passionate about. I’m an academic but it’s the ‘other’ part of education that I am passionate about. Teaching children to analyze, to be able to understand the world around them, to make good judgements, to bring on good character. To make sure they can deal with failure, so they can stand up when things go wrong. These are very important.
“Academic success is of course important. But so is to give every student the chance to excel, to feel confident, to grow properly. We encourage them to be risk takers. Children can get the impression that life has to be totally successful. But you and I know that life sometimes goes wrong. You fail, you lose that match or you don’t get into the university of choice and to learn to cope with those things is really important.”
Dr Lister’s own investment in Malvern started when – after reading for a Master’s degree at Harvard and becoming the Gifford Fellow at the University of St Andrews where he took his PhD – he joined the college in 1989, with his own children passing through the school as they grew up in the UK. The desire to teach, and to help shape young lives, came at an early age for the Englishman and, he says, it is an ethos that has carried him through to Hong Kong, and to today.
“It sounds corny but it happens to be true,” says Dr Lister. “I went to a lesser public school, as a day boy. And I hated it. When I was 16 I told myself that for part of my life I would like to run a school where I would like to be a child.”