Ahead of his arrival in August to take over as Head of School at Renaissance International School Saigon (RISS), Peter Gittins speaks to Oi Vietnam about pioneering the first international school in HCMC, his decades-long career in education and… homework
Can you tell us what the international school landscape was like when you were the Founding Head of ISHCMC in 1993?
The International (Grammar) School as it was then called was the pioneer international school in the south of the country when it opened in 1993 and it remained the only international school in HCMC for many years. There was no international school infrastructure at the time and the school was a first for Vietnam and a major ideological step for the local authorities. There was, however, an enormous demand for an international school and this demand was reflected in its rapid growth— from 28 students when it opened in September 1993 to over 450 by the end of June 1996.
RISS will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, how has the school changed during this time?
The school was opened by Prince Andrew, who visited from the UK, in 2007 with just under 70 students and grew to welcome nearly 500 students this year. However, the school has stayed true to its values and continues to limit its class sizes and maintain its status as a family-orientated boutique school, where relationships are personal and there is a very closely-knit community and students are not just numbers. It is the only Round Square school in Saigon, and in the last three years, our students became Best in the World in their IGCSE exams three times. More recently, Renaissance has been accredited by the Council of International Schools (CIS). Renaissance is no longer a developing school—it is well established, highly regarded, offers a continuous education from Nursery to Year 13, and its students are graduating into highly regarded colleges and universities around the world.
What practices and ideas from your time at CIS will you be applying to RISS?
CIS asks a school to look critically at itself, to focus on its mission and, in so doing, ensure that what it says it is doing it is actually doing. It asks a school to be suitably reflective and formulate clear action plans based on a systematic analysis of its strengths and weaknesses so, in answer to your question, I believe that my focus will be three-fold: on the school defining what it is and then effectively measuring what it does, on accentuating the focus on student learning and student well-being, and on a fundamental commitment to organizational accountability and quality instruction.
Since leaving Vietnam, you’ve worked and lived in Sri Lanka, Germany, Australia and Switzerland to name a few, what is bringing you back to Vietnam now?
My first experience in Vietnam was nearly 25 years ago and so much has changed in the country itself, within the education sector both globally and nationally and I have grown and learnt a good deal as well. Vietnam is such an exciting place to be now and it presents a good many opportunities, especially in the education sector. The country has a proud history, a rich cultural tradition and wonderful people so it was easy to say yes when offered the job at Renaissance.
Your career has spanned both the 20th & 21st centuries, how have students changed in the way they learn? What aspects of teaching that were relevant in the 20th century are now obsolete? And what has endured and will never change?
Quite clearly, the enhanced emphasis on technology has been a major change and this has had a profound impact on both teaching and learning. Schools are now more connected than they have ever been and this presents enormous opportunities but, also, some significant challenges. There have been substantial changes in curriculum, there is now a broader focus on how students learn as opposed to what they learn, more meaningful connections are now being made across and between subjects, and parents are now more engaged and involved, which brings with it an increased level of organizational accountability.
What has endured and will never change is the fact that good teaching will always be good teaching irrespective of the curriculum, facilities or location. Further, a good school will always be one that is constantly looking to improve, is true to its mission and is fundamentally committed to ensuring the best possible education for its students.
Is it also safe to say that educators have also changed in their approach to teaching in the past decades? With some many different methods of teaching (Montessori, Reggio Emilia, etc) how can parents know which one is best for their children?
Yes, this is obviously true. There has been an increased focus on technology, assessment, inclusivity and connectivity with teaching now more student-centered than teacher directed and more collaborative and participatory in approach. The amount of information that is available has increased dramatically and teaching and learning must focus on relevance, accuracy, purpose and authenticity.
School choice is a complex process but two good starting questions are: Is the school accredited and by whom? Are the school’s programs authorized and evaluated and by whom? The answers to these questions should be straightforward but parents should listen carefully to the responses. In looking at a school, parents should reflect on the extent to which the rhetoric matches the reality, unpack the jargon and focus on the simple question: To what extent is the school doing what it says it is doing and is this the right school for my child/ren?
Homework: Yes or No?
Yes and no actually. Homework must be an adjunct to learning. It must be both purposeful and meaningful, reinforce and enhance learning and students should be able to see value in it. Homework for the sake of homework becomes a chore and could well turn students off learning—something that must be avoided at all costs. Quite clearly a school’s approach to homework should be measured and reflect what is realistic, age appropriate and have the greatest impact on student learning. So, of course, there is value in homework but I think that it is more a question of quality rather than quantity.
You’ve initiated a number of community service projects, including the construction of a school for child cancer patients at the National Cancer Hospital in Colombo, do you have any community service projects planned with RISS?
Authentic and sustainable community service is a passion of ours and a return to Vietnam will provide an opportunity to give something back to the community. RISS already leads on a number of excellent community initiatives through its Round Square memberships, its strong support for Habitat for Humanity Vietnam, and its ongoing engagement with the Save the Rhino campaign, to mention just a few. At this stage, my wife Kerry and I have no idea what projects we will be involved in but there is always something to do and some way that we can help and that is an exciting prospect in itself.
Personally, what are you looking forward to when you come back to Saigon?
There is so much to look forward to about a return to Saigon. My wife and I are excited about the prospect of living in such a pulsating and dynamic city as Saigon and in a country that is now a key player in Southeast Asia. The thought of being much closer to our children—both of whom are in Australia—is a major factor as is the prospect of re-engaging with the Vietnamese culture that is both fascinating and enriching. Most important of all I think is the challenge of moving an already very good school to being an outstanding school—which is very motivating
IMAGES PROVIDED BY RISS