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Our Kids Interview: Get to know EF Academy Oxford

Our Kids speaks to Mark Fletcher-Single, head of EF Academy, Oxford

EF Academy Oxford is one of the three campuses of EF Academy international boarding schools. The other two are in the US, in New York, and in Pasadena, California. They all offer experiential, immersive, and intercultural learning. At EF Academy Oxford, students aged 16 to 18 from dozens of countries receive solid university preparation and enjoy a unique academic experience that only Oxford can provide. The students can choose either IB Diploma or A-levels.  continue reading...

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Our Kids interviewed Mark Fletcher-Single, head of EF Academy, Oxford.

Here is a video of this interview. Below, you can read its transcript:

The history of the Oxford campus

Our Kids: Could you tell us a little bit about the history of EF Academy Oxford?

Mark Fletcher-Single: When EF Academy started in Torbay, with all of the courses offered, the EF Academy realized that they have a strength in international boarding schools. And of course, Oxford is, I believe more so than Cambridge, the centre of academia. They already had a language campus in Oxford, so it seemed a very good starting point. And then it was just incredibly fortuitous that our beautiful Cotuit Hall campus, which was previously owned by Brooks University, came up for sale within about 12 months of the initial stages of EF Academy Oxford forming. It is literally 400 metres down from the language school, also on Pullens Lane. So it was just perfect.

The EF Academy Oxford campus

Our Kids: What's special about that campus? What's special about EF Academy Oxford?

Mark Fletcher-Single: I think the thing that I love about the campus is that it’s in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It’s very green, and yet it's in a city which is a very vibrant student city. So you literally get the best of both worlds. You get that almost genteel green campus, but without being in the middle of nowhere. And to get to town, you could literally walk there in 25 minutes or jump on a bus and be there in seven.

I think that the school has gone from strength to strength; we have been successful, which then attracts students who want to be successful. So it becomes more successful. And interestingly, we've seen some pretty consistent themes over the years. One being medicine, biomedical studies, and the students are successful in that area. The word spread, so more students come for medical preparation. Engineering, that seems to be another one. And the sciences, e.g., mathematics. It is nice to know that successful students are then bringing in more successful students, and we grow in that way.


Our Kids: It's a boarding school, which is a very typical educational option in Britain. It's less obvious for others. If you were to talk to a parent and explain why it’s a good idea to send a kid at this age to a boarding school, what would you say?

Mark Fletcher-Single: I think that's a fantastic question. I think you're absolutely right that the UK, and I mean the UK, it's not just England, but Scotland, certainly Ireland and England from south to north, boarding schools have been a part of them for many, many years. To answer the question why I think it's a good idea at this age. I think that education is key and crucial in the preparation for life, not just university. We sometimes think of the formative years as being 7, 8, 9, and 10, but they aren’t. It’s those development stages that teenagers, young people go through that are absolutely key in those years, when you're wrapping everything up and forming yourself ready to go by yourself. I think the reason why the age 16 is so key is because it's a time when you do want to have independence from your parents. It's the time when you do want to have independence from your family as well. But you're coming into, in our school, in our case, a family environment; but where you go to school to have your free time that you structure yourself, but not in a way that you're left alone.

Our whole school day, all of our activities, all of our evenings, our whole campus is set up for that. So it's set up for students who have the opportunity to take advantage of their independent time. But there's always that safety net there. And our goal is basically to lower that safety net as they go through the school. You learn to get on with your roommate, you learn understanding, sharing emotions. The experience of actually being in a school with people from all over the world, learning different cultures, learning different languages, gaining understanding into people's feelings and why they feel that way, their traditions, what those traditions mean to them, language, all of that. I just think it’s so precious.

And I think that when you actually leave the school, you're not just leaving with qualifications, you are leaving as this “whole person”. And as a parent, what you've actually done is that you've given your daughter, your son, what I believe is the perfect preparation. And I think that at the age of 16, realistically, even when parents say they're going to find it hard and they're worried that the family will change, that is true. No one can deny that that family unit will change if a child is at boarding school. But anybody with a 17 year-old daughter or 17 year-old son, how much time do you spend with them at home? Where are they? What are they doing?

I just think it will give you something you can't buy. It gives you that experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. That's the confidence, the ability to get on with people, to understand, the compassion. I also think with regard to leadership, I think that it influences that as well. I think that there are two key parts and certainly if you want to be a leader, if you want to be in a profession where you want to manage, I'm a strong believer that before you can do anything like that, which is basically looking after people, people think being a, I hate the word boss, but people think being a boss is telling people what to do. It's not. A key part is actually looking after them. I think before you can look after other people, you have to be able to look after yourself. Also, to actually inspire people to lead people, not just manage, you have to make sure that you've got the compassion, the understanding, and you can listen and appreciate.

Again, I think that's a skill that basically just comes very much as part of living in a boarding school.

EF Academy Oxford compared to other boarding schools

Our Kids: In what way is EF Academy Oxford different from other boarding schools?

Mark Fletcher-Single: Traditional boarding schools are based on just that—tradition. They're based on the times when they were formed in 1853, they had a structure, they had a format, they had a routine. The parents now send their daughter or their son to school because of that tradition. “We've always done this. We've always worn this uniform. This is how we've always done it.” But I think that sometimes those traditional schools, by the nature of the tradition, put young people into a box, as it were. And there is this idea that young people fit into that box, according to the nature of the school. And I don't think that we as a school try to put people in boxes. In actual fact, we break those barriers.

My personal career was working in these traditional boarding schools. What attracted me to EF Academy Oxford is that it doesn't try to be traditional. It doesn't want to be traditional. It wants to offer the best possible boarding experience now and not be tied to “We do this because we've done it since 1527.” What I feel so passionate, so proud of, and what I love about our school is that I think we offer a different boarding experience. We are not built or in some respects restricted by that tradition.

We refer to each other with first names. It's not “Mr. Fletcher-Single,” it's “Mark.” When you're actually in the school, what you learn is that respect doesn't come from being called “Mr.” Respect actually comes from what you do, how you talk to students, how students talk to you. So I love that. We also don't have a school uniform, don't want it, would never have it. So much emphasis is put on doing your tie up, having the right colour socks. And as soon as you take elements like that out, you focus on what's actually important. And what we focus on is the student. To be in the boarding school environment those last two years, where they can formulate and consolidate everything they've learned throughout childhood, and prepare themselves with our support for university. I think it's the best of both worlds. It's a boarding school experience, but actually at the right age. It’s about students learning to look after themselves, learning independence, and being supported to be able to get themselves up, get themselves dressed, get themselves ready, discipline themselves for work. And it's in no way, shape, or form that we leave students to do it. But what we are doing is setting up structures for them to follow.


Our Kids: Who are your students? Where do they come from?

Mark Fletcher-Single: Literally from all over the world. I think currently we have 62 nationalities in our school, and that's a perfectly normal year. We don't have any dominant nationality at all. A trend over the last couple of years is we've had the largest number of students from Italy and Germany. But when I say the largest, I mean, we've had 14 Italian students in comparison to something like 10 or 11 Norwegian students. They might be the majority, but it's not significant.

Our Kids: How many students do you have at one level?

Mark Fletcher-Single: It normally works out that our year one is slightly larger than our year two. And for next September, we're looking at a split of about 70 or probably 80 in year one, and about 55 or 60 in year two.

Our Kids: Do you know what's happening with them after they graduate? Where do they go? What universities do they end up at?

Mark Fletcher-Single: They go to universities all over the world, absolutely all over the world.

Preparing students for university

Our Kids: Do you spend any time preparing your students for further studies: how to apply, what to do to get to the best places?

Mark Fletcher-Single: 100%. We employ Dr. Mark Zumbuhl, who is a university admissions officer at Oxford University. His whole role is basically guiding students to get to university. Each student also has an academic tutor and a pathway manager. Their whole goal is that holistic view to ensure the students are prepared and get to where they want to go.

Two curricula

Our Kids: You offer more than one curriculum. Do you believe that either of them is somehow preferred by the students, or do you have more or less the same number in each of them?

Mark Fletcher-Single: We have the IB Programme and we have A-levels. We have more students study the IB Diploma than A-levels. Why do I think that is? Because of the makeup of our student body, I think they know what the IB is. I think from their own schooling, they feel better prepared for the IB Diploma. With regard to the A-levels, if you don't know what you want to do and you don't know where you're headed, they potentially could be limiting in comparison to the IB, which is a much, much broader curriculum.


Our Kids: How about your teachers? Who teaches at your school?

Mark Fletcher-Single: Again, they are from all over the world. I think that we do have a majority that are English based, but we certainly have teachers from South Africa, from France, from Italy. That’s literally a very broad spread. And we have a lot of new colleagues who might be English but have had experience teaching all over the world in international schools. Some teachers live on campus, but very few. The colleagues that live on campus are our pastoral team who look after the students pastorally as opposed to academically.

Extracurricular activities and facilities

Our Kids: Because the students are there all the time, I would imagine that they have incredible extracurricular activities.

Mark Fletcher-Single: We are a small footprint campus and we made the decision that we couldn't really build the type of swimming pool, the type of gym, a bowling alley that we would want to build. We purposely state that Oxford is our campus. And with the age range of our students, 16+, we actually have agreements with Oxford Brookes University, the local swimming pool, and Oxford University library to use their facilities. These are phenomenal. There is no school in the country that could offer the research facilities and resources that Oxford Brookes can. So why try to build when you can walk seven minutes down the road and use theirs?

Our Kids: Your students don't have to pay for that, right? It's all included in the fees?

Mark Fletcher-Single: Yes, it's all included in their fees. The only one that the students do pay for is horse riding.


Our Kids:. Does Brexit have any impact on the accessibility of your school for EU students, e.g., Polish students?

Mark Fletcher-Single: Every student now requires a visa, so there is that element. Does it cause restrictions? No. Does it cause extra work? Yes. There's no denying that. But I don't think it causes problems other than having to do the paperwork to get the visa.

What are you proud of?

Our Kids: What are you most proud of?

Mark Fletcher-Single: To be head of school. I think it's a fantastic school. I think throughout my whole career, I've wanted promotion, I've wanted to develop. I think that to say that you are head of school of EF Academy means an enormous amount to me. When you know the school, when you know the students, when you know what you do, to actually then be able to say that you're head of that school is great. Everyone else does all of the hard work and I get to work with them as the head of the school. It's definitely my favourite job I've ever had. It's just everything I wanted.

Three-campus model

Our Kids: Three campuses means three different teams, three different ways of doing things. Is this an asset that you can rely on, maybe exchange ideas?

Mark Fletcher-Single: I think you're absolutely right. I mean, there are three different campuses and by the fact of location and also the courses, things have to be done differently. But it's not about everything being done the same. It's not the day to day that I think is important to us. It's the ethos, the whole package. That's what's important. It's what we are all here for.

What's our goal? I think that's what brings us together. Not the fact that New York does the high school diploma and we do A-levels. Of course, it's different. By the sheer nature of the age range of our students, the law, the UK law, the different guidelines that we have to follow, they're very different from the US. What's wonderful that brings us together is our goal and our ethos and being genuine. I think there was an advertisement in the 90s where it said that it does exactly what it says on the tin. And I think that's us. I think we do exactly what it says on the tin.

We genuinely welcome anybody to come to campus to see it, to feel it. I made a decision to stop open days because I don't want to be fake. I think I'm incredibly proud of what we do every single day. And every single day should be the best it possibly can be. So why have an open day? Why pretend and polish the floors? Come and see us as we are because we are incredibly proud of what we do every single day.

EF Academy New York and Pasadena

In 2020 Our Kids interviewed Jason Kirshner, director of international admissions at EF Academy in New York and Pasadena.

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