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Meet the head: ACS International School, Cobham

A new school year and at ACS International School in Cobham there's also a new head of school - meet Mr Barnaby Sandow who returns to the the UK after almost 15 years at an international school in Borneo.

Barnaby Sandow has recently arrived as the new head teacher at the ACS International School in Cobham coming from a British international school in Brunei. He’s an interesting chap with a love of watersports including sailing and surfing. We caught up to talk about life in the jungle, Escape to the Country, and what he has planned for ASC Cobham.

Welcome to Cobham! To start off, can you tell us a little something about yourself and your background? 

I started my teaching career standing up to my (marginally narrower) teenage waist in the chilly Irish Sea, teaching sailing to younger kids. Instructing sailing to cheerful 7-year-olds helped me discover my own sense of purpose. I started as a Physics teacher at Abingdon School where I strived to bring the real world vibrantly to life in the classroom while sharing my passion for team sports and the great outdoors. It was there that I met a particular French assistant called Gwendoline. We married and I followed her to Stowe School where we were very happy for a number of years.

It was during our time at Abingdon that my not-yet-wife and I were both inspired by one of our student’s stories about his home in South-East Asia. He talked about the morning mist tumbling over the rainforest canopy and a culture centred on families eating together. When our own little family came along we took up the challenge and moved to Brunei. After many years in the jungle, it was time to come home, with three kids in tow and a wealth of happy experiences and memories.

You were at Jerudong International School, a British international school in Brunei, for 14 years. While it’s also an international school, I’m sure it’s a long way (not just literally) from ACS Cobham. 

JIS is a school of 1,600 students for ages 2-18 on a beautiful 140 acre campus, which is very similar to ACS Cobham, though it is nestled in a tropical forest rather than Surrey woodland. Ironically, I have come back to the UK into a less British school: no uniform, no GCSEs imposed on sixteen year olds, and an even greater diversity in the nationalities of the students. Both are fascinating, challenging and totally absorbing but coming to ACS feels like we have taken the best ingredients of holistic education and a genuinely international outlook and put them in a context that authentically feels like home.

What will you miss most about JIS?

I will miss that community, our family friends, and being able to walk down the beach with a paddle board after work. I am looking out for the next challenge to take the place of the stand-up paddle boarding in the waves; any suggestions are welcome!

How did the move to ACS Cobham come about?

Initially it was an email pinging into my inbox. Normally when the recruiters got in touch, I am afraid I was in the habit of clicking delete. But the reputation of ACS made this email stand out and made me click on the link instead. Then I made the ‘mistake’ of showing the brochure to Gwendoline who told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to allow this opportunity to pass me by. The role that the BBC’s Escape to the Country played in this process should not be underestimated. ACS Cobham is a place where I can see my own family flourishing which makes it easy for me to communicate with enthusiasm to any family that is thinking about joining us.

What plans to you have for the school? Any changes? How will you make your mark on the school?

I have two main objectives as a part of my first 100 days plan.

The first is to get to meet as many people and taking the time to understand their values and motivations. All schools are collections of people, their characteristics and interconnecting relationships. The importance of culture is critical if one is to identify the values that first attracted people to ACS and maintain their ongoing support.

The second is to really get under the skin of the learning. Spend time in and out of classrooms in order to really get a grip of what engages the students here and captures their imaginations. Excellent learning is a joy to find, children so caught-up in what they are doing that they lose track of time and have no other thought than the matter at hand. I am committed to a programme of getting into each classroom to find examples of outstanding practice that we can use to model the next stages of pedagogical development here.

I want to get to a position where I can communicate a vision that resonates with the culture of ACS and paints a picture of where we want to get to. Our aim is to produce caring, effective, confident graduates that are ready for the global stage, and my road map needs to show everyone how we are going to get there.

How do your extra-curricular interests inform your role as head of school?

Every situation is a learning opportunity. I relish new physical challenges and stepping outside my comfort zone, it is only by doing this that we enable ourselves to grow. For example, I have taken up surfing in the last few years. It has reminded me of what it feels like to be a beginner and how you have to work at things and climb back up when you fall over.  We expect our kids to push themselves into new areas all of the time, so we have to be open to how they are feeling and practise what we preach.

Furthermore, the skills that we learn outside the classroom transfer directly back inside to our workplaces.  Latterly, I have appreciated that the lessons about teamwork, communication or resilience on the sports field are a bigger deal than winning the game; though I have to admit I am still not great at coming second.

What about academics at ACS Cobham? Are you happy with the current level?

No Head is ever entirely happy with the academic level at their school. Our role is to identify areas for improvement and work with the team to move things forwards. If any school is content with maintaining the status quo then I don’t feel they are getting their students ready for a world that is rapidly evolving. It is essential that we are aspiring to become a community that is constantly reflecting, planning and then advancing.

One advantage of a fresh pair of eyes is that I can ask why things are happening and what can be done to make things better? I don’t come with any preconceived ideas about how things have always been done. There are undoubtedly huge strengths at the school and there are things we can work on. My job is to create a culture of self-reflection and self-improvement that strives to get every child in our care as ready as they possibly can be for the world that awaits them.

What sort of child do you think thrives at ACS Cobham?

I have brought my family here who are all very different. I have a 14 year old son who is really into drama and the arts and was very nervous about leaving his old life. I have a 13 year old boy who is super sporty and could not wait to get here. They have both found friends with similar interests quickly and are flourishing. I also have a 4 year old girl who adores the nurturing environment in Early Childhood.

My point is that there is not one sort of child at ACS, there is a diversity which we celebrate and an acceptance of difference. The wider society that they will join is not uniform or static, nor is our school. If you want to get ready for a world that is not defined by tradition, monoculturalism or facts learned by heart, then ACS Cobham is ready for you.

Read our full review of ACS International School.

ACS International School Cobham, Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey KT11 1BL. Tel: 01932 867251.

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