Categories: Life

Charterhouse: 400 Years of Tradition and Evolution in Education

When an institution is more than 400 years old, traditions kept alive are the thing that maintains identity and a sense of constancy. This has to be balanced with the changing times and new social mores and attitudes as a matter of survival. The United Kingdom has a rich history of establishing powerful education institutions that have created leaders and achievers. Charterhouse Malaysia is a franchise of the famous Charterhouse UK, but one with the task of developing a school with new ideas and an innovative programme and curriculum.

We spoke with Richard Davidson, Founding Headteacher of Charterhouse International Secondary School, to ruminate on their philosophy and approach to education. Richard has a wealth of experience in developing schools and new curriculums in England, Portugal, Pakistan and Malaysia. Although he acknowledges that good grades and examination success are very important to get in the door of good universities and job opportunities, it is the will and ability to continuously gain knowledge, learn new skills and grow as a person that will prepare a student for the challenges and complexities in work and life. Students need to become self learners and be able to apply what they know to real-world problems. He shared with great enthusiasm and sincerity how his entire career, or passion as he calls it, is focused on helping students develop the right mindset and values for success, and of course, score the highest grades possible.

Richard Davidson, Founding Headteacher of Charterhouse International Secondary School, Charterhouse Malaysia

Human Intelligence

At the basis of the academic programme and curriculum is the understanding that there are multiple intelligences and that knowledge is just one of them. At Charterhouse Malaysia students are prepared to think critically, creatively and inquisitively about the information they acquire. Richard explains: “In order for you to become a Change Maker you really need to know yourself, you really need to know how you make decisions, and you really need to know what your thought processes are. We’ve developed a program (“Spectra Smarts”) which teaches students being smart about people, smart about themselves, smart about thinking, smart about understanding, smart about feelings and smart about situations. These elements are interwoven into the academic and co-curricular program.”

Problem Solving

Problem solving is a critical skill in life and perhaps not something you will learn in secondary schools. Charterhouse Malaysia has embraced the popular and effective method of Design Thinking and made that in another key pillar of their programme. “We want to teach students to creatively solve problems and be able to look at an obstacle and, rather than running away from it, rather than fearing it, be okay with it, and approach it in a very mature and structured way to find a solution. We actually say to them, here is a real world problem and you need to solve it. How are you going to go about solving it? So they do a bit of research, we spend time in the lessons discussing, debating, and finding solutions collaboratively to the problems presented. That’s how they end up learning and brainstorming. They’re coming up with different solutions and then they get a chance to analyse the solution, does that work, maybe we can tweak it a little bit this way. So there’s a lot of reflection and thinking. Design Thinking really does teach them in a creative way to be problem solvers and deep thinkers.”


Another topic close to Richard’s heart is leadership. “Student leadership in a lot of schools is all about having a Head Prefect, Head Student, Prefects Student Counsellors and when you ask these students what is your role in a school, they will talk to you about how during lunch time they supervise the lunch queue or maybe they were going around telling people to improve their uniform. I don’t think that’s leadership. Universities don’t want students who are going to go into their institution and be the policeman. What they’re looking for is people who are going to be creative, initiate new projects, start clubs and societies. The same thing applies when you’re looking for your first job. You’re not going to get a job because you’re good at taking exams. You’re not going to get a job because you’re good at enforcing rules and regulations. People are looking for future employees that are creative, who can initiate, who are organized and who can communicate.”

So how do you develop a leadership program for students that allows them to do that? “We do have a President, a Vice President, we have a Treasurer, we have a Secretary, and they are the senior students. But we also have a Sports Officer, Sustainability Officer, Well-being Officer, Clubs and Societies Officer, Arts Officer, Community Officer. We also have committees and every member of the school body is part of a committee. They have to be a member of one. You then elect a Deputy Officer for that and they are actually 100% responsible for our co-curricular program.”

Guided tour by Nisha Kaur and Aisyah Sophea, Charterhouse Forum President for His Highness Tengku Amir Shah ibni Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, Raja Muda (Crown Prince) of Selangor, during the launch of Charterhouse Malaysia


Since this is a new school there is a lot of room for students to take initiative and develop new academic initiatives and clubs. When Charterhouse Malaysia opened its campus in Sri Hartamas there was no canteen since there is direct access to the mall next door. But students expressed their wish for a canteen or cafe on campus.

“Our philosophy here is that we don’t say no. What we say to them is, yes but with conditions. The condition for them in this case was that they had to put a business plan together. They had to find partners in terms of the catering side, they had to go out and find the expertise to teach them the different things that they needed to know about running a café; from health and safety to finance, human resource elements, marketing, all of those sorts of things. They have to design it themselves. April last year they were ready to build the café. We went to IKEA with them and we bought all this stuff. So they now have a café. We now have a group of Year 12 students who will be going through the process of figuring out exactly what to sell in it. We’ve got a caterer come in and do certain meals that will be delivered and they’re gonna do tasting sessions and things like that.

Now you go to a university and you say I’m interested in business but they ask you, what have you done? I set up a business, set up a café, I ran a café. You’re gonna be standing out from the crowd. More than anything else, if you can then link that to community service even better. The cafe is a for-profit business but the money does not come to the school, the money goes to the Student Forum; the Charterhouse Forum is set up so it can use its funds to do community outreach. So if they can say look, we ran this business but then we used the money we made to do good in the community and here’s an example of what we did right, you’re standing out from the crowd.”

What About Grades?

There is a cliché that Asian parents want their child to only focus on getting high grades. Well actually, only an A will do. The focus is on grades and knowledge. Many will say that all these co-curricular activities sound great, but I want my child to graduate with at least 3 A’s. Richard acknowledges this and shares, “when you try and balance the academic with the non-academic, you have to take into consideration that in Malaysia, and more broadly Asia, it is to a big extent an exam and tuition culture.

And if you don’t focus a good amount of your time and energy on exams then the students won’t get the results that they need, because the grades will still open the door. So every two weeks we build in an assessment. They still have to do a formative or summative assessment which is based on exam criteria, so it will be an exam question, with exam success criteria from Cambridge. They’re getting the practice of doing the exam style questions and what the examiners are looking for because you cannot escape the fact that they have to do an exam at the end and they still need to build exam skills. Parents still need to be reassured that we’re making the right progress towards these exams and that the measurement that we use is legitimate.  We can then feedback to parents every six weeks. We’ve got time to do an intervention, if intervention is needed.

We also have the pastoral system where we have a house tutor who is responsible for 12 students at A-level and 16 students at O-level. They are the first port of call for the students and their parents and they oversee students setting up goals and targets, signing up for different activities and opportunities extracurricular. They are the first people who will support the student in finding that balance, depending on the students’ individual needs and individual capabilities. We’ve got some students who were doing 4 A-levels and one project qualification, plus taking on a leadership position, done an internship during the summer holiday and still maintain A grades all the way through. You’ve got other students who aren’t necessarily as gifted and therefore they might only be doing 3 A levels. So we work with the students looking at their pathway, their goals and we try and figure out what’s the right thing to do.”

Specialist Teachers

This asks an awful lot of the teachers.

“Every teacher that we recruited is an A-level specialist and not only are they qualified and experienced in teaching the A-level of academic program, they’re also experienced university and career guidance counsellors in their own right. Every single teacher that we’ve employed will guide and counsel students about a university career. At the moment we’ve got 120 students. You don’t have one or two people looking after 120 students, you’ve got nearly 30 teachers who are looking after 120, giving them guidance and advice and we have regular meetings on the tutorial side to monitor the overall progress and the stress levels.

We always get asked a question far from parents you know you are a premium school with premium fees, are all of your teachers expatriate? We always say to parents, it’s not about nationality, we want the best teachers. To be the best teacher you need to have A-level experience preferably in an International School environment. You need to be fluent in English unless you’re teaching other languages then fluent in those languages. You need to have a degree as a minimum in the subject that you’re going to teach. A lot of teachers might teach economics but don’t have an economics degree. A lot of teachers teach mathematics but don’t have a maths degree. So we want to make sure that the subject that they’re teaching is something that they are actually qualified to do. Many of the teachers we have do have a Masters or some may even have PHD’s, so they are very qualified, very experienced teachers. They also must have an international teaching qualification. The only exception is Malaysian teachers because they haven’t had the opportunity necessarily to do a teaching qualification that would be recognised internationally. We do recruit Malaysian teachers and we put them through an international teaching qualification. In their first year here they have slightly lighter teaching loads and we pay for them to do the international postgraduate certificate in education from a university in the UK.

We also made the decision when we were founding this school that we would pay all our teachers on the same scale. That doesn’t mean that the expatriate teachers earn less but it means that Malaysian teachers are paid that same.

We offer the equivalent of 10,000 ringgits to our teachers for staff development. They get to choose how that is going to be spent, in partnership with us. For the new Malaysian teachers who don’t have the international teaching qualification, that money is spent on the international teaching qualification. But other than that they can do anything. We had one teacher who went to Uganda to train Ugandan teachers, paid for by us. It’s an opportunity for them to have personal development, as well as professional development.

Another key thing that we don’t do is bond the teachers. Our view is that if you treat people well, they will stay. If you provide them with challenges, if you provide them with career progression, they will stay. And if they want career progression that we can’t offer, we should still prepare them for that because we’re an educational institution. It’s about learning and development not just for the students, but also for the staff, so we should encourage them to go on and do other things elsewhere and we should make the most of them while they’re with us. And by treating people like this, you create a very happy environment”

No Tuition Policy

“We have parents sign a ‘no-tuition’ policy. Now that’s quite an unusual thing to do in Malaysia, but it’s not as drastic as it sounds because it is saying to parents that before you go and put your child in tuition (elsewhere), come and talk to us. We will then sit with you, sit with the student, sit with the teachers, and we will figure out what are the anxieties that you have as a parent, what are the anxieties that the student has and what can we do as a school to put it right. We make a commitment to parents that if you need intervention or you feel that it’s needed or we feel it’s needed, it will be done by the school. I mean when you pay the fee that you pay a school like Charterhouse, why would you then go and pay the same amount of money for a tutor? Which is what a lot of parents have been doing. I mean if you look at a lot of mid-tier schools where they’re only paying maybe 50,000 ringgit a year for that school, they’re probably paying about 50,000 again for tuition. Why not just go to a really good school and pay all in one go.”

Charterhouse was founded in 1611 in a former Carthusian monastery in central London. In 1868, the school was designated as one of the leading Original Seven public schools in the Royal Act, together with the likes of Eton College and Harrow School. In the 19th century the school moved out of London to provide a healthier environment and more space to grow for its boarding houses and facilities. It is a charitable foundation with until recently a royal connection; the Monarch was a Royal Governor of the school. Charterhouse is now fully coeducation with around 1,000 pupils and with excellent academic achievements.

Charterhouse Malaysia, the secondary school in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur is the first in Asia for Charterhouse Asia, who owns the rights to open and operate schools in 17 regions and countries in Asia under a licensing agreement with Charterhouse UK. Charterhouse Asia is owned by Sabrina Chao of the Hong Kong shipping empire Wah Kwong.

Find more information on Charterhouse in Malaysia here.

Frank Nelwan

Published by
Frank Nelwan

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