Sterling Member Spotlight

Alan Stevens, Master / CEO, Marlborough College Malaysia

21 Sep 2021


In 2012 Marlborough College Malaysia (MCM) was founded as an extension – not a franchise - of the celebrated 178 year-old UK school. It operates as a not-for-profit beacon of educational excellence and is proud to have been integral to the continuing development of the Iskandar Malaysia region. Having opened nine years ago with 250 pupils, it has more than tripled in size with pupils from 45 nations, six busy boarding houses, nearly 400 employees and a 5-Star “Cemerlang” rating from the Ministry of Education.

Marlborough’s location and orientation in this catalytic economic project beside Singapore means that most of its work is among the international community which invests in Johor and elsewhere in Malaysia and we are proud to help to attract the nations to Malaysia. As a British school with a global outlook, we offer a strong academic curriculum as well as a huge co-curriculum, exploiting to the full the 90 acre site, which contains our own pupil-run organic farm and lake as unique educational resources.

What are some of your organisation’s proudest moments/milestones in Malaysia?

Even during the disruption caused by Covid-19, MCM continued to be acknowledged for world-class provision and innovation. Operating under the continuous disruption of the MCO, the College received international awards from the Boarding Schools Association, the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), the Safeguarding Alliance and a ranking in the top 2% of IB World Schools. In 2021, COBIS conferred it with international “Beacon School” status as an exemplar of world-leading excellence.

Based on your overall experience of doing business in Malaysia, name the advantages and challenges of doing business in Malaysia.

A pleasure and an advantage of working in the independent school sector in Malaysia, is that it has a level of acceptance and legitimacy that has sadly been lost in the UK where the idea of educational choice has become highly political and toxic. Malaysia feels much more like the US in terms of offering consumers a choice, just as is the case in other sectors, and this is truly liberating in the scope that it offers for genuine ambition and creativity in educational thinking.

The greatest challenge recently has been without question Covid-19, but not so much the pandemic itself, as the exceptional restrictions that every organisation has had to weather during the battle towards recovery. A huge challenge for our sector has been the sudden imposition of public-sector restrictions, ie. being viewed only as a school and not also as a commercial entity. Enforced closure when restaurants, cinemas and theme parks could open in recognition of their commercial status has been a topic of much correspondence and discussion.

What did you do or are still doing to overcome these challenges?

The correspondence and discussions continue. The Chamber has been outstanding in facilitating meetings and our committee has endeavoured to build an effective and broad constituency of support and advocacy. As a global challenge, it is always interesting and often instructive to look at the research and practices of other nations which are at a more advanced stage of recovery. A good place to begin is the premise that everyone is on the same side and working with good intentions, although often with competing demands and pressures; so sensitive proposals and a genuine desire to collaborate usually make progress.

How has your business evolved during this pandemic, especially in terms of optimisation of human and technology resources?

The pandemic has presented a series of stress tests for our core business which is teaching and learning, for our unique provision which is, we believe, the best boarding experience anywhere and for everyone who is part of our community in their own way.

We were extremely fortunate to have already embarked on an ambitious and well-resourced digital learning strategy two years before Covid-19, so we were in a position to move online literally overnight. Of course, we learned a lot from reviewing those resources and our provision over the next 18 months, thinking carefully about the pedagogy of working online and its wellbeing implications.

In terms of boarding, we were very fortunate. Our pupils from many countries largely stayed with us, some of them for a year without going home and we remained open to provide care and support for them. The nature of experiencing school closures while on this Never Never Land of an enclosed, secure community, on a large site where everyone has the reassurance of frequent testing meant that a degree of normality and sociability as well as academic and emotional support was available for our boarding community, which they would simply not have been able to access at home.

Wellbeing has become a very fashionable word in leadership circles in recent months. It has been part of our strategic plan for years and before Covid-19 we recruited a Researcher in Residence from the world-leading School of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania to help review and guide our provision for children, parents and staff. Naturally, this became hugely important once the pandemic began and it acted as a catalyst for re-evaluating, learning and embedding the principles of positive psychology to achieve an emotionally literate, confident, resilient and supportive corporate culture.

How do you see your business growth and prospects in Malaysia now?

Marlborough is in every sense an international school and 75% of our pupils come from outside Malaysia, so that key combination of economic recovery and easier international travel, including Singapore, will be important in the College’s continued growth. It seems like a long time since popping into Singapore was like visiting a neighbouring town; hopefully that prospect is once again just over the horizon.

What are the top 3 reasons for your organisation joining the BMCC?

BMCC was been a superb support to MCM when it established 10 years ago and it remains a powerful advocate, source of advice, connections with partners in our sector and others and provides some outstanding forums by members, guests and government ministers.

What is the top value you see for yourself or your organisation in being a member of the BMCC?

BMCC’s ability and willingness to host discussions with ministerial participation is invaluable. Through these they promote dialogue, understanding and ultimately facilitate a more effective working climate and relationships.

In one sentence, how would you describe your own experience or your organisation’s experience as a member of the BMCC.

The BMCC is always supportive, friendly and positive, building networks and helping business to flourish.