1. International Education Through the Eyes of Sian May

International Education Through the Eyes of Sian May

Published on 12 Jul 2023
Educators' Perspective
Inside the Schools

Education Destination Malaysia had the privilege of sitting down with Sian May, Head of the Alice Smith School, a leading not-for-profit school renowned for its commitment to providing quality education. Sian shared her aspirations for students, strategies employed for nurturing global learners today and her career highlights. 


About Sian May

Sian is no stranger to international education, having spent much of her career in developing education provisions across a range of international schools including teaching and leadership positions in the UK, Hong Kong and Switzerland. Prior to joining Alice Smith, Sian served as the Director of Senior Schools at Dulwich College International in Singapore where she was responsible for overseeing educational strategy and vision across 13 senior schools in Singapore, Myanmar, China and Korea.

Sian finds the stand-alone nature of the Alice Smith School particularly appealing. She not only finds education fascinating but also values the unique perspective and set of challenges that the Alice Smith School offers. Her enthusiasm for the role stems from her passion for the next generation and love for strategic thinking and problem-solving. In fact, obstacles or people telling her that certain problems cannot be solved only fuel her motivation to find innovative solutions.

When asked about the motivation that drives her as the head of the school, Sian emphasizes her determination to equip her students for the future. She anticipates students writing letters to her in 30 years, reflecting on the decisions she made on their behalf over the years. This long-term vision drives her to prepare students for their future in every way. Overall, Sian’s passion, strategic mindset, and commitment to student success make her an outstanding leader at the Alice Smith School. She is something of a visionary with hands-on expertise.



The Unique Alice Smith-ness

Besides being a not-for-profit school, Sian describes Alice Smith School as one that stands out from other international schools in Malaysia due to its distinctive sense of belonging and community. Students, both past and present, are seen as part of a community, fostering a sense of unity and shared responsibility. Sian notes that their students – past, present and future – are viewed as a continuum. This perception galvanises students to feel as if they are receiving the torch from those before them and have the responsibility to hand over the torch to those who come after them.

By focusing on creating a caring and supportive environment, Alice Smith has succeeded in creating a very human community where each student has a sense of belonging with the school serving as a safe haven for students to challenge each other’s ideas and grow intellectually and emotionally. As the students graduate, they leave not only with a sense of belonging but with a wealth of knowledge, skills, experiences and memories.


Educational Philosophy 

At Alice Smith, personalisation is the core of their educational philosophy. Sian emphasises their belief in collective efficacy which emerges when a group of capable students are grouped together. They are able to achieve far more than they could have done alone. She also noted that students perform better when they are surrounded by a capable team. 

Sian explained that the school values each student as an individual, tailoring their education to suit their unique needs and interests. This fosters a sense of belonging, care, and validation, creating a collective impact that boosts everyone’s achievement. The commitment to personalisation extends to every aspect of their work. Alice Smith strives to create an environment where every student feels accepted, supported and understood. By prioritising personalisation, care, and belonging, the school ensures that all initiatives align with their core values. 



“Spark Courageous Exploration” Purpose Driven Direction

Sian also discusses the Purpose Driven direction of Alice Smith “Spark courageous exploration to inspire a better world”. The school went through a 12-week process, involving workshops and consultations with various people to redefine their identity. The concept of courage emerged during this process, reflecting the school’s rich history and the founder’s visionary approach to education. The purpose statement was designed to resonate with individuals of all ages, and to reflect the school’s commitment to making a positive impact within the community and beyond.

The initiative focused on three strategic pillars: “Our World, Our People, and Our Students”. Everything built moving forward was focused on these three pillars. Sian also pointed out that this was not a slogan or a form of branding but rather represented what Alice Smith genuinely strives to be.




As for the school’s inclusive education, Sian noted that they value the potential of every child by ensuring that each one has access to courageous explorations. This extends to supporting non-native English speakers within the school community. The school embraces the richness of having students from diverse linguistic backgrounds, and actively promotes multilingualism as an asset. Sian asserted that the school is open and inclusive and that is an essential part of the DNA of the school.

Inclusive education at Alice Smith School also involves employing pedagogical techniques such as ‘translanguaging’ and adapting learning strategies to suit individual needs and interests. Sian also said that with an understanding of each child’s uniqueness, the school was able to provide effective support for their learning journey.

Sian explained that the school recognises the importance of leveraging the primary languages of their non-native English students, and using these languages as a scaffold to access new learning. Translanguaging techniques are used to enable their students to make connections between languages and enhance their language acquisition skills. This approach not only facilitates language learning but also strengthens the students’ overall cognitive abilities.

Additionally, the school actively engages parents in the education process, appreciating the value of their linguistic and cultural contributions to the community. Sian explained that by involving parents, the school was able to foster a collaborative environment that enhances students’ language development and cultural understanding.



Students’ Success

The Alice Smith School takes a unique approach to measure the success of their students by using a variety of traditional and non-traditional matrices. While standard benchmarks and value-added statistics are useful indications, the school also focuses on understanding the students’ thoughts and feelings through work samples and other forms of student data. Sian said that assessments are not based on grades alone. Students also need to develop their resilience, emotional intelligence (EQ), and self-regulation skills. The school believes that a combination of these factors will ensure that students become more resilient and successful in the real world. While the school wants to give students an edge; it is important to realise that A star grades alone are not enough.



AI and Education 

Sian acknowledged the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and pointed out that while ChatGPT and similar tools have benefits, their use at Alice Smith School is limited to students above the age of 13. The school currently conducts prototype tests and trials through its educators to explore the use of ChatGPT in the classroom. 

Regarding AI’s broader impact on education, Sian predicted that AI would revolutionise assessment models, shifting the focus from cognitive and physical labour to emotional intelligence and systems thinking. She stressed the need to promote children’s emotional growth and human-centred skills that AI cannot inculcate.

Sian also drew attention to a positive feature of their assessment. Students cannot rely fully on AI when they work on a task or project. Their assessments are innovatively curated to ensure that their students do not hack their way out of learning but instead broaden their minds to explore various possibilities to fulfil the task given.



The Growth of International Schools in Malaysia

When asked about the growth of international schools in Malaysia, Sian explained that in her previous role at Education in Motion, Singapore (EIM) where she monitored the data of various schools in the region, she noticed a few distinctive patterns. The schools that are successful have a clear understanding of who they are and their purpose. This experience has enabled her to stay true to the school’s purpose, providing a welcoming environment for parents and students and continuously working on improving things. While the focus on tuition fees and external factors remains strong, the overall goal is to be meaningfully competitive without losing sight of what the school represents for all the stakeholders.



Advice for Parents Seeking an International School Education

When asked about advice for parents seeking an international school education, Sian believes that both parents and children should have a feeling of being welcomed, respected and supported and that these feelings should guide them when deciding on a particular school.

She emphasised that there is no one-size-fits-all checklist. In fact, there really isn’t a checklist. She encouraged parents to ask as many questions as they wanted and if they are uncomfortable about asking such questions, they should ask some more. Parents should feel welcomed and sense a partnership developing when they visit a school. Sian also suggested that they walk around the school multiple times if needed to gauge the overall atmosphere and to get a sense of what the school really is like.

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