Now boarding, just like Hogwarts
The boarding school, an enduring British institution, has come closer to the Philippines. In fact, several have opened in Asia.
The newest addition to the growing list of boarding schools in the region is Epsom College in Malaysia. Opening in September, Epsom College in Malaysia is a coeducational boarding and day school for students 3 to 18 years old. It will follow the English National Curriculum and will offer nursery, preparatory, IGCSEs (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) and A-levels.
Epsom College in Malaysia has been franchised by AirAsia chief executive officer Tony Fernandes, an alumnus of the 150-year-old Epsom College in the United Kingdom.
Not for profit
Investing millions of dollars in the project and with zero background in the field of education, Fernandes brought his alma mater to his home country Malaysia through a not-for-profit venture with a number of partners.
He also sees his earnings from the college going to “all kinds of scholarships” —for music, sports and academics.
“It’s not about money. I was lucky that I had a good education. So if I can play a tiny part in giving [this chance] to turn raw diamonds into [precious gems], why not?” he said.
The school, he said, would also increase the number of Southeast Asians who would benefit from the quality of education at the original Epsom, which is thousands of miles away.
Tuition at Epsom Malaysia is 60,000 Malaysian ringgit (P817,000) while boarding costs RM40,000 (P545,000) a year. A full boarder would have to pay RM100,000 (P1.4 million), according to headmaster Martin George. Those living nearby could just attend the day school. Others could be full or weekly boarders.
Located in Bandar Enstek, more than an hour away from Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Epsom is nestled in 20 hectares of greenery with a stunning view of the rolling hills from windows that are almost the size of its walls.
The school obviously does not subscribe to the traditional belief that the environment outside the four walls of the classroom will be distracting to students. It seems to think that today’s education is more about openness and transparency.
“The idea behind the great, big windows is that we want the classroom to be shared with the corridor,” prep school head Jane Smith said as she led a campus tour.
The windows, some of which go from floor to ceiling, would allow passing students to catch a glimpse of what other classes were up to and hopefully be inspired, she said.
The classrooms were painted in neutral shades with understated interiors because, Smith said, rooms in bright, happy colors were distracting.
“What we want students or visitors to notice first when they come in are the wonderful work that the students do… not the red walls nor the blue ceiling,” she said. The maximum class size for the senior school is 24 and for prep school, 16.
Think Harry Potter
Thanks to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” it was not hard for many visitors to Epsom Malaysia to imagine life in a boarding school.
Briana Norris, a head girl and an upper sixth student at Epsom UK, said the boarding school and Hogwarts were definitely of the same concept.
“My family lives in America so when they ask what boarding school is like, I just say, it’s like in Harry Potter and I’m like a Gryffindor. And they get it right away,” she said.
While Hogwarts has four houses, Epsom College has 12 in the UK and there could be as many as 14 in Malaysia.
“My house, Rosebery, has become the central part of my Epsom education, and I think the same is true for all…. It’s the place where you keep coming back to after every lesson, or that’s where your books are kept,” Norris said. “That’s where your support system is, as well. So it’s really a very key part of the school.”
A live-in housemaster or housemistress is in charge of each house. He/she is responsible for the resident students’ welfare and progress—academic, cocurricular, social and personal.
A housemaster at Epsom UK for more than a decade, senior school head Mike Oliver said masters and mistresses were aunt and uncle figures who would listen to the students, guide or ground them, if necessary.
Tutor groups monitor the academic progress and school career of each pupil.
Lasting friendships are often formed in the houses. “Boys and girls who have been under the system … usually find their lifelong best friends in the house,” Oliver said.
Boarding houses consist of single, double and quadruple rooms. Boys and girls live in separate houses.
The youngest borders, the 11-year-olds in Year 7, are grouped in fours so they do not feel isolated in their first year away from home. Those in Years 8 to 11 get double rooms.
Single suites are for seniors who need a lot of time alone to focus on their studies.
Epsom’s student boarding helps foster a community atmosphere. Each house has a kitchen, laundry and recreational and games room with billiards and ping-pong tables.
An Epsom day is very busy, said Norris, an A student who excels in chemistry, represents the school in netball and hockey matches and is a member of a flute ensemble. She is on her last year at Epsom and is set to attend Oxford University next year.
“The first thing in the morning and the last thing in the afternoon are about teaching and learning. And then in the evening, when they do their homework, again it is all about learning,” Oliver said.
There is some downtime, too. “We have this golden period between 4 and 6:30 p.m. where students move to their cocurricular program—and that could be a play rehearsal, practicing for sports team, a debate,” he said.
“Epsom makes me really want to try everything,” said Norris. “It gives me self-confidence and helps me know myself better so I can excel in things I enjoy.”
Epsom students are expert time managers because there is always something to do, especially with the state-of-the art facilities on campus, Norris said.
The art and design facilities include a 600-seat auditorium, recital hall, dance studio, 20 music rehearsal suites, five ensemble rooms and a specialized Art and Design Technology Center.
For sports, the Malaysian campus has three astro turf football pitches, two rugby pitches, three squash courts, specialist fields for football, cricket and other athletics events, a 24-meter swimming pool and a sports hall with 10 badminton courts, two basketball courts and a fitness center.
As for security, despite the 20-ha campus with open spaces, Fernandes is confident because, for one, the college “is in the middle of nowhere” so there is nothing to worry about.
“It’s a very conscious decision. Put this in Metro Manila or Metro Kuala Lumpur, you’re going to have more security issues. But when you’re out here … it’s easier to monitor. … Location is half of security,” Fernandes said, adding that CCTVs and pass locks were in place.
“And the great thing about boarding school is looking after one another, the camaraderie. You’re never alone,” he said.
The school is more than an hour away from the capital but just 15 minutes away from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal.
Fernandes said there would definitely be partnerships between the school and his airline company in terms of flying students from other countries, for example.
As Epsom College in Malaysia opens in September with around 200 students and a starting teaching faculty of more than 30, Fernandes is setting his sights on a bolder vision.
“My dream is for people in the UK to come here because Asia’s going to own the world. The numbers are a fact. There will be a time when people would want to have an education in Asia.”
By then, the boarding school tradition would have ceased to be British and have become global.
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