Chris Seal: Tanglin’s New Head of Senior

As he enters his second term as Head of Senior School at Tanglin Trust School, Chris Seal talks to about how Tanglin combines the strengths of both UK independent and international schools.
Chris Seal: Tanglin’s New Head of Senior
By Carli Allan
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“Tanglin’s academic record is as strong as the very best UK independent schools,” says Chris Seal, the new Head of Senior School at Tanglin Trust School. As he settles into his role leading one of Singapore’s highest-achieving and oversubscribed senior schools, the school, he says, will not be sitting back to rest on its laurels however. Instead Mr Seal is relishing the opportunity to lead the continued evolution of a senior school with a strong reputation for academics, well-rounded students, and a unique choice of pathways.

Born in London, and educated at a state grammar school in Kent, Chris graduated from Loughborough University in 1994 with Joint Honours in English and Physical Education and Sports Science before going on to complete a PGCE in Physical Education and History.

Formerly Principal at Shrewsbury International School Bangkok and Deputy Head at Millfield in the UK, Chris has brought with him the experience of leading an export of an elite UK boarding school and a leading UK day and boarding school with huge sporting achievements.

As Chris enters his second term at Tanglin, he talks to about why people make a great school, whether GCSEs should be scrapped, and the lessons he learnt from his own education in 1980s Britain.

Discover why Tanglin won the 2022 WhichSchoolAdvisor Award for Best School for a Post-16 Education. Click here.

Tanglin Trust is the winner of numerous Which Media awards. Where is does not win outright, it comes highly recommended in the categories it is entered for. 

Prior to joining Tanglin you were Principal at Shrewsbury International School Bangkok and Deputy Head at Millfield in the UK. What strengths of both the UK independent sector and the international schools’ sector do you see in Tanglin?

Tanglin is the oldest British International school in Southeast Asia. Established in 1925, it has been the benchmark of outstanding education in the region for some time. Certainly, as Principal at Shrewsbury we aspired to be as good as Tanglin in areas such as sustained academic excellence, a broad and deep curriculum offering, and an engaging range of opportunities outside the classroom. 

The real value of independent schools is exactly that – independence. Independence to set an ethos that benefits the students and deliver world class education without the constraints of national systems.

It is clear that Tanglin has all these features, and I am now privileged to develop them further on behalf of our students.

Having started your first year at Tanglin, what would you list as the top five outstanding features of the school?

The people are at the top of my list.  

The students are co-operative, collaborative, and confident. They show the school’s values of respect, responsibility, and purpose daily and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know them and their warm welcome has been much appreciated.  They are supported by aspirational parents who work with the school to deliver a great experience for all. Having sat in a lot of lessons over the first term I can also say that the quality of the teaching staff is superb and ably supported by a strong cohort of middle leaders. By recently refreshing the Senior School Leadership team, we’ve added significantly to the capabilities of the school’s leadership.  

These three groups of people build a strong community of learners who achieve remarkable outcomes and not just in the examinations. Being the only school in Singapore to offer the dual pathway of A Levels or IB through the Sixth Form offers students an unparalleled academic opportunity, but in addition to this the school is always busy with enrichment activities, sport, music and drama. It really is a thriving and welcoming environment. 

I’m not sure if that qualifies as my five, but I could easily add superb pastoral care, great facilities, and excellent governance.

After your first term in Singapore, what do you find to be the main differences and similarities between international schools in Thailand and Singapore?

The main difference between Tanglin and my previous school is the broader range of backgrounds the students have. The expatriate scene is much smaller in Bangkok and consequently most international schools there serve the local Thai market, a strong and thriving sector which accounts for 80% of students at some schools. 

The expatriate scene in Singapore and the regulations pertaining to Singaporean students mean that, Tanglin and other international schools won’t have nearly such a substantial group of ‘home’ students. Interestingly, though I’m not sure that makes too much difference in terms of what the schools try to deliver, the aspiration at Shrewsbury is very similar to Tanglin. However, it did mean ‘take up’ for some subjects at IGCSE and A Level in Bangkok would be skewed in favour of Mathematics, Science and Economics rather than the Humanities or the Arts. 

Having worked in the UK, what do you see as the advantages of studying in an international school such as Tanglin?

There are many great schools in the UK and despite some of the challenges that the independent sector is having currently, they will continue to thrive. As such I don’t see it as a binary choice, but instead a carefully made decision about what is best for each child. 

The key difference in international schools is perspective, of course. Living and studying in a different culture from the one you were born into can be a liberating and enlightening experience and I know both my children benefitted from this enormously. Certainly, whenever a family is ‘posted’ overseas, my advice would be to seek out the very best of the international sector and enjoy the experience it offers.

Tanglin is an excellent example of a school whose academic record is as strong as the very best UK independent schools, who can offer strong co-curriculum programmes and crucially offers a new experience and perspective that would benefit any child in their future.

As deputy head of one of the UK’s sportiest schools, sport must be close to your heart. Why is sport so important during secondary and sixth form education?

I have often said that being appointed at Millfield was like getting signed for Manchester United (sorry if you are not a fan) – it really is a special place. My love of sport comes from much earlier however – I played cricket and rugby as a boy and was lucky enough to play cricket in the Minor Counties. 

I know this experience shaped me and offered me the confidence to explore parts of the world and society that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I saw this as a boarding housemaster at Trent College where often boys would draw confidence and self-esteem from their activities over the weekend enabling them to put up with the hardships of finding lessons a little more tricky.  

Tanglin encourages all students to be physically active and where appropriate, compete for the school. We celebrate the achievements of those that do, but equally provide opportunities for all to be active in the knowledge that it increases executive brain function – and if you are in any doubt then read Spark by Dr John Ratey. The new Tanglin Centenary Building has a 50-metre pool, a new Olympic standard gymnastics centre, and an athletic development gym which offers more of these opportunities.

What changes would you like to make in the next five years to deliver an ‘outstanding’ education for the next generation at Tanglin, and why?

It is a little early to be specific about reforms that we may make, and without the relevant consultation, not a wise move.

However, there are some areas that we have already clearly signposted. We will continue our journey to make the school’s co-curriculum programme broader and more capable of delivering excellence in all areas. To do this, we will need to continue to retain and recruit the very best employees who wish to contribute to all areas of school life. 

We are already engaged in some serious thinking about how academic enrichment can be extended at the very start of a senior education and what the impact of this would be. This will happen in concert with an already excellent university guidance team who will be leading the way with more placements to the very best universities in the world. 

In the short term and throughout the next few years, we’ll be ensuring that post Covid we are teaching to the top of our ability and with all the relevant evidence-based practice in mind. This year, for example, is the ‘Year of the Pen’ as we remind ourselves of the importance of writing more and typing less.

Finally, but certainly not least, we are already delivering wellbeing surveys to really understand the Covid impact and assess how we continue to support young people moving forward through our impressive Coordinated Wellbeing Services.

Facilities in the new Tanglin Centenary Building include a 50-metre swimming pool.

The Tanglin Centenary Building opens in January 2023. How will the new facilities improve your Senior and Sixth Form education?

I’ve already mentioned the sports facilities, but in addition there is a quite incredible two-level music facility. These spaces are built to exacting standards and will be equipped in a way that supports the very best musicians (three Fazioli pianos have already arrived). Music can be so good for the soul, and equally we are blessed to now have a purpose-built wellbeing and counselling centre in the building alongside a bespoke Lifeskills department with high spec kitchen for those essential university skills.  

We are also excited to take advantage of the Institute@Tanglin’s physical launch, an entity that is already providing much inspiration and food for thought in developing scholarship and creative thinking. This in addition to a new professional development space which reaffirms Tanglin as a leader in this domain.  

As Head of Senior at a school that offers both I/GCSEs and A Levels, what changes would you like to see in the National Curriculum for England? Will we still have I/GCSE qualifications in 10 years’ time?

It has been interesting to observe the recent debate in the UK on examinations and the future of the I/GCSEs. Since Sir Ken Robinson’s ground-breaking TED talk in 2006, many educators have taken the view that the system stifles creativity and requires reform. However, 16 years and 74 million views on, we seem to have made little progress. I think this points to the size of the challenge where education reform is concerned.  

I would like to see more opportunity for our teachers to inculcate a passion for their subject outside the rather limited syllabi we are offered, but until the universities demand reform I wonder where the impetus for this change comes from?  It is curious to think that to succeed in an Oxbridge interview or one for the very finest institutions in the US, students need to show a clear and obvious passion for their subject and that they have done considerable reading outside the classroom – that sounds like a pretty good aim for education in my mind, and yet sometimes this too is stifled by the demands and machinations of examinations.

I would certainly support reform of the National Curriculum and the examination landscape, but I’m also sure that we are not alone at Tanglin in using them as the base from which we then explore a much wider educational landscape already.

Tanglin is the only school in Singapore to currently offer the choice of A Levels or the IBDP, but would you like to see Tanglin introducing any vocational qualifications?

The Sixth Form at Tanglin is unique in Singapore and running both pathways is a complex and resource heavy process. However, we are always looking closely at courses that might benefit our students and, as a result, the rather excellent International Baccalaureate Career Pathway is under some consideration here. As ever, we will consider things carefully in the context of the school and the resources it would require but I do think that vocational courses have their place in any school.  

And finally… What memories from your own school days have influenced your outlook on what makes a great school for children?

Well, that is an interesting question and for me it doesn’t necessarily come from a positive place.  I found school to be an inconsistent experience partly since I was at a Grammar School in Kent through the 1980s when teachers were quite often on strike. Over that time sport in my school was decimated and even as a student we had a sense that great change was coming. My cohort was the second ever to sit GCSEs and the National Curriculum was born as we were in Year 10.  In addition, and possibly as a hangover from the 1970s, school was a rough and, at times, unsafe place to be.

Despite all this, I recall some incredible teachers. Mr Lane and Mr Gosden were simply incredible historians, Mr Hortense and Mr Delay wonderful linguists and, despite the battles he had with resource, Mr Gardner was a brilliantly humane Physical Education teacher. It wasn’t surprising then that I enjoyed PE, History and Languages immensely and ultimately found the inspiration to teach, but found little solace elsewhere.

My overriding lessons then are 1) all children must feel safe at school, and we work incredibly hard at Tanglin to achieve this; 2) that the quality of teaching must be excellent everywhere, thus my sense that retention and development comes above recruitment; and 3) that schools have to be resourced well enough to deliver excellence in the ways so many weren’t in the UK in the 1980s.

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