How time flies when you’re working in Summer Schools…

Having initially started out as an Activity Leader at SBC, Welfare Manager, and Activity Manager during his university holidays, before working his way through the ranks at SBC HQ, there really is no better person to talk summer schools with than our Director – Will Finlayson. Always on hand to support and frequently picking up the phone to take inquiries at his desk, if you’re lucky, there’s a good chance you may well have heard Will’s boundless enthusiasm and knowledge on SBC already.

This year, Will celebrates 10 years with SBC, and we were fortunate enough to steal Will away for a coffee and a catch-up, where he was able to share his memories and insight into our amazing industry and the incredible changes that have occurred over the past decade.


What was your first impression of SBC 10 years ago?

So when I turned up for my first day at SBC, it was a job while I was at university during the holidays. I remember arriving, and it was fantastic meeting such a wide range of different staff members. I was doing sports coaching at the time, so it was a really nice opportunity to come in, learn about doing something in a residential environment, and meet a group of really like-minded people. When the kids arrived, it was incredible. I’d never seen so many people from different countries all in one place, coming together in such a short space of time. And it was just a really exciting, vibrant environment that I’d never really seen the likes of before, and I instantly fell in love with the idea of summer schools. There’s so much magic to it. Unless you’ve done it, you can’t necessarily describe it to people. It’s a truly special space.

How do you feel the landscape of summer schools has changed over the past ten years?

My first summer school was actually 15 years ago, and since then, I’d say it has changed a huge amount. Back when I first started, all of our students were studying General English, and improving their language level was very much the primary focus. Fast forward to today, less than half of our students study a General English course. The majority of our students are now studying a subject through the CLIL methodology. This means they can experience a subject and use that as the medium through which they’re learning the English language. Due to the change in the English language level among our students and the fact they want to keep coming back, we have had to come up with something different for students, which has led to the exciting range of academic courses that we have today.

What is it about summer schools that still excites you?

I think the thing that has always excited me, and I think will continue to excite me, is the idea that you can walk onto campus, and there will be students from so many different nationalities at any time there. You genuinely have students from all over the world coming together into this global community. And I just think there’s something incredibly special about that. The internet has obviously enabled young people to be global citizens, but for me, the human connection of global citizenship will always be really important. The fact that you can have students come together from very different backgrounds, holding different belief systems, holding different values, and come together and find commonality is really special. I think when we see all the various conflicts going on in the world, enabling and encouraging young people to be global citizens and to make friends and connections across borders is an incredibly important aspect of what we do.

As a parent, what qualities in a summer school would you look for?

A really interesting question. So I’ve obviously got two young kids, a five-year-old and a three-year-old, so a little bit young for summer school yet, but it definitely being a parent has an influence. There are quite a lot of us now who have families, and the pastoral side of our schools has always been something that we’ve been very proud of and has been a real focus. I think, as a parent myself, that focus is very clear. There’s no greater responsibility than looking after someone else’s child. And I think when you’re a parent yourself, that just comes into even sharper focus. It’s amazing that parents trust us to look after their young people, and we want to make sure that when they come, not only are they safe and secure and well looked after, but they have a truly memorable, life-affirming experience.

What advice would you give to students coming to summer school for the first time to help them make the most of their time?

I think it’s about coming in with a really open mindset and trying to speak to everyone. You’re going to meet some amazing other young people from all around the world, and there’s an opportunity to connect on a very human level and spend time together and enjoy each other’s company. This gives you the chance to be away from screens and to explore all the amazing things our locations have to offer. I’d say, really make the most of that social aspect of the time while you’re with us because we have students who have made friends for life. I know groups of students who still, every year, go and meet up. They’re too old to come back and regroup at our summer schools now; they’re all at universities around the world. But each summer, they come back together in different countries to talk about how they’re doing, and they’re still in touch and connecting throughout the year. At SBC, there’s a genuine opportunity to make a global network of friendships that truly will last a lifetime.

What do you think the importance and impact of summer schools on students are today?

Again, this is something that has really changed during my time at summer school because I think originally, if you’d asked about the perks of a summer school, it would have been to come to England to learn English and improve English language skills. Now, while I think that is still an important factor for many of our students, and it still remains one of the benefits of our courses, I think as we come out of COVID and the impact that that has had on young people, I believe summer schools hold a really special place for a whole myriad of reasons. But the biggest one for me is that it’s an opportunity for young people to come away and be seen for who they are today as an individual, to step away from friendship groups who they may have known for a long time and just to come and really step in and meet people who will see them as the person that they are today.

I also think that as the pressure on schools increases around examination results and getting into prestigious universities, as a summer school, we’re obviously not bound by exams, which is such a refreshing change for students. We don’t have a national curriculum that we have to follow. So we have the ability to design our courses with the pure intention of motivating students and helping them to find a spark, something that they love and want to pursue in the future. We have the ability to take students beyond the curriculum that they experience in their schools and try things that are really exciting and new, to inspire them to go on to study or pursue a career in the future. I think the importance of summer school has never had the potential to be as meaningful as it does now.

What are you most proud of at SBC over the past ten years?

So I think there are two things that really stand out for me. The first is when we achieved and became the first multi-campus summer school to achieve the 15 out of 15 areas of strength in the British Council inspection. That was a very special moment that just showed the quality that we had grown in SBC, and then to be recognized by the UK’s number one summer school based on that… I think it’s something that I’m incredibly proud that we as a group achieved.

More holistically, the thing that I’m most proud of is everyone who’s worked for SBC during that time and who dedicates themselves to making the student experience so special. I think we’ve got just the most amazing family of staff, both all year round and during the summer, and they’re really the people who make these experiences for the young people who come and join them, but also for me as the person leading the organisation. The people would be the thing that I’m most proud of.

What are you excited about for this coming year?

I think I’m really excited that this is sort of the first year post-COVID where I think we’ll be running with kids being back in a normal environment. The travel restrictions are all gone now, which is great. And I think having people come having had a whole year of living much more normal lives will make such a big difference. I think it’s really exciting coming into the courses that the young people are just going to be able to be young people again and have a truly great experience. What I’m really excited about is having even more nationalities on campus this year. We still had students from 100 different countries last year, and that number will be even higher this year as restrictions ease in some places and everyone can freely travel again.

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