MBA alumna a global headteacher

Child in class at Wendy's school

20 March 2017

Former MBA student Wendy Ellis reflects on how the course prepared her for her role as the head of an international school.

The scene at the new purpose-built La Côte International School in Aubonne on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where Wendy Ellis is Principal, is the picture of happy education on a spring morning, as teenagers leave for a gallery visit at the same time as parents arrive for a French language class. Under this facade it is also a fiercely competitive business. 

Providing a first-class education in a happy environment for her 300+ pupils aged 3-18  - many of whom are already global citizens before they leave primary school - is Wendy’s top priority. But she has to remain keenly aware that La Côte is in competition with 10-12 other international schools on the lake shore and a further 40 in Switzerland. Education is big business.

Since she arrived at La Côte in 2014, she has led the transfer of the entire school (then 175 pupils and 30 staff) from the small eccentric building where it started, into the new premises with a capacity of 600+. She’s seen the pupil roll escalate and staff numbers grow to more than 50. The school is part of the Nord Anglia group of 43 international schools, providing education to more than 34,000 students across the world. This represents another layer of scrutiny.

Says Wendy: “Strategic planning and marketing are vital as this is a relatively new school, but so is project management, to cope with all the new systems that have had to be introduced as a result of the move to our new premises.”

This is where her Lancaster University MBA proved its worth - by formalising the academic structure she needs to be the educational manager she is now. Until her MBA, her skills had been developed simply by working her way up the teaching career ladder to the post of Head Teacher at St Anne’s School in Windermere.

She had been at St Anne’s for nine years in 2007 and had coaxed it from the edge of financial collapse to receiving an accolade as “The Most Improved School” in the Financial Times Education Awards, when she decided to resign and sign up to a full-time Lancaster MBA. She needed a new challenge and this was the chance either to up her game or branch out into a new career. Lancaster was in striking distance of her home, and this was where she had gained her BA in History in 1980.

An early strategic planning lecture at LUMS from Gerry Johnson sticks in Wendy’s mind, in which he singled out her experience of taking over the St Anne’s headship almost overnight in crisis and asked her whether she had had a strategic plan. Her answer that she hadn’t, was what he needed to illustrate his point - that a strategy is only useful if you understand the situation you are dealing with, which may take time and information.

Knowing her schools and her markets has underpinned Wendy’s career following her MBA, which saw her move to Bratislava for six years as Principal of the British International School. Here, sound strategic planning allowed her to enhance the curriculum, improve student outcomes and establish it as the leading school in the city, backed by a new understanding of financial systems.

This knowledge-based approach is all the more necessary at La Côte with youngsters leading nomadic lives moving country every two years, but whose parents aspire to see them enter the world’s top universities. Wendy knows the importance of supporting families with programmes at the school as often one of the parents has no job during their spouse’s business stint in Switzerland.

It helps that she has her own experience of having moved from Canada to the UK with her parents at the age of four. She says: “It gave me a slightly ‘outsider’s view’ of things which I still remember from when I was a child. That has made me more open-minded in going into the international education system.”

The international student intake on the Lancaster MBA was an invaluable preparation for the cultural demands of her current post. The team projects put her in direct contact with very different learning styles from other countries. As the oldest student, she had a wealth of experience, but one of the most valuable lessons she learned was humility and the power of the team. Even when she struggled with a course, the cooperation of the team ensured that she gained a distinction.

She says: “It was a really good preparation for me for working in an international market.”

Wendy has a holistic educational philosophy, put into practice at La Côte through the International Baccalaureate programme, which encourages reflection, cultural and social awareness and practical application of knowledge. IT needs to be there, but she is very proud of the Design and Technology department she has promoted and the performing arts collaboration with the Juilliard School in the USA too.

Her passion for her job is clear - she describes the school as a "very special place" - but the strategy she has put into place to maintain its excellence and competitiveness in the fast-changing world of Brexit will have to be entrusted to new hands in a few years time when she retires to return to her home in Cumbria.

She says: “We are equipping pupils for a 21st century world that we do not yet know about. It is the soft skills that are really going to count.”