It’s always impressive to hear staff wax lyrical about their place of work – and Audrey Gutiérrez, Director of Communications at the Oxford School in Panama, could not be more enthusiastic. “This school is an asset for the whole nation,” she says. “It was the first British school in Panama, and introducing that standard of education has been a game changer.”
During the 1980s, says Gutiérrez, local firms were keen for their employees to learn English. Malcolm Griggs – an English professor who was on an academic exchange to the country – recognised the need for quality language teaching, so started some courses. These proved popular and, in 1990, he expanded the offering to youngsters, opening the first Oxford School in Panama City.
Today, with Griggs still headmaster, the Oxford School teaches children from pre-kindergarten- to senior school-level, delivering a rigorous global education that covers both the English and the Panamanian curricula. Older students study for Cambridge International Examinations qualifications, including IGCSEs and A levels.
An expanding school
Last year was a big one for the school. In addition to its locations in Panama City and Santiago de Veraguas (the latter opened in 1992), new Oxford School branches arrived in the regions of Azuero and Chiriquí. Today, the franchise educates around 3,000 students, with more than 2,000 in Panama City, some 500 in Santiago and 250 at each of its new addresses.
Maintaining a strong identity, the Oxford School’s uniforms, standard of facilities and ethos are replicated across all of its sites – including, for instance, well-equipped ICT rooms, international-quality debating teams, thriving drama societies and spacious playgrounds.
“Good communication is vitally important and all four school sites are in regular contact with one another,” says Gutiérrez. She, Griggs and other school executives travel to each campus twice a month, while teachers and administrative staff speak on a day-to-day basis. “Marketing has been mainly word-of-mouth. Parents were asking for Oxford Schools in these new areas, so there’s been a community-in-waiting from the start – and we’ve been very well supported. For example, parents of children in Azuero have provided a place for us to teach the kids to swim.”
The Oxford School has also pioneered the use of technology in Panama’s schools. “Our students have their own laptops,” says Gutiérrez. “They use iPads and iPods from kindergarten, we have interactive whiteboards, parents can keep up-to-date with their children’s education online and we’re very open on social media. For older children, we use the online learning platform, Moodle. The children can take the Moodle classes in their own time, which gives space in the curriculum to deliver a wider range of subjects.”
It’s also invaluable for children with special needs at this inclusive school, allowing specialist teachers to work with children online. “Universities also use online platforms,” says Gutiérrez. “Our kids are ready to work with those, whereas other kids have a period of adjustment.”
In all these ways, the school has set a new standard for the country. “This means our competitors have raised their game so, overall, opportunities for children in Panama are much better,” says Gutiérrez. “That is good for us at the Oxford School, and it’s good for education as a whole.”