Principal's Blog

Decoding Brilliance: The Advantages and Secrets of a Small School

27 June 2023

Thank you to the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) for organising a fascinating seminar Decoding Brilliance: Unveiling the Magic of Intentionally Small Schools during which I was delighted to discover that there is a Small Schools Coalition which researches and promotes the benefits of small schools - typically schools with fewer than 230 students.  


The Advantages and Secrets of a Small School

I very much enjoyed listening to Dr Stuart Grauer, Founding Principal of The Grauer School who has spent over 20 years working in and studying small schools, talk about the advantages and secrets of a small school and the extraordinary impact on students’ lives.  ‘Small schools are not less by virtue of their size, they are more’ - ‘The small school difference’.

As Principal of Surval Montreux, an intentionally small school with a capacity of 65, I found myself nodding along in agreement with so much of what Dr Grauer said.  

Dr Grauer talked about small schools developing their own unique culture with a small school culture typically revolving around hard work, high aspirations, respect for others and the expectation that we will all succeed. Above all, small schools instil a culture of belongingness, connectedness and inclusiveness. Smaller communities are more resistant to division, bullying and alienation, and are more inclusive. We fail at regimenting, standardising, stereotyping - each student is an individual.  


Surval Montreux: creating opportunities to all students in our boarding life

At Surval Montreux we are small by design and explicitly create opportunities which maximise the benefits of our small size, rather than seeking simply to emulate what happens in a larger school.  We are deliberate in our approach and do not try to be all things to all people.  

  • In teaching and learning our highly personalised approach to curriculum design and student ownership and engagement in the classroom environment enables us to meet the needs of every student, ensure appropriate challenge, and tailor students’ pathways to universities and careers beyond school.  Dr Grauer referred to being ‘eye to eye in the classroom’:  the difference between rows and seminar tables in classrooms.  There is no hiding in a Surval classroom: all students are called on to be active in their learning and engage in class discussions.
  • In pastoral care each student is individually known by teaching and pastoral staff and proactive communication with parents is key.  In our close-knit community, we can ensure full 360 support for each girl as she navigates the emotional and social highs and lows of her teenage years.  Each student has a mentor with particular oversight to support and guide her. 
  • In our sporting, creative and enrichment programmes we seek to tailor the programme according to individual interests.  Our focus is on individual sports - either introducing students to new sports, or enabling them to take an existing sporting passion to a high level.  We seek to instil in students an appreciation of sports for life, offering them a choice of individual sports which they will hopefully return to for years to come.  The programme this year alone has included cycling, running, hiking, sailing, golf, tennis, horseriding, swimming, taekwando, skiing, snowboarding…as a small boarding school, we look outwards for wider opportunities through external providers and clubs, thus enriching the perspectives and experiences of students beyond the confines of the school.


Belongingness and wellbeing in a small international boarding school

A feeling of connectedness underpins wellbeing.  In a small school such as Surval, we don’t need sports teams, separate houses or tutor groups to create a sense of belonging.  Our small close-knit community as a whole naturally creates the optimum environment for building a sense of ‘belongingness’. Grade levels cease to have so much importance once girls get to know each other, forming friendships and support networks across grades. We are able to be creative and flexible in our timetabling and activity planning to maximise groupings to meet the learning needs and interests of students rather than being tied to grade levels.  

Being niche within niche, as a very small all-girls international boarding school in Switzerland, I always say: we are not for everyone, but for the right girl and her family looking for a highly personalised, supportive environment and approach, we are absolutely the right fit! There is indeed something very special about small schools.


Growing together

As another school year draws to a close, I reflect on everything the girls and staff in Surval Montreux have achieved and experienced together as a close-knit community. I note how many students have achieved beyond their and their parents’ expectations, whether it be academically and/or in their personal development. I witness the strength of the lifelong friendships which have been formed and the genuine sadness of those who are graduating from Surval, knowing for certain that Survaliennes will keep in touch with each other and with the school. It is incredible how many students from up to 30 years ago drop back in when travelling in the area to reconnect with the memories and emotions they retain from their time in Surval. Whilst small in size, we are big in impact, with over 7000 Survaliennes around the world who have attended any one or more of our programmes: High School, Summer and Winter Camps, French Language and Culture Gap Experiences. Surval has had an impact on each girl, and each girl has left her impression on the collective Surval memories.

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