Founded in 1855, the Telegraph is a major national newspaper in the UK. Chris Whittle, our Chairman and CEO, was recently interviewed by Simon Usborne of The Telegraph. In the interview, Chris outlined our vision for a modern school, built upon years of planning and his experience in education reform. We reprint this article below to share more details about Chris’ 50-year career and our plans for Whittle School & Studios.
It has been a long journey for Chris Whittle from small-town Tennessee to Claridge’s, where he is laying out his vision over the chicken pie.
He started in publishing, eventually turning the University of Tennessee magazine that he had founded into a major media company. Whittle Communications, as it became, employed 1,200 people at its peak and acquired Esquire in 1979. Whittle then became a figure in the US charter school movement (analogous to academy schools in Britain) before co-founding Avenues.
Now, Whittle is planning to open 30 schools in major cities, including London, over the next decade. The first two outposts of Whittle School and Studios, in the United States and China, will welcome pupils this September.
He and his team have spent the past four years developing his proto¬type for the perfect school – one fit for a global future after what he views as decades of educational inertia. “There’s an old joke in US school reform that the only thing you’d recognise in the 15th century is your school and your church, and they were often the same place,” he says.
Students at the first campuses, in Washington, DC, and China’s tech megacity Shenzhen, ought to notice a difference straight away. All that investment – from private equity groups, banks and individuals – has given Whittle the freedom to think big. He recruited Renzo Piano to create new buildings and convert existing sites. The Italian giant of architecture behind the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Shard in London brought his fondness for transparency to the designs.
In Shenzhen, two eight-storey blocks clad in glass lie either side of a tree-lined boulevard. More trees fringe open spaces on the roof, and each building centres on an airy piazza. Inside, rooms have at least two walls of glass and desks are arranged in circles. “Classrooms still tend to be closed boxes,’ Whittle says. ‘You can stand in one side of our school and see all the way through it.”
As well as the modern facilities, a new curriculum has been elaborately prepared, free from what Whittle’s team of teachers see as the strictures of qualifications such as A levels.
“The best parts of education are the wonderful experiences children can have through deep research and project work,” says Jim Hawkins, who resigned as headmaster of Harrow last year to become vice-chancellor at Whittle, or the company’s ‘head of heads’. Hawkins is talking by telephone from Shenzhen. “The parents I’m talking to are also aware of the inadequacies of conventional frameworks.”
Hawkins cites the example of several top-flight American schools with independent curricula. Universities, he says, are increasingly prepared – and keen – to look beyond traditional grades. Whittle children will still cover core subjects, but will also build up portfolios that might include essay and poetry prizes, or engineering certificates completed within industries.
Wednesdays will be expeditionary – or ‘X’ -days, when, as the glossy brochure explains, a civic-engagement class might run a vegetable co-op at a community garden, or create a scale model of a food supply chain in the school’s workshop based on visits to wholesale markets and interviews with buyers. “We want students to make connections but also study at a deep level,” Hawkins adds.
The schools will also take advantage of their global reach as the network grows, with language immersion and time spent on other campuses; pupils will be encouraged to spend about two of their 15 years at the Whittle School abroad.
Whittle is most energised about the advisory system the ‘Studios’ part of his company has been developing, alongside the curriculum, at its New York headquarters. “Go back to your school days and think about how much real one-to-one advice you were getting,” he says. “Often it’s very little other than what’s accidental because you struck up a relationship with a teacher.”
Rather than rely on traditional tutors to do what they can, Whittle is training its teachers to help shape students’ lives. Advisors will meet groups of 10 or so pupils daily and conduct fortnightly one-to-one sessions. “You’ll be sitting down with your teacher as a coach, who will really learn who you are… and if you care about something, we want to feed that interest,” Whittle adds.
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Whittle himself lives in some comfort in Manhattan, with his wife, Priscilla Rattazzi, a photo¬grapher and a member of the Italian Agnelli business dynasty. But he didn’t win the lottery by birth. His father was a rural doctor who served on the local school board. Whittle went to the nearest high school and became a student activist in Tennessee in the 1960s.
Publishing led him back to education when, in 1989, he launched a television news network in hundreds of American schools. Channel One was controversial for bringing advertising into classrooms, but hugely successful. As well as providing CNN’s Anderson Cooper with his first television job, it made Whittle’s company $250 million when he sold it in 1994.
By then, Whittle had attended thousands of school board meetings and wondered if he might do better. In the 1990s, he became involved in the opening of more than 100 charter schools, which promised to be more efficient and effective than traditional public schools.
“Life’s very iterative,” Whittle says before heading to an investor meeting. He has identified the 30 cities where he wants to open by 2030, which include the Middle Eastern market, and he says plans are advanced in the first dozen, including London. “You’re using every experience you’ve had in what you’re doing now, and this is my third endeavour in the world of schools. I’m giving it everything.” 🅦
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Address and contact information:
Chinese Name: 荟同学校
Place Address: 18/F CM Port Building, Industrial 3rd Road, Nanshan District, Shenzhen 518067深圳市南山区工业三路招商局港口大厦18层
Website: Whittle School & Studios’s Website
Place Phone: +86 (755) 26691818