Bangkok Faces: Cath Okill, Founding Head of Early Years, City Campus, Shrewsbury International School Bangkok

5 November 2019, BKK Kids

When children arrive at their Early Years Hub at Shrewsbury City Campus, they head straight for the bubble towers and teepees in the Sensory Room, the soft play and a climbing wall in the Little Gym, and the carefully planned play experiences throughout this safe and homely environment. They will also find Ms Cath Okill, the founding Head of Early Years at Shrewsbury’s campus in the Sukhumvit/Rama 9 area of the city. Cath tells us more about herself and her journey as a leader in early years education…

What is your nationality and background?

I am British and I studied in Early Years and Primary teaching at University College London (UCL). My professional grounding comes from the English education system, although I have also  had the privilege of working in settings across the world including Sweden, India, Australia, UK and now Thailand.

My career in early years education spans different settings and culture, but my own beliefs remain the same – that every child is unique and must be given a safe and secure environment in which to explore, develop and flourish.

What is your current profession?

I am Head of Early Years at Shrewsbury International School Bangkok City Campus, and I am part of the school’s senior management team.

What are the key skills and responsibilities of this role?

My overall job description comes with the usual responsibilities of a senior leader in a school. Beyond the formalities, my absolute key focuses are ‘the 2 C’s’ – communication and collaboration.

I pride myself on being able to listen to our children, my staff team and our parents. It is important for me to remain calm in all situations, to be reflective, to be a role model, and of course, to maintain a good sense of humour!

I am a firm believer in the strength that comes from collaboration. At City Campus, every decision comes from collaboration with our children, our staff team and the parents. Our parents are very important to me, and my priority is to invest in great relationships with our City Campus families. When we launch new initiatives or policies in the Early Years, I will always do my best to explain the rationale behind our decisions and to clearly highlight the collaborative thinking that has influenced our plans. Our parents are one of our biggest resources and assets – they know their children best after all!

How did you get involved in your profession?

When I was 16, I did a placement in a Montessori nursery where I had the unparalleled experience of supporting a child with selective mutism. After working with this child and seeing their confidence and progression, I was hooked. I saw how important this early phase of life is, and the role that we can play to shape and enable children for their futures. From this time on, I knew I wanted to take this experience and use it to impact many more children around the world.

How does your role enhance the wellbeing or experience for children?

As I’ve  mentioned, the keys of communication and collaboration unlock so much in children’s well-being and development at school. At City Campus, we take time to get to know each child and their parents individually. With 9 Early Years classes at City Campus, this can seem like a big task, but the outcomes are rewarding for our teachers and our children. For example, one father told me that his son had developed a fascination with train crossings. Over the next few days, we built railways, train intersections out of all sorts of things with our children – they loved it and it became a particularly meaningful learning experience for that particular child and his family.

Collaboration between staff also has a knock-on effect on our children. We are always sharing knowledge and ideas across our early years team. Within our senior management team at City Campus, we are very fortunate to have a unique balance of ambition and progression across the school, whilst still appreciating each child as an individual.

We like to say that each one of our children has their own  ‘inner compass’ – we want to help every child to develop their inner strength, to grow in independence, to respond to challenges and to become critical thinkers. These characteristics are the mark of the liberal British education that Shrewsbury offers.

What challenges do you face in your role?

For me, our main challenge is maintaining the balance between keeping our children supremely safe but also exposing them to taking risks, which is at the heart of great learning.

When we were building the early years environment at City Campus, I asked our gardeners to plant a climbing tree in our garden. Many of our children may live in high-rise buildings without immediate access to outdoor space…but they can come to school and climb a tree! It is very rewarding for me to see our children testing out their strength and bravery. There is such joy on their faces when we watch them pull their feet off the ground and step onto a branch!

We are also very lucky to have our own Little Gym soft play area in our Early Years Hub. We have a climbing wall which lets children build confidence, develop their gross motor skills, be brave and most importantly, have fun! Children are closely supervised at all times, but we are consistently impressed to see our children boldly  scale their way to the top of the wall without a care in the world.

What do you hope to achieve within your industry?

I feel very proud of the community we have built in our Early Years Hub at City Campus. I hope to continue to model the value of communication and collaboration. I also hope to inspire my teaching staff to instill a lifelong love of learning in our children, that they can take wherever they go or wherever they are. If we get this right in the Early Years, we can know that we have set a strong foundation for whatever is to come in our children’s lives.

I want to show our children that there is no ceiling to what they can achieve. Every day, I get to see our children taking responsibility for their learning, discovering new things and developing their strengths. This is actually no different to what our students are doing in Sixth Form. I count it to be a true privilege to play a part in shaping young lives, and I always look forward to seeing what our Early Years children will achieve as they progress through Shrewsbury.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by risk takers. People who think and step outside the box, and aren’t afraid to stand up against the odds.

Shrewsbury City Campus is a purpose-built primary school for children aged 3-11 years old. City Campus is now accepting applications for Early Years for September 2020. To see this unique learning environment for yourself, please contact the school’s Admissions team to arrange your visit: https://bit.ly/2KmCX35