Principal of CWS Senior School, Debbie Harris

Walking around Oxford University and its many Colleges, one of the things that may catch your eye is a very particular kind of dress: the Oxford Gown. This gown, worn at special occasions, formal dinners and ceremonies is not just a hallmark of the University, but a way of distinguishing the pupils from the scholars and professors.


Wearing an academic gown (robe) – whether as an undergraduate or professor – serves as an emblem of success and excellence. At Oxford, it distinguishes those who have attained the highest form of academic achievement.


Debbie Harris – Principal of Senior School, was not only one of these high achieving, gown-wearing pupils at Oxford University, but went on to inspire pupils to reach the same academic heights. For over thirty years as a Maths teacher, Debbie’s teaching has inspired many of her pupils to secure places at Oxford and Cambridge to study Maths. Some of her best pupils have also represented Britain in the Mathematics Olympiad.


Debbie’s achievements are not limited to the classroom. She has played an important role in Britain’s educational system as the first woman to join the Senior Management Team of Westminster School, in all its 900-year history, and as the first woman to be president of the teaching faculty at Westminster. Her leadership within the education sector extended included her role as Deputy Head (Co-Curriculum) at another of the UK’s top co-educational full boarding schools, Marlborough College attended pupils by Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Eugenie.



Between them, Debbie and Rodney Harris, through their immense dedication and pioneering attitudes to education, have both played important roles in shaping the modern Westminster education from their combined service of almost fifty years. Together at Westminster, they complemented one another’s work, one of them serving as Deputy Head of Co-Curriculum, the other as Deputy Head, Academic. Debbie created a dynamic co-curriculum and excellent teacher training programme, alongside Rodney’s contributions towards maintaining the highest academic standards of the school. A Westminster education recognises the immense value in presenting academic and co-curricular opportunities to pupils, in equal measure.


As the New Year draws near, announcing a very important stage in the journey, we have a chance to hear Debbie’s thoughts on Chengdu Westminster School and the type of education it offers.


Brief Introduction

A Master’s degree in Mathematics, University of Oxford

A Post Graduate Certificate in Education, University of Oxford

A mathematician

Former Deputy Head (Co-Curriculum) of Westminster School

Former Deputy Head of (Co-Curriculum) of Marlborough College

The first female to join Westminster School’s Senior Management Team

34 years at leading British independent schools including 15 years Senior Management experience


Love! Love! Love!


For Debbie, learning, and the joys that come with it, are at the centre of her life. When speaking, Debbie often launches in with the opening “I love…” What is striking though, is that her enthusiasm isn’t limited to her love of maths, which she remarked “makes [her] happy”. It permeates all aspects of her life. It is this love of learning which draws her so strongly to the role of a teacher, in which she has discovered a rich and deep reward.


First and foremost, Debbie considers herself a mathematician. She takes delight in the act of problem solving and the challenge that comes from facing complex questions that require fresh approaches and solutions. She extends this challenge to all of her pupils. In teaching, Debbie sees an opportunity to draw pupils into a new world and a new way of seeing. This world of algebra, trigonometry and pythagoras, should be made as exciting for pupils preparing for Olympiads as those interested in Arts and Humanities. Debbie’s deep-rooted belief that all children are capable of understanding maths, if given the right tools, makes her a brilliant teacher who instils both understanding and confidence in her pupils. Within the boarding House, pupils would gather around Debbie, ask for help with their homework, and be confident that whatever the question, Debbie would definitely lead them to the answer.


Debbie loves Art History. She has taken Art History themed trips to Italy and for the past three years has taken Italian lessons weekly, and spent fifteen minutes learning Italian every day. She now speaks fluently with Italians and has been invited to give themed lectures to pupils and to judge competitions.


As Deputy Head Co-Curricular, Debbie has overseen the development and management of hugely successful co-curricular programmes, providing extensive and enriching opportunities for pupils, embodying the principles of holistic education. Lunchtime and evening academic lectures, programmes in the performing arts, educational trips both nationally and internationally and sporting provision for teams and the individual have featured. The expectation is that pupils participates in at least three co-curricular activities a week.


Debbie visits Jinsha Site Museum in April 2019 to explore Chengdu history.

Debbie visits Jinsha Site Museum in April 2019 to explore Chengdu’s history.



Debbie is a person who knows what she can do and applies herself tirelessly to make sure things happen. Besides believing in a love of learning, Debbie is committed to the idea that with privilege comes responsibility. Debbie spent five years on the board of a state school in one of Britain’s most deprived areas. During that time, Debbie established links including a summer school focusing on Latin classes, enabling less privileged pupils to benefit from the teaching resources and academic environment available at a leading private school. Debbie recognises the mutual benefit that comes from shared resources and collaboration. She is committed to ensuring that through civic engagement, Chengdu Westminster pupils realise the importance of giving back to society and become active participants in the communities around them.



How to ensure CWS delivers a ‘Westminster’ education?



Parents have always come to our sharing sessions and events full of expectations and concerns about their children’s futures. There is one question in particular that all parents wish to know: “How will Chengdu Westminster School actually fulfil its promise of delivering a Westminster education?”


When addressing this question to Debbie, she was very candid. “How to deliver a new school is a very large topic, but I will endeavour to address several main points.”


Chengdu Westminster Senior School landscape


“Only when our teachers are the best, can our pupils be the best.”


Since the CWS preparatory team was founded, many high-calibre job applicants from across the world have reached out. Our recruitment team works assiduously to ensure that we find the very best candidates. This is not only by having a presence on the Careers centres of leading universities in the UK, but through diverse specialist channels both online and offline. One Oxford graduate of exceptionally high-calibre, once laughed that Debbie “would ask the toughest questions in such a disarmingly nice way.”


Upon joining Chengdu Westminster School, Debbie brought her own “Westminster style” when selecting teachers. “Candidates need to identify with the Westminster ethos and put the wellbeing of their pupils first.” She pondered for a moment, then explained that there were no standard answers to the questions she posed. “If it’s really about standards, our Head Master has a very precise explanation:


First of all, every teacher needs to be a subject expert who shows enthusiasm for his or her own professional development. Secondly, he or she needs to be a person who loves learning and keeps learning. In our classrooms, discussion and debate are everywhere, so the teacher needs to have the ability to guide the pupils. A teacher who engages with the learning processes themselves will be able to identify better with their own pupils. Teachers with an interest beyond their academic subject will also be able to connect with, and contribute to the co-curricular programme.”


Those who are able to pass the initial screening are strong candidates, but those able to pass Debbie’s interview are Gods!” was the verdict the team passed on to Debbie after seeing her assessment criteria. Chuckling, Debbie replied, “Well, I believe that it is only when we have the best teachers that we can get the best pupils!”


“One mother said to me, I wish I was a child. I want to come here.”


“Chengdu Westminster School, provides the option of boarding from Grade 4 and expects all pupils to board from Grade 7 offers a completely undisturbed, immersive Westminster experience.” When it comes to boarding schools, Debbie certainly has extensive experience and expertise.


Westminster School has day and boarding pupils, and Debbie made huge contributions to pastoral care, both as Mistress in Charge of girls, and with Rodney in establishing the school’s first all girls boarding house.  “Rodney and I ran a boarding house at Westminster London together for fifteen years. We learned first-hand about the need for encouragement, warmth, praise and understanding within a firm and clear framework. Our experience means that we come to China with the confidence that we can provide a first rate boarding experience for the pupils.” 



Boarding is not an unfamiliar term for parents, especially those who want to choose an international school. But what makes the boarding life experience at Chengdu Westminster School so special?


“We stress the importance of friendship.” According to Debbie, the most special aspect of the boarding system of Chengdu Westminster School is that it is based on the college model, which breaks the boundaries between grades and classes and allows pupils of different ages to meet and form friendships. “We encourage older pupils to set an example and lead the younger generation; we bring like-minded pupils together in a family-like environment. More importantly, we have mentoring support system within each house. Experienced mentors guide pupils through friendships, anticipate conflicts in advance and working to find solutions for issues that arise. This builds real friendships that last a lifetime.”


“The boarding house is an integral part of campus life and the education that is on offer at a boarding school like Chengdu Westminster, learning doesn’t just take place in classrooms. ” Activities, societies and events are held within the boarding houses, blending social activity with learning.


Chengdu Westminster School boarding landscape


“Principals who don’t teach on the front line are not good principals”


Debbie’s brings a remarkable breadth of educational management experience and a record of outstanding success of classroom teaching to Chengdu Westminster School.


I’m the principal as well as a teacher.” Her voice filled with assurance, adding “I will visit lessons, I will remember every pupil’s name, and I will understand and support every teacher in setting goals for self-improvement.”


Not surprisingly, after her thirty four years of teaching, Debbie has pupils all over the world. No matter when she taught the pupils, she is always able to relate stories about individual pupils in immense detail, a reflection of the care and attention she shows to her pupils.


Debbie and the Academic Team connect with the Westminster School China Project team online.


Message to future pupils and parents



When it comes to future pupils, Debbie has a very clear picture in mind. “Our programme is challenging yet rewarding, so you need to have a disciplined approach to learning; Studying here might not be as easy as you expect, there will be some setbacks on the road to success, so you need to be resilient and courageous when facing difficulties; We want you to be a well-rounded individual, so drama and music are as important as maths and science. ”


Debbie also has a message for parents: “Parents at the top of their profession often expect their children to go to Oxbridge and Ivy League, as if academic excellence is the only criterion. The goal of the CWS is to discover children’s talents in different fields and create the opportunities for them to grow. For academically able children, the school will provide the support to help them gain a place in the world’s top universities. But if their interests lie elsewhere – if your child wants to be a musician or an athlete – you will also be supported to help realise your talents. ” Debbie repeatedly emphasises the inevitability and importance of failure. “Helping your kids learn to feel comfortable with themselves, and building good failure coping mechanisms with their parents, is something that schools and parents should be working on together.”