“School establishment always involves a lot of challenges and hard work, but it is also one of the most rewarding things you can do,” says Peter Kenny, director of Mount Kelly School Hong Kong, which is due to open in September this year, teaching a curriculum modelled after that of the sister school in the UK.
On such matters, he is not just venturing an opinion, but speaking from hard-earned experience, having previously served as the founding principal of Renaissance College Hong Kong (RCHK) and, in other roles, handled essential aspects like campus design, project management, recruitment, marketing, technology implementation, and curriculum development.
At RCHK, he recalls, the key issue in the period prior to opening in 2006 was whether construction would be completed on time. For Mount Kelly, similar concerns arose around delays at the New Territories campus. But solutions have been found and, by and large, things remain well on track for welcoming the first classes in line with the original schedule.
“Thankfully, we have located excellent sites - in the Kowloon City district and Tuen Mun, which will now be fully operational in September next year,” Kenny says. “This offers a new choice for parents in Hong Kong. These are permanent sites, not temporary or ‘plan B’. Basically, the two campuses will offer the same curriculum in parallel from pre-prep, or ‘playgroup’, all the way through kindergarten to Year 6, with the Tuen Mun campus carrying on to Year 8.”
Noting that many parents remain unsure about the relative merits of the IB (International Baccalaureate) versus the UK national curriculum and other options, Kenny is quick to highlight similarities rather than differences.
For example, on graduation, both IB and A-Levels give access to universities in Hong Kong and around the world. Therefore, in practice, they have the same status and acknowledgement. Also, in the senior years, they both have a syllabus with the content and essential knowledge that students have to learn and on which they are assessed.
“But there is a key difference in the pre-prep to Year 8 age group,” says Kenny, who has previously worked as a regional manager for the IB and been head of music at an international school using the UK national curriculum. “The IBPYP (Primary Years Program) is a framework of practice, meaning they dictate how the teachers plan the subjects, the teaching methodology, and the structure of the subjects. What they don’t do is dictate the content of that curriculum, so each school can be different.
“The advantage of the UK national curriculum in primary education is that it actually gives you the syllabus. Parents, teachers and those who are evaluating the programme know exactly what a child should learn at a particular age. It is standard across all the schools in the UK, Hong Kong, or wherever that school may be.”
In addition, this approach allows Mount Kelly the flexibility to offer enhancements to the basic curriculum. For example, there are plans to have daily lessons in Putonghua for beginners, intermediate, and near native-level speakers. That is seen as particularly important in the context of Hong Kong and being an international school.
The new ‘three Rs’ in education are relationships, rigour and relevance
“Of all the places I’ve taught, this is like no other city,” says Kenny, who worked in Australia, Dubai, Germany, Canada and South Korea before arriving in the SAR in 2006. “For parents – and society – it’s all about education. In many countries, it is sport or politics, but here education is what is on everybody’s mind. Parents know that is the avenue for their family and their children to achieve success and security, whether it is here or elsewhere.”
That general outlook augurs well for Hong Kong’s hopes of becoming a recognised as a hub for high-quality education within Asia and a setter of standards.
However, one disappointment for Kenny is that access is often lacking to families who lack the financial means.
“I am a great supporter of government systems and government schools, and have contributed as much as I can to help all children from all backgrounds benefit through scholarships,” he says. “Mount Kelly is committed to that as well, which is one of the things that attracted me to this position. We can’t just have those with the financial means accessing high-quality education.”
Regarding the “market” for international schools in Hong Kong, with its apparent tiers and the pressure to get into the right district, Kenny agrees that the chase for places is likely to remain competitive. However, with more schools opening up, there is also greater choice, so parents have more scope to consider which school best meets the needs of their child.
It also means, though, that every school has to be better in terms of the “service” they provide for students and families and that they must keep improving all the time.
Kenny’s general advice for parents choosing a school is first to pay close attention to the quality of teachers and other adults in that institution.
“The new ‘three Rs’ in education are relationships, rigour and relevance,” he says. “The relationship between the teacher and the student is what really motivates children to learn. For instance, the reason you like maths or hate music usually depends on the teacher you have.”
In turn, rigour denotes that each lesson or activity must be purposeful. No one, he stresses, should be in a classroom wasting their time sticking bits of pasta to a piece of paper. Instead, when at school, every child should be engaged in purposeful learning which is pitched at the right level, not relearning things they already know and not being pushed ahead so that they have gaps in the education.
Finally, relevance indicates that children need to acquire information or knowledge that is relevant to how we live today.
“Learning about the British Empire is not relevant today,” Kenny says. “But learning about the political system in Hong Kong versus China is, so the curriculum has to be regularly updated, especially in a world where information is always updated on the internet.”
As an example, he notes that the Mount Kelly curriculum would not have young children writing or reading stories about taking their pet pony for a ride through the village green. Instead, the topic might be something like going for a bike ride in Tai Po to make it relevant to their day-to day lives.
Class size is also important, simply because if a child is one of 15 to 20 in the classroom, rather than one of 30, the opportunity for the teacher to know individual likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, is greatly increased.
“We focus on making sure every child is known to a number of adults within the school, so no one is on their own, everyone has a close friend,” Kenny says. “Also, our aim is to get some of the world’s best teachers here in Hong Kong, and we are currently conducting interviews with shortlisted candidates for a limited number of positions to understand how they teach and how passionate they are.”