AmCham made the pilgrimage to Shrewsbury International School’s impressive new campus in Tseung Kwan O to hear more about what makes the primary-only school special
Just days before term begins, principal Ben Keeling and librarian Beth McNeilly are preternaturally calm when I rock up 20 minutes late at the newly built campus of Shrewsbury International School, an exclusively primary-age branch of the famous U.K. independent secondary institution that Keeling has overseen “from car park to what it is today.” The background construction noise is a reminder of the race to complete finishing touches before the doors swing open to welcome the first wave of young learners at Hong Kong’s newest addition to the international schools ecosystem.
I expected to hear about how the new building’s architecture plays into the learning experience. But in a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, the two veteran Hong Kong-based educators also laid out their pedagogical mission, the case for why primary education should be given greater weight, and how proliferating choice should end parental anxiety over school admissions.
Principal Ben Keeling
AmCham: Shrewsbury is Hong Kong’s first international school specifically designed for primary-aged students. What’s the driver behind this and why do you think it matters?
Ben Keeling: We are a primary specialist school in every sense of the word: so specialist in terms of facilities available to children, specialist in terms of the overarching aims and ambitions of the school, specialist in leadership, specialist in every way. There’s no other school as committed to this phase of education.
Headlines are made at secondary school: A’level results, great university grades. But if you think about core skills – strength of character, sense of confidence, in Hong Kong, a sense of wellbeing – they’re developed in primary school.
Secondary education predominantly becomes more academically driven. It essentially becomes about entrance to university, which becomes about entrance to the workplace. There must be a period within a child’s life at school where other emphasis is placed.
How do you learn how to develop positive healthy relationships? You practice. You get it wrong a few times. It doesn’t happen by accident. If your primary setting doesn’t encourage those incidental opportunities to engage with other people, when are you going to get it? It’s not going to happen at secondary. It’s not going to happen in the workplace.
Think about the environment they need to be their best. So the kind of relationships they share, the kind of space they might need, the kind of mistakes they should be allowed to make and adults pretend not to hear them. Environment. Relationships. Direction. Space. The environment an eight-, nine- or 10-year-old needs is completely different to the environment a 16- or 17-year-old needs.
Through-train education works in opposition to that idea: shared buses, shared corridors, shared leadership. How many principals in Hong Kong are primary trained? Different age groups need different things. The teaching style approach is different, the classroom style should be different. The experience of those children should be different.
AC: On through-train education – a big worry for parents is getting children into an international system that will see them through to university. Can a primary-only school address that?
Ben: I think it’s a worry that is stoked by the interests of an industry that benefits from parental concern… the reality is there are more than enough school places in Hong Kong for children of school age. Making applications to secondary schools is actually relatively straightforward because Hong Kong is a transient place. Families come, families go. Boarding school is incredibly popular – so at nine or 11 or 13 or 15, you’ve got small but significant groups of children relocating.
Entry into Year Seven is actually far less problematic than entry at Year Five. Competition in Hong Kong is tougher the younger you are. It’s an incredibly challenging position for families with younger children. The range and quality of options grow as the children get older.
We offer a transition program. So we start the transition program in Year Four. In any other culture in the world that would be considered way too early, but for Hong Kongers, who are very used to a system of through-train education, there’s a perception of security – and I would say it is only a perception – in through-train education. “Ah, I can relax, I can sleep well because I know where my child is going to be educated for the next 10 years.”
Now that is something that we can’t give you. But it is arguably a security that I don’t think is of much benefit to many families. Thinking three years ahead, fine. Five… ok. Ten? I think you’re pushing it. And you see a lot of families in Hong Kong within a through-train system moving away anyway.
There’s an entire industry in Hong Kong driving families towards them because they will be seen as the saviour from this terrifying consequence of not being able to find a school. Well, you know, reel off the number of international schools in Hong Kong, call a few admissions departments. I’m, not saying it’s easy, but with good prior planning, good knowledge of the system, good relationships with the schools themselves, it’s entirely possible to navigate.
There are much more challenging environments where there is a genuine lack of spaces of interest to parents. And in Hong Kong 10 years ago the same was true. But now? With us, Stamford American, Mount Kelly, the French School expansion, Harrow School expansion? The environment is shifting. And I think It will take a few years for parents, the community, maybe even for media to catch up to the idea that actually, for the first time in a long time parents in Hong Kong have a choice.
A healthy school environment is one in which parents have the power of choice. And that’s where we are in Hong Kong. I feel far more comfortable operating in an environment where parents have the choice about where they would like their children to be educated, rather than in an industry where parents are clamoring for a seemingly limited number of spaces and feel too scared to leave.
AC: How important is the new campus in differentiating your offering?
Ben: It’s not the most important thing about our school, nor the most unique thing. Yes, we’re very, very lucky to have it. Yes, we’ve got some lovely things. We’re particularly privileged in that the campus has been constructed for primary students… Far more often than not, a school’s campus has been designed for the older children and is therefore used more often by the older children. There’s a section or a portion of the school that’s for the little ones, but most of the goodies are saved for the older years.
Look at the spaces between the lines… spaces that are not classrooms, but they’re not library facilities, and they’re not gymnastic centers, and they’re not drama studios. I would encourage you to look at the spaces for collaboration. The spaces where children will move and mix and mingle together, because our school is about building a community of learners – and by learners, I would include adults in that, parents and teachers – it’s about developing that sense of community and that’s what this campus does support and allow us to do, and is unique in Hong Kong.
AC: One thing that jumps out about the campus is the open and transparent architecture.
Ben: Learning can be seen as something that is both flexible and continuous. Within the classroom, beyond the classroom, within shared spaces. Learning isn’t constrained within the classroom. It’s about instilling an ethos within our organization of the learning continuum – which by the way doesn’t stop when they leave the campus either: it continues on the bus ride, it continues when you’re chatting with mum and dad in the evening, it continues when you should be doing your homework and you’re not, it continues when dinner is on. Children are continually absorbing and learning from their environment.
AC: If schools are about preparing for later life, it can feel as if they aren’t keeping pace with the digital disruption that is tearing down silos at work and home. How do you view this challenge?
Ben: Schools are traditionally places of barriers. They’re made by barriers, hierarchical thinking. We want to narrow the gaps, the traditional gaps in educational provision. Silos of faculty – P.E. staff, music staff. I want them gone here. Library learning, language learning… we have far more in common than we have differences.
You’re really capping learning if you’re not to some degree embracing disruption. If you’re an educational organization and you are averse to disruption, it would be an incredibly limiting experience. School is a place of challenge and thought and rehearsal. And they are necessarily disruptive experiences. Schools should be disruptive places.
Librarian Beth McNeilly
AC: How would you characterize your approach to education?
Ben: You’ll find us towards the progressive end. Not untried and risky and naive, but confident, willing to see the benefit in risk taking and margin management.
Learning is experimental by nature, and I would encourage teaching staff to be experimental and playful with their approach to learning. Learning should be absorbing and fun and engaging, and that’s true for our teaching staff as much as it is for the students.
AC: How do you know when taking a risk has paid off, and when to change tack and move on?
Reflection is an incredibly important part of learning. If you’re learning without reflecting your learning is inefficient. It’s about the ability to learn from the mistakes… it’s not about volume of experience; the difference is the ability to reflect and refine your practice.
Lessons in learning are tailored to individual children.
AC: Chinese-language tuition has typically been a challenge for most international schools in Hong Kong. How does your approach differ? Can you take a progressive approach to Chinese?
Chinese language at the school is delivered to a similar style or approach to learning as all other areas. You don’t travel to the Chinese lessons and suddenly you’re in rows and you’re not supposed to talk back to the teacher, and you’re turning pages of the textbook. You’re learning Chinese in a way that is pedagogically progressive. It is part of our curriculum.
Our Chinese teachers learn, eat with, speak with, train with our main scale English national curriculum staff. Go to any international school, visit a main IB-style lesson, then visit a Chinese lesson: night and day. Different style; different approach; different relationship; different resources; different expectations; different behavior; different attitude. We’re looking to have a much more steady view on how children learn best, because how children learn best is pretty consistent.
AC: But isn’t it the case that you can’t really learn Chinese other than by rote? You have to learn those 300 characters a week. Just ram them in?
Ben: Rote has negative connotations. Actually, rote is a really useful way of learning sometimes. Do it every day and it’s either going to bore you to death or crush your spirit. There are limits to rote learning, but that’s not to say that rote is completely useless. It has a bad rap, but that’s because it’s overused.
In the same way, many other approaches to learning have their place, but also have their limitations, depending on the task, the activity, the subject matter. Depending upon the outcome for that lesson or sequence of lessons, some methods are more effective than others. And actually, that’s the trick of a really good teacher – selecting the right approach, the right experience, the right environment for that specific lesson.