Brookes School in Moscow is about to open its doors to children and parents in Moscow. A large, purpose-built building is now being finished off at Botanichesky Sad. Teachers have been hired and fit out is about to start. In this interview, headmaster Charley King talks about the current status of the project, and gives an overview as regards teaching methods and practices.
Interview by John Harrison
Please give us a status report on the construction of your school.
At the moment, we have been advised by the construction company Pioneer that all construction work on the building, internal and external, will be completed by the 15th of May. The speed at which the school is coming together is quite incredible to watch; there are over 600 workers on site Monday to Sunday. As we look out at the building every single day from our Brookes offices, we see an enormous amount of progress that is being made each day, if not each hour.
You have faith in the developers, The Pioneer Group?
Absolutely, because they have a very strong track record of delivering high quality products on time. They have some very large residential projects right next door to us, in the Botanical Gardens area, and none have been delivered late; they are always ready for owners to move into when they were advertised.
How is the licensing process going?
The licensing process is a very complex; we are working closely with the Department of Education and Pioneer, as well as various other government departments in Moscow such as the Fire, Health and Safety services and their inspectorates. The school must meet all of these requirements, but the school has been designed in a way whereby if it is built correctly it will meet all of these legal requirements. So once construction work finishes on May 15th, we then have a window to prepare all the documentation for all the relevant departments. Then we submit our application for licensing, to be ready to bring in the teaching staff and start from the 1st of September.
What is involved in fitting out a school like this? Are you sourcing locally or bringing equipment in from abroad?
The lion’s share of the décor, materials and resources inside the building are being purchased by Pioneer; they are very familiar with international companies that bring goods into Russia for this particular purpose. For example, all the classrooms will be equipped with special touch interactive screens, likewise, for all of the very innovative furniture that they are bringing in.
I should imagine that the situation you are in is quite challenging. You are almost designing your own school; not only where the physical walls should be, but in terms of the teaching staff, as you are starting from scratch. Are you satisfied with the people that you have been able to attract so far? Are there shortfalls, and can you be selective?
The programme to employ staff started back in August of last year; eight months ago. It’s amazing that expatriate qualified teachers begin the process of looking for their next career move sometimes over 12 months ahead of time. So I was in a position where I was very fortunate to have been able to advertise for staff back in August of last year, and I received over 500 applications for academic teaching positions in the school; both from local teaching staff and those abroad.
How many teachers did you need to hire?
It depends on the numbers enrolled, but between 35 and 45 to begin with, which I have. So I was able to cherry pick the best teachers. Out of these teachers I have managed to secure about 40% from existing international schools in Moscow, and the rest are coming from locations such as China, South Africa, Australia, Canada, from all across the globe.
Individual members of staff that I have appointed for September have gone through quite a lengthy process to be part of Brookes.
How rigorous is rigorous?
I’ll give you an idea what we are talking about. One of our members of staff came for a preliminary one-and-a-half-hour interview with myself, following that I sought three references; and following that the person had to come back again and deliver a twenty-minute presentation on his vision for Brookes. Then he had a further interview with myself and my director of administration and the director of Brookes Education Group. After that, there was the deliberation of the decision. It is a rigorous enough process for us to decide if we are right for each other.
And I suppose that increases the chance that that person will commit himself or herself to a longer period of time because obviously, one of the biggest criticisms of international schools in this part of the world is that teachers don’t stay very long?
Yes. I’m not creating a school for rucksack teachers to come in and go out again. So I have talked to each member of staff and suggested that the commitment they should be thinking about is at least three years, and I am happy to say that most members of school have acknowledged that. Although we work on an annual contract basis, if they know that I am going to invest in them professionally, I know that they will invest in the school for a longer period of time. That is one key question that prospective parents ask me every time they come through the door.
You are starting with a clean blackboard so to speak, you are able to have a say on the curriculum?
That’s an interesting question, but before I answer that, I’d like to say that our school is only going to be operating with interactive boards. Teachers are a funny breed! If you provide them with a traditional wipe board, and an interactive board, they will never use the interactive board, it’s a question of habit. And another interesting point is that I shall be restricting teachers’ access to photocopiers. Because ‘photocopying teaching’ is so easy, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. You don’t even need to be a qualified teacher to do it. You go to the machine and you copy 20 pages of the same book, you give it to the children and that’s your lesson. But unfortunately, having experienced so much teaching in Moscow already, it still happens. So I’m limiting photocopiable resources in Brookes Moscow. To answer your question – I can implement my own curriculum up to a point. But it’s Brookes Education Groups’ philosophy, which I have bought into; that is the International Baccalaureate programme, which is the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme, and the Diploma Programme. At the moment we are a candidate IB school, however when we receive our accreditation we will be the only international school in Moscow that operates all three aspects of the IB programme. This gives me the opportunity to bring young children as early as four years old into a consistent curriculum, and out the other side which allows them access to over 6,000 universities in the world.
Can the IB course material be localized?
Yes, we don’t have to follow a strict syllabus such as the Cambridge syllabus in English for example, we don’t have to study certain books, we can take ownership of our own curriculum, we can make sure that we offer a broad range of curriculum opportunities within the IB programme, so we are not limited in this respect. What this also allows us to do, is to raise academic standards because certain curriculums, I refer mainly to the British curriculum, can be quite restrictive. A lot of them also are ‘learn and recite;’ children are going through a process of learning for the purpose of taking an exam at the end of it. So our approach is going to be very different. We want the high academic standards, and we want the children to be able to have an enquiry-based approach to their learning. When I grew up, I learned that two plus two equals four. What I want children at Brookes to do is to look at the number and think what could make that number up. Not to purely accept the fact that two plus two equal four but to look for other possibilities to create that particular answer. This has a knock-on effect in the workplace after university; then you’ve got an employee who is not questioning you to be awkward, but is questioning you for a good reason, because he or she may be able to see things in a different way, in a more effective way.
This approach could develop lateral thinking?
Does the change in the environment we are in at the moment mean anything for the school?
We are an international school operating in Moscow. Therefore, as an international school in this country we will respect Russian culture and Russian values. This is important to us. But at the same time, we will offer a truly international education, whether that is for the large mix of a students from across the globe, to local Russian students who will attend our school, or for expats who decide to remain in Moscow or come to Moscow. We will remain a truly international school, open to everyone who wants to experience an international education. And that is what is important to us.