Running an international school in Hong Kong has been a rollercoaster this year, but Mark Steed is upbeat about the future
Like much of the rest of the world, the past year in Hong Kong has been – to say the least – somewhat eventful.
Political protests shut down the city last November and Covid struck at the end of January, turning lives upside down. And this summer, a new “security law” was imposed in the region, prompting further tensions with the West and creating fear and uncertainty.
But amid all this, the Kellett School – led by principal and chief executive Mark Steed – has continued to serve its 1415 students across two primaries and a secondary section through online and face-to-face learning.
The British international school’s initial experience of closure during the November protests, he says, put the school “in the vanguard” of online learning. So when Covid struck Hong Kong in January, the school was better prepared than most around the world.
Staff created protocols for live online lessons, such as not allowing students to attend lessons in their pyjamas or in their bedrooms.
“We’d actually done a lot of the work which I think put Kellett in a very strong position,” says Steed. “We ended up sharing a lot of our stuff, a lot of other schools got in touch, friends in the UK got very interested in it. Then also how to reopen, which we did in May. A lot of that we wrote up, documented and shared across the world and I think it was generally appreciated.”
But while it has been a particularly challenging time, Steed is still upbeat about his plans for developing the school, which was founded in 1976 to serve the ex- pat community.
“Academically we’re probably in the top two or three British international schools in the world, we’re really quite an academic school but Hong Kong is quite an academic town. But it’s not only about getting those academic results, it’s about having a strong ethos, an enrichment co-curricular programme and very high levels of pastoral care. It’s about having that broader base and heading into the wider aspects of education – we’ve just started a Sixth Form Mini-MBA programme, for example.”
“I’ve felt the benefits of working with staff from diverse backgrounds.”
He also stresses the importance of “positive education” an ethos that focuses on students learning mental skills, resilience, time management and “how you face up to life”, he says.
He also speaks excitedly about the challenges and opportunities leading an international school has brought him personally and professionally.
“Every context has its own challenges…as a school leader you’ve got to get your head around things like employment law, benefits work differently. In a funny sort of way you’ve got a duty of care to the staff in the same way that you do if you’re running a boarding school…you’ve got to help settle people in you’ve got to help families move, you’ve got to sort out their visas, you’ve got to help them get through quarantine now. That’s very different.”
Recruitment and retention are also a little different abroad, with teachers on shorter contracts and large salaries of over £100,000 for those at the top of the teacher pay scale. Unsurprisingly, recruitment is rarely a problem. Steed says that one advantage of working at Kellett has been learning – in practice rather than in theory – the benefits of diversity in school management.
“The people I work with, there’s much greater diversity in terms of social background and in terms of their educational background. My first proper job was working at Radley where there might have been half a dozen people out of seventy on the staff who didn’t have Oxbridge degrees. Most had Oxbridge blues. So that’s drawing on a very narrow pool; here in my senior management team I’ve got people who trained in UK, Australia, and Holland, between the eight of us we’ve taught in 14 countries.
“So when you have a discussion around the table you have a discussion that’s borne out of international diversity, ethnic diversity…that’s where I’ve shifted, seeing the benefit of diversity. You can sit there and spout diversity…I was an RS teacher I could do it in style, but when you actually live abroad you see it in action, you see it in the classroom…”
But does this diversity also sometimes create friction?
“There are the two attitudes to tension,” he says. “It can be a tug-of-war or it can be the thing that holds up the tent. What you want are people who will challenge ideas around the table and that makes you stronger.”
“Covid has brought home the fact you’re a long way from home.”
Personally, joining Kellett came from Steed’s desire to enjoy an adventure and new challenge while he is still young enough, after years working in UK boarding schools. First, he did a four-year stint as director of JESS Dubai, then Kellett beckoned 14 months ago.
“My wife and I just took the view that when we eventually retire and are sitting around at least we will have done some interesting stuff in life.
But despite the buzz of working abroad, it is an opportunity which comes at a “personal price” too, he says.
“You can’t be at all your mates’ weddings or funerals, you miss stuff. My parents are elderly, it’s tough knowing that they’re getting old and slowing down and the times I have with them become unbelievably valuable. A lot of people play up how wonderful it is teaching abroad…but Covid has brought home the fact you’re a long way from home.”
Working abroad can also create challenges.
In Hong Kong, the new “national security law”, passed in June, threatens freedom of expression and brings the city into closer alignment with mainland China. “Nobody really knows what the law means for schools…one of the things that we will really hold out for is that we can teach a liberal western curriculum. Having said that, the history teachers have said that they would feel more comfortable teaching Russia rather than Maoist China for A-level this year.
“I think Hong Kong has an ability to bounce back.”
“I’m happy to support their decision, it could be seen as being unnecessarily contentious to choose the China options in the present context: the students are still going to get a good education as there are lots of other good options at history A-level.
He says he was far more uncomfortable in Dubai, where schools are not allowed to teach the Holocaust – a subject that is non-negotiable in the UK. “Given that the Third Reich plays such as central role in twentieth century history syllabi, it meant your options at GCSE were really quite limited,” he says.
Despite these concerns, Steed does not believe the new security law and increasing tensions between the UK and China will put new staff off coming. “I think you have to be respectful of the context of which you’re working,” he says.
And what of Hong Kong, does he see it remaining a powerful business centre popular with ex-pat families looking for top-flight British schooling?
“I think Hong Kong has an ability to bounce back,” he says, “It’s quite a resilient city.”