In 2024, BEN KEELING celebrates his seventh year as Founding Principal of Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong. Here, he reflects on supporting students through uncertain times and what makes Shrewsbury a good international school in Hong Kong.
You joined Shrewsbury School in January 2017, eighteen months before its first year of operation in August 2018. What did that period involve?
One of the things that really attracted me to this role was the fact that I would spend a significant portion of my time involved in the pre-opening of the school. It was a unique commitment and a real act of faith, but I understand why they did it. Many founding heads arrive in role just a couple of months before their school opens. Yet, in many ways, the key decisions have been made by that time.
I was the school’s first employee and I’ve been directly involved in the appointment of all others. Our initial vision for the school is a distinct thread in all the relationships we share and it drives all that we do.
The pre-opening phase was challenging, but it was formative too. I learnt a huge amount, not only about education, but about myself. Those early relationships and first experiences together have had a direct impact upon who I now am and what the school has become.
My earliest memories relate to structural planning, architectural meetings and the wearing of a hard hat: all things alien to me at the time. But I’m glad that my voice was at the table.
The school opened in August 2018; what was that first year like?
The founding year was fantastic. Whilst we headed into it with a certain sense of trepidation, everything ran exactly to plan. It quickly became clear that we had appointed extremely well, and the children bonded very quickly. All of the plans we laid early on to generate a sense of community and connection between stakeholders really paid off. We got to know each other quickly and soon developed a strong sense of shared purpose, blissfully naïve of the challenges that lay ahead.
How did you deal with political protests and the pandemic?
The Tseung Kwun O area was heavily affected by the disruption in 2019 and we were pleased to see things settle at the end of the calendar year. I was in Shrewsbury, England, on a recruitment trip at the onset of the pandemic. And no one could have anticipated just how disruptive the years that followed could have been.
Despite the obvious complexity of the circumstances that unfolded, I found the challenge associated with school leadership at the time strangely satisfying. We were able to provide really strong levels of support to children and their families on the journey through together.
My seven years at Shrewsbury have certainly been eventful.
What kind of community has built up around the school since the opening?
We’ve grown steadily over the years and are now home to an incredibly proud group of primary students, teachers, parents and alumni – in fact, we’ll host our first alumni dinner in December and are very much looking forward to talking about old times and how the school has changed.
We are a uniquely committed bunch. Shrewsbury parents want a lot for their children – and I’m really celebratory of that drive – I wouldn’t want it any other way. They’re here because they acknowledge the power of this phase in their child’s life.
It’s a privilege to work in an environment where parents are so deeply committed to and aligned with the ethos of the school. And that sense of collective responsibility provides a real energy – there’s a palpable excitement in our rooms and our spaces. Parents are really involved, students are really engaged, and our teachers are the beneficiaries of this support.
The international school sector has grown substantially since your appointment. What would you say makes Shrewsbury distinct?
We are the only school that offers a premium range of services to primary age children. Our exclusive focus upon those aged between 3 and 11 is extremely rare in a city of single campus through-train schools, but it carries immense value.
Without the distraction of examination output, strategic conversations at Shrewsbury (from the Senior Leadership Team to the Board of Governors) centre exclusively upon the quality of the experiences enjoyed by three- or five- or seven year-olds. And decisions made filter all the way through the organisation. Everything always comes back to what would be best for our young learners and what we might do to improve the quality of our interactions.
Elsewhere, the young learner is often the afterthought, squeezed in somewhere for the convenience of others.
Our academic staff, to include specialist Chinese, Music and Physical Education teachers, are primary trained practitioners; not secondary school teachers working begrudgingly with younger primary students with one eye on their A-Level class.
I appointed a new head of PE this year. He joined us from a through-train organisation. He’s managed larger student bodies and worked with students in their teens. An exceptional colleague, he joined us because of our focus. He understands that if you get the first bit right, things are far more likely to fall into place. Our teachers come here because they want to work in an environment that values primary education as much as they do.
This leads us to identify one common misunderstanding: that the latter phase of education is the most critical. Whilst important to recognise the influence of the IB score and the A-Level grade as a ticket for university entrance, research tells us that the primary students journey between 3 and 11 is more life-affecting. Your experiences as a child shape who you are as an adult.
At Shrewsbury, the young learner is the champion.
Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong is at 10 Shek Kok Road, Tseung Kwan O. Find our more here or call 2480 1500.
This interview with the Principal of Shrewsbury School first appeared in the Winter 2023/2024 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!
Explore more articles on good international schools in Hong Kong in our schools section!