At a time when so much of the news is dominated by stories about disharmony, it is refreshing to listen to the thoughts of Pascale Hertay. She is the director of BEPS International School in Brussels and embraces families from different cultural backgrounds.
“We encourage our community,” she states, “to discover the richness of our differences and value the contributions that they bring with them.”
The Belgian-born head also has some particularly innovative thoughts on education, particularly the creative curriculum employed at BEPS, which, among other things, aims to cultivate “international mindedness.”
She grew up and studied in Belgian in “very good but very traditional” schools, starting her career teaching in special education and primary schools here.
“Then I followed my husband abroad, and it opened a new world to me, the world of International Schools,” she declares.
Firstly, as a parent since her three children attended international schools where the language of instruction was English, although they spoke only French at home.
Secondly, Hertay worked in many different types of international schools with a variety of curriculum: British, American, French and then with an international curriculum. She lived in places such as Abu Dhabi and Cairo, with cultures very different from Belgium and had to learn new languages, including Arabic and Dutch.
As she developed in the international school environment, it was evident, she says, she could “never go back” to a national type of school: “I believe we provide the best learning opportunities for children in international schools.”
There are two specific areas in which she became particularly knowledgeable: the first being when she worked at the International School of The Hague (ISH), where she developed a programme based on language acquisition and children who are bi/multi-lingual learners.
The second was in the International Primary Curriculum (IPC), which is used as the curriculum at BEPS.
“In 2003 the ISH was one of only 15 schools in the world using the IPC curriculum. Now there are more than 3,000 schools using it, including a growing number in the Netherlands and UK.”
“Since we were one of the first schools to use this curriculum, we were piloting the new development and were the first school ever to go through the accreditation process.”
She became a trainer for IPC and joined their accreditation team.
She arrived at BEPS, located on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, in January 2014 all too happy to apply her experience to her new responsibilities.
BEPS International School in Brussels
BEPS uses a curriculum that is “always looking” to provide best opportunities for learning in the classroom and adapted to its international community.
The director says, “We need to have a curriculum that will provide the foundation knowledge that our children need to be ready to go to secondary school but in a meaningful way for our children.”
One example is in geography where children learn not merely the name of the main rivers and main cities of a specific country but also learn about the different parts of a river, its importance for the population and culture.
“The children will be able to use this knowledge and transfer it to any relevant location,” she states.
Hertay believes the world of international schools “is a business like no other.”
International schools do not usually receive any funding from the state and their budgets are supported by the parents’ fees.
“Therefore,” she states, “our parents rightly have very high expectations.”
She adds, “We need to stay at the top of research and best practice. An international school that does not consistently review their practice, train their teachers, take risks and innovate to provide best learning opportunities for children will rapidly be behind and soon disappear.”
BEPS itself was founded in 1972 and, says Hertay, is a “truly international school” for children aged from 2½ to 12. It boasts 45 different nationalities and provides an international curriculum with specialist teachers for specific subjects.
“We made the choice,” she adds, “to keep our numbers relatively low, as we want to be a community school where parents, teachers and children all know each other and where we develop positive relationships.”
The school is located in a beautiful house, which used to be a family home and was not built to be a school.
This, the director believes, gives BEPS a “specific atmosphere where the children feel at home, comfortable and safe and therefore are ready to learn.”
It is, she adds, a community with class sizes that allow the teacher to differentiate teaching and support each child at his/her level.
“We have close contacts with the secondary schools of all types, and since we know the children very well, can advise parents on their choices for the future education of their child.”
The IPC curriculum she so strongly supports is a collection of learning objectives or competences the children need to achieve. It was developed based on important factors including: “research on the brain in the last 20 years” and “the needs of today’s world and what children need to succeed in the 21st century”.
She goes on, “Adopting IPC as a curriculum creates a new dynamic in school at all levels. We reflected on our practices and developed specific approaches to engage the children in their learning. Since we know teachers tend to teach through their own learning style we provide children with various experience to make sure they will learn through all the learning styles including their preferred one. We want to develop confident and independent learners and encourage children to take ownership of their learning and to become articulate about it.”
Learning through IPC, she argues, is not only about developing academically but also to “grow as a person.”
As such, the school invites the children to reflect on their own development, personal goals, aptitude such as resilience, co-operation and adaptability that it believes will help them to be successful adults.
She adds that learning “does not stop when the child goes home” and therefore parents are also “part of our learning community.”
Looking to the future, she says that BEPS is already a well-established school with a “very good” reputation before adding, “I believe everything you develop or put in place should have an impact on children’s learning.”
That is why she wants to continue using her experience of IPC to help BEPS become a “learning-focused” school and to ensure a consistent approach in each class.
This starts by developing the BEPS definition of learning and “ensuring it is reflected in every lesson. Parents, teachers and children should also understand how it translates in the classrooms,” says Hertay.
“We will prepare the school for an external accreditation to develop the whole community and to help us reflect on the opportunities we provide for our children. I believe parents should be a partner in their children’s learning process. And therefore we will be developing communications and increase opportunities for parents to come, visit and participate in their children’s learning at school.”
She adds, “We will look at ways to use our mother tongues to support our learning within the curriculum. This starts by supporting the parents from our first meeting and sharing our knowledge on language acquisition.”
International mindedness, she suggests, does not develop automatically simply because one is exposed to other nationalities.
“However, looking at the challenge for the future of our children, it is crucial to develop empathy towards others and awareness of our own responsibility to make a difference for the planet,” she declares.
The school is looking at developing new projects such as supporting charities both locally and internationally and also making BEPS a “green school.”
This is one school head who does not believe in managing a school and making it the best by staying in the “director’s ivory tower.”
Her approach to education is perhaps best summed up in this comment, “Every day I take opportunities to visit the classes. I am always available to support or work on special projects with our teachers. Most of all I engage in conversation with children to help them reflect on their own learning, develop their abilities to talk about it and therefore to become independent learners.”
By Martin Banks