What would an ideal school look like? A lesson from Azerbaijan

flickr|Esther Dyson

Transforming a post-Soviet education system into the envy of the Caucasus took huge investment and visionary thinking. Graeme Pollock finds lessons from two projects.


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“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest” – these words from Benjamin Franklin have always rung true. Teachers make an invaluable contribution to the intellectual development of a nation. Teaching preserves language, literature, culture and spirituality.

Being a teacher has always been an esteemed role in Azerbaijan. Around 2,700 schools were built in the decade up to 2013, and the country delivered wide-ranging reforms and improvements in the way Azerbaijani schools are managed. The National Strategy for the Development of Education in the Azerbaijan Republic has driven further change and improvement over the last five years. The strategy defines the priorities and key objectives of the national education system in the coming period.

The country works in collaboration with international partners such as the EU on projects to develop the first National Qualifications Framework (NQF), the establishment of vocational education and training through the establishment of a VET agency and a significant initiative supporting inclusive education in schools and early learning centers. The new curriculum established is being introduced and implemented in a year-by-year approach supported by continuous professional development of teachers throughout the country with the Institute of Professional Development of Educators (TIPII).

The public efforts in building new schools and providing facilities and support for special education programmes across the country has also led to cooperation with national and international educational centres of excellence. Such centres include the European Azerbaijan School, founded by Tale Heydarov, an Azerbaijani businessman and philanthropist.

“I have been fortunate to be able to invest in the knowledge of others. We have aimed to create something close to my idea of a ‘perfect’ school, which draws on the best elements of education systems around the world, particularly European ones, while avoiding some of the pitfalls which many suffer” he told me recently.

Tale’s passion for education partly comes from his own international educational experience – he attended several schools in Azerbaijan and Europe, as well as university in the United Kingdom. “When I began to think about starting my own family, my interest turned into a tangible project: setting up the European Azerbaijan School”. The link between education and economic growth is widely acknowledged. By supporting the creation and development of the highest standard of schools in Azerbaijan, Tale hopes to contribute towards the country’s future economic prosperity. Investing in the next generation, specifically through education, is an essential element in the development of all prosperous countries.

When the school was set up in 2011, Tale had a clear idea of the central characteristics it needed to exhibit to ensure it was of the very highest standard. The school would need to be international, fostering a global perspective, promoting creativity and innovation and encourage critical thinking. EAS achieves this first through bilingual teaching, in Azerbaijani and English as well as providing additional language options in the upper grades and by welcoming international students and teachers.

As a private school it differs from public ones as it offers international programs such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, as well as other internationally recognised qualifications. The increasing number of schools across Europe both teaching bilingually and offering a range of qualifications is testament to the success of the model. Once the preserve of expats, international schools are becoming increasingly popular among local parents. Many students are interested in studying at higher educational institutions overseas, which is much easier with an international diploma. The school also organises tours so that students can meet with representatives of international universities.

The ‘perfect’ school must, as a priority, prepare students for an increasingly technological future. This means using up-to-date resources in the classroom and giving students access to an Information Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure. It also means training teachers in the most recent educational developments, equipping them to pass on knowledge to the next generation.

The Azerbaijan Teacher Development Centre was set up in 2014 with this aim in mind, providing not only traditional subject-specific training but also giving teachers pedagogical skills such as how to motivate students and promote critical thinking. This training must be flexible, and adapt according to global educational trends, for example through conferences and exchange of knowledge between teachers from around the world.

So, what do the experiences of the European Azerbaijan School teach us about the ideal school?

The ideal school should be founded on the principle that children are particularly open to learning at a young age, and that early exposure to interdisciplinary and targeted education is beneficial for development. Schools which aspire to lead the way and act as a model to others must also be welcoming to children from a variety of backgrounds. Those, which charge fees, must offer financial aid programmes to children from low-income families who demonstrate outstanding potential, and EAS provides such a programme.

As we know, critical thinking and creativity are not only developed in the classroom – schools must be places of fun as well as learning. The ‘perfect’ school therefore gives students the opportunity to participate in sports and music, and have the opportunity to perform in theatre productions, to name just a few.

The need for forward-looking schools to have an international perspective is undeniable. Some consider this approach risky, saying that by equipping our students with language skills and the possibility to study overseas we risk ‘losing’ them to another country. This argument does not stand up to scrutiny. In an increasingly global world, to deny these opportunities to bright students would be to disadvantage them in comparison with their peers and would certainly bring no benefits to the country in the long run.

Many students who travel for study and work do return to their native country, wherever that may have been, and they bring new knowledge and different experiences back with them. For those who decide to stay at home, a global perspective and diverse language skills undoubtedly prepare them best for the changing world of work.

Schools that commit to the continued training of their teachers, that use up-to-date technologies and promote an international perspective, are certainly on the right path. Investing in the next generation through education is not just vital to Azerbaijan, but the world over. The hope is that the new models of educational development, spearheaded in Azerbaijan, can be replicated to benefit young people everywhere.

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