Students must ask about everything

How can you get into the world’s prestigious universities, such as Cambridge or Yale? The international baccalaureate can help a lot. “We are proud that the universities that accept our students are among the very best in the world,” says PETER NITSCHE, the principal of the Open Gate grammar school in Babice.

Students can obtain the international baccalaureate in your school’s IB program, as well. In what way does IB differ from the Czech school-leaving examination?
The IB program is much more comprehensive. Students select subjects from six different groups. In preparation for IB, we mainly place emphasis on the development of critical thinking and on understanding information in context, which is an approach that is very different from the Czech approach. We teach our students to understand issues of an international nature and develop their own opinion about them while respecting different cultures. Such students must endeavor to make the world a better place.

A better place? Isn’t this a quite naive idea?
Everybody laughs when I tell them this. But it really is our objective. Our graduates seek to pass on the knowledge, skills and abilities they have acquired at our school.

Why were you not content with just the Czech ‘test of maturity’?
We discerned a potential to achieve something more in talented and intelligent students. And the IB program was a logical choice. The reason is that it has an excellent and very ambitious objective. Upon completing the program, the graduates must have the best possible general education. This is important. Academic education does not suffice. A social dimension is also required.

What, then, does the IB program specifically contain?
Students have to master six subjects from six subject groups. Which brings us to the key difference from the Czech school-leaving examination. The key aspect is the concept of the subjects. The Czech concept is limited to only the school subject itself and it does not extend beyond those limits. On the other hand, in the IB program subjects intertwine and constitute a common base of knowledge, which the students must be able to use.

Can you give us an example to explain this?
Simplifying somewhat: students must ask questions and they are expected to ask about everything. This is the foundation. If the teacher writes an equation on the blackboard and says, this is simply so, period, and the student is content with this, we will not get anywhere. The student must ask! But the student is unable to ask if nobody has taught them to ask correctly. And this is the purpose of our guidance. We can learn to tell what is good and what is evil. But it is much more meaningful and useful to learn to recognize the good and the evil.

But isn’t it bewildering for the students when they also have to take the Czech school-leaving examinations?
Most of our students take both of the school-leaving examinations, the IB (see the IB program) and the Czech exam. And it’s no problem. The reason is that the IB program is so broad that it contains all that the students need for the Czech school-leaving examination. They take the IB in English and the Czech school-leaving examination in Czech.

What is your view of the nationwide government-mandated standardization of the school-leaving examination? Does it bother you that a governmental authority is preparing the assessment of these exams?
In general, I am in favor of the nationwide school-leaving examinations. It is one of the methods for achieving objectivity, which is needed in the case of student testing and identifying their achievements. It is the same with IB exams; we do not assess the examination scripts at our school at all. The examination scripts are assessed at the international center in Cardiff, Wales, which assesses IB exams from all over the world.

But the Government no longer limits itself to interfering with school-leaving exams. Now, the Government also wants to introduce standardized admission tests at secondary schools. This doesn’t bother you either?
Every school has to say what its objectives are and what its students’ needs are. The school must also be able to determine what requirements it will place on its students. If the Ministry instructs us what tests we should use, I have no problem with this. However, beyond such tests, we will also use our own admission procedure. And so, candidates will continue to have to successfully complete the general knowledge test and the IQ non-verbal test, and then pass the oral interview.

A number of school principals are complaining about directives coming from the Government. Why aren’t you complaining?
What I like about the Czech Republic is that it stills grants a high degree of freedom to schools. Whenever we have needed to do something differently from other schools, we have discussed it with the Ministry of Education or the Czech School Inspectorate, and ultimately achieved the desired result. I have never come across a negative approach. Not even in the case where our school worked on such a complex project as the hybrid system of the IB and the Czech academic education program. True, the inspectors were slightly skeptical at times. But then they saw the results and, astonished, asked us: How have you achieved this? I answered, everything is possible. We simply go our own way.

In the hallway I noticed a tableau showing the world universities that have accepted your graduates. Do you try to keep in touch with them after they leave your school?
Absolutely. We are proud that the universities that accept our students are among the very best in the world.

But how do you tackle a situation where a student is sponsored by The Kellner Family Foundation at your school, and now they want to go to a university?
University students’ life abroad is not cheap at all. We think of this, naturally. Mr. and Mrs. Kellner’s family foundation also sponsors socially disadvantaged students, subject to certain criteria, when they go to college. Thanks to the foundation, Open Gate children can pass through the secondary school and, as adults, complete their education at a university of their choice.

Are sufficient numbers of children signing up?
Yes, now. But it naturally was not so at the beginning. The foundation people crisscross the country and keep in touch with children’s homes, social workers, surrogate families etc. Every year, they seek out children from all over the Czech Republic, who not only are socially disadvantaged but also have the potential and motivation to learn.

But children from disadvantaged environments frequently have problems with learning. In addition, your school places a great emphasis on a foreign language, English. This is not a problem?
The children whom we pick and accept to our school in Babice are enthusiastic. We have found out that even though they join us with no English at all, we are successful, working hand-in-hand with them, in making these children adopt English almost as their mother tongue. The school itself is a strong motivation. Students love it here, they do not want to have to leave the school, and so work hard to learn.

You yourself spend a lot of time here too. But it must be taxing to manage such an institution. Is it still fun for you?
Definitely. This is probably the work that every teacher and manager would like to have. I am here with the educators and other employees whom I have picked and who want to work on our shared goals. We all share the same philosophy and invest our best effort in it. We see results and definitely are not planning to slack off.

The IB program
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB DP) is a challenging two-year educational program for students aged 16 to 19 (the seventh and eighth years of eight-year grammar schools). The program is recognized by universities all over the world, including the most prestigious ones, and it replaces admission tests at most of them. In the program, students have to demonstrate their broad-ranging competences in six subject groups, from which they select six specific subjects of study. These groups include: studies in language and literature (mother tongue), English, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts or another language. Many subjects are assessed in different ways. In addition to points scored for knowledge, students also receive points, for example, depending on their lab work in sciences, they have oral exams in languages, and the quality of the displayed works is decisive in visual arts. Assessment is always based on exactly defined criteria and each of the student’s outputs is measured against predefined levels of success. In most cases, external examiners assess students’ work. Students can score up to 45 points for all examinations. The requirements of the University of Cambridge are an example of what can be regarded as an excellent result: candidates considering admission to this university are expected to score at least 40 or 41 points in IB DP examinations. Usually 24 points are enough for a candidate to obtain the IB diploma. Eight secondary schools offer this program in the Czech Republic. Open Gate was the first to be certified for the program. The examinations are managed globally from a single regional center in Cardiff, Wales. The regional center for Africa, Europe and Middle East is located in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Peter Nitsche (62)
A native Englishman, Peter graduated from Victoria University of Manchester majoring in English language and literature and from Open University in the UK majoring in linguistics. He has spent many years teaching English. He has lived in the Czech Republic since 1990, teaching at several Czech schools, including Gymnázium Josefa Škvoreckého [Josef Škvorecký Grammar School] and Literární akademie Josefa Škvoreckého [Josef Škvorecký Literary Academy]. Peter has been managing Open Gate since 2006. In his leisure time he likes outdoor sports and good literature. Peter is married and has a son. Have an open mind

Nobody can talk about a school with more insight than the young people who go there. “We learn not to behave stereotypically and not to denigrate anyone because of the prejudices we may hold,” concur Karolína Horská (18) from Karlovy Vary and Dominika Trčková (19) from Prostějov, final year students at the Open Gate grammar school.

Do you know the university into which you will matriculate in the next school year?
Dominika: I want to study English law, and two universities have accepted me so far; I am trying to pick one of them now. One is University College London, and the other is the University of Birmingham.
Karolína: I want to study international law, and so will go either to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, or to The Hague or Maastricht in the Netherlands.

Who pays your school fees, the foundation or your parents?
D: My parents wouldn’t be able to pay such high school fees, and so I’m only here thanks to the foundation.
K: I am in the same situation as Dominika. I would not be here without the foundation.

Why have you completely rejected Czech universities from your list of choices?
K: Since I joined Open Gate, I have been preparing for studies abroad. Travelling and seeing new landscapes has always attracted me. Nevertheless, the school does not force anyone into anything in this respect. The teachers are also preparing us for the Czech higher education system. Some of our schoolmates do not take the whole IB program and “are only content” with the obligatory Czech school-leaving examination and several IB certificates, which are more than enough for them as regards universities in the Czech Republic.
D: My reasoning was that you have to be aware all the time of why you worked so hard at the secondary school. If at Open Gate we invested all our energy and effort into writing good essays and in analyses of various issues, at Czech schools we probably would not put all these competences to use. And in my opinion it would be a waste to throw away what they have taught us here.

The school principal says that the IB program guides students to make the world a better place. Is this true?
K: The philosophy of life our teachers guide us towards in many respects differs from what my friends at other schools are learning. In this context, we often use the English term open-minded, i.e. literally to have an open mind, to be perceptive…
D: Basically they teach us here not to behave stereotypically and not to denigrate anyone because of the prejudices we may hold, When in school, we wear uniforms, and so we do not envy each other’s clothes. None of us cares whether a student’s school fees are paid by their parents, or the student comes from a poor family and the foundation pays the fees. We don’t care at all whether someone is Roma or black.

We are all equal. But I do not understand how this “perceptiveness” can be achieved. Surely not by merely learning a few school subjects. Or, is it really just that?
K: This is another dimension of the IB program. Let me give you an example. I take French as my second foreign language. But we are not only learning French grammar and conversation. We also cover the French-speaking world in general. For instance, we have recently been discussing the problems that France has with immigration. Thanks to such discussions, we sort out our thoughts and create our own opinions. And we then use these in other school subjects.
D: I would add that we don’t only tackle this problem from our own perspective of students in the Czech Republic. We try to empathize with the problematic minorities and the general population in France. We view the issue from different angles. Naturally, what I mentioned a while ago is helping us, that you can meet students of different colors and social backgrounds in the classrooms in our school.


Open Gate
This eight-year grammar school in Babice opened in 2005. Initially it only housed one class per year, and later grew to two classes in a year. Each class has fewer than 20 students. Some of them live in dorms, while others commute. They have everything at the school, ranging from housing and meals to a fitness club, swimming pool, and a library and theatre. In 2010 Open Gate also opened an elementary school. Grammar school students living in the dorms pay annual school fees of CZK 470,000; those who commute pay CZK 236,000. The elementary school fees are CZK 155,000 per year. Students from children’s homes, and surrogate, single-parent or low-income families are sponsored by The Kellner Family Foundation of Mrs. Renáta Kellnerová and Mr. Petr Kellner. The foundation spends more than CZK 50 million on grants every year. One half of the students in their final year go to foreign universities every year. Open Gate graduates are attending or have attended, for instance, the University of Oxford, Yale College, Columbia University, The London School of Economics and other prestigious schools.

Author: Vladimír Barák

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