Meet The Head At NAIS: Brian Cooklin

WhichSchoolAdvisor meets with Brian Cooklin, the founding principal of Nord Anglia International School, Hong Kong (NAIS), to talk about the growth of this new all-through school and its focus on delivering a well-rounded British international education.
Meet The Head At NAIS: Brian Cooklin
By Carli Allan
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The past four years have been busy for Brian Cooklin, the founding principal of Nord Anglia International School, Hong Kong (NAIS), which has grown from zero to more than 1,200 students spread across three campuses. found it hard not to feel inspired by his warm and friendly demeanour and his passion for providing children with an outstanding British international education.

A British national with more than 20 years of senior leadership experience, Cooklin has also successfully guided children and teaching teams in the UK and Mexico. While his name is on the door of his office, you’re more likely to find the principal in the front row of a school performance, dressed up for Book Week, or in one of the classrooms. Here’s a headmaster who is actively involved in all aspects of the school, personally recruits every single member of staff, and brings his personal love for English and the arts to Hong Kong.

Read our review of NAIS here.

We spoke to Cooklin to find out how this international school is building on the foundations of strong specialist teaching, STEAM and a vertical house system to become a leader in early years, primary and secondary education.

NAIS has a reputation for its focus on specialist subjects, which are taught at all three campuses from pre-school through to Year 11. Why do you dedicate so many resources to specialist teaching?

Art, music, drama, PE and Mandarin are all taught by secondary specialist teachers from age three upwards – and we do that for several reasons. One is to exploit talent at an early age; if a three-year-old shows an interest in music or sport, it’s better for an expert in that field to help them develop it as early as possible.

Secondly, research shows that boys have a habit of dropping back as they move from primary to secondary; the reason for that is that girls mature faster than boys. By having a core of secondary teachers that they’ve worked with in primary and already know, we get rid of that logistical problem. Thirdly – and the main reason for me – is the confidence factor. It helps to boost the child’s confidence in these specialist subjects and it opens more doors for them. If you boost a child’s confidence, you get more success.

In just four years, NAIS has grown a student body of over 1,200 over three campuses. What initiatives have you introduced to grow a close-knit community here?

At every school I’ve been head of I’ve introduced a vertical house system, which is a slice of school that goes from three years right through to Year 11. It helps to develop a strong sense of family and community in the school. A house tutor sees their group of students for 15 minutes every morning, and then for one period every week for personal and social education. As well as the tutor getting to know that group of 15-16 students really well, the younger students have the support of their peers to talk about issues such as choosing their options.

Another example is the Wall of All, which is a display of tiles at the centre of the school. Every single child created a tile of their own choice to create this Wall of All, which captures the ethos of the school perfectly. We’ve promised to treat each child as an individual and to teach them in a safe, caring and happy environment – and we are delivering on this promise.

The most common comment we get when parents tour the school is that children really seem to enjoy learning – as if that was a surprise. It shouldn’t be a surprise. If you enjoy learning, you learn more. If you’re confident in your learning and you see your work being appreciated, then you learn more.

We’ve also seen several examples at NAIS of how you use school-wide themes to build a community and bring together your growing student population. How does this fit in with your teaching of the English National Curriculum?

Learning cannot be divorced from the ENC, which has a rigour for English and maths in particular, but we’re also making meaningfully links to different content areas all the time.

Last year we had a Future of Flight project, which involved very department and every year group. The three-year-olds made the best paper aeroplanes, threw them and measured the distance. The four-year-olds made their own planes out of cardboard boxes and I wore a pilot’s outfit and sat in the front box as we ‘flew’ into the airport.

The rest of the school had to design their own plane for the future; they took it to the makerspace and printed it in 3D from their iPads. Parents who work for Cathay Pacific came in and built a wind tunnel to check for aerodynamics. Year 7 then had to showcase the project to the whole school, present a business case for it, and translate the user guide into Mandarin and Spanish.

For gender equality, we showed the film She Objects to students and parents. It’s not enough to just do that and ‘tick off’ gender equality so we also showed films with strong female characters, we dressed up as characters from books with strong female characters, and so on.

Why have you made the decision not to group students by ability at NAIS for subjects such as literacy and maths?

We don’t set students, with the exception of Mandarin classes. As soon as you label a student and say that they are top or bottom group, they stagnate and they don’t go anywhere. I think setting is inhibiting and it restricts a child’s progress and growth.

We’re a non-selective school so we have a range of abilities here. During our inspection by the ISI, a student with learning difficulties told one of the inspectors that “what I love about this school is that I make as much progress as everyone else”. You can’t get a better compliment than that.

As a Nord Anglia school, how are you benefiting from the group’s collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)?

We get a challenge from MIT every term, our staff get training from MIT, and every April a group of our students go to a Nord Anglia STEAM Fair at MIT.

The beauty of this collaboration with MIT is that we can offer our students practical problems to solve. What would you do to solve pollution in Hong Kong? What should be done to deal with plastic in the ocean? How will climate change affect us in the future? These are all difficult topics to contend with but we have the resources to harness students’ creativity to think of solutions.

The health and wellbeing of students is a number one concern for all schools. How are you tackling this issue at NAIS?

We do a lot to promote wellbeing in school, although we don’t treat it as a separate programme. We have all the traditional programmes in place – certain elements are dealt with in the Personal, Social, Health and Education (PSHE) programme including relationships, cyber security, and personal health, and we have counsellors in school. But I think it’s the human aspect that makes the difference. I think it’s the house system that delivers the strongest messages about wellbeing as this helps to build a community.

For example, we hold a house singing competition every Christmas that brings together 200 students in each house from the bottom of the school to the top. They work together to design the choreography, the sets, the music etc – it’s quite incredible. With the vertical systems I’ve set up in various schools, I find that there’s less bullying because children are working with each other and looking out for each other. They always have an older student that they can go to.

On your website, you say that homework “can take many forms and is not necessarily written work”. How much work are your students expected to do beyond the curriculum?

We don’t give our students two hours of homework a night; there’s no evidence that it helps the child. Just because you double the homework, it doesn’t double the intelligence of the child.

We want to give young people room to breathe, so we offer 120 extra-curricular activities to encourage children to try something different. Activities include theatre, music, sports, chess, Minecraft, knitting, baking, mindful colouring, robotics etc. Activities are run by teachers voluntarily and include anything that they are enthusiastic about teaching.

The purpose of school is to broaden students’ horizons and give them different experiences. We offer this through service learning and residential trips too. For example, after the typhoon, the Sai Kung students and their families cleared the debris for people living there and had a crazy hair day to raise money for new washing machines and fridges. It was a practical experience and it encouraged them to think about other people.

How do you ensure that you don’t distance yourself from the day-to-day challenges of teaching?

I like to get involved in as many aspects of daily school life as possible, and I spend one day at each of the two pre-schools and three days per week at the main campus. I’m a great believer in setting a good example and I never hesitate to join in the dance routines, dress up as Dumbledore for the Halloween Spooktacular, or dress up as character for Book Week.

I think it’s important for children and staff to see that you’re fully committed to the school. A principal should never be a distant figure who’s detached from the school.

Although you follow the English National Curriculum and offer IGCSE exams, you have decided to offer the IBDP rather than A Levels once you roll out Years 12-13. Why?

We’re an international school and the IB diploma is recognised more widely around the world. It’s a much better preparation for university. Whereas A Levels force you to focus on the sciences or the arts, the IB is much broader. It also includes a 4,000-word extended essay that has to be researched on a topic of your choice, and you don’t get an equivalent of that at A Level.

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