The Open Gate Grammar School was the first project launched by Renáta Kellnerová and her husband Petr, owner of the PPF financial group, as part of their charitable work in 2005. The school has just completed its sixteenth year, one marked by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this, five of the school’s students achieved the maximum number of points in the International Baccalaureate, which is a first for Open Gate. While a few of the school’s students have achieved the full score of 45 points in the past, there have never been so many in a single year. “It is now clear that the work of the School and the Foundation will carry on as before, even after the sad death of Petr Kellner,“ says Open Gate managing director Petra Dobešová. She started out at billionaire Kellner’s PPF Group in the biotech company Sotio. Before that she worked for some years at Philip Morris International. When the Prague University of Economics graduate turned her attention to educational projects, she started by spending two years on a teacher training course.
HN: What made you want to abandon high-profile management roles and go back to school to learn about teaching?
When I completed my degree in economics, I told myself that no one would ever see me in school again. However, in the end things turned out differently. I need to immerse myself in and to understand whatever I am doing. So, when I took charge of education at PPF, I decided the best thing to do would be to go and study teaching. As a graduate of the University of Economics I was able to teach Economics and English, which I have mastered to a very high level. So, I chose to teach English for lower and upper secondary school at Akcent College and it was a good choice.
I avoided the shortcomings for which teacher training faculties are often criticised. For example, I had lots of opportunities to gain practical experience, teaching both at Open Gate and at the Akcent language school. The teacher training staff taught us various approaches to teaching and showed us the pros and cons of each, including what teaching methods we should choose for the specific age group that we would be teaching. I had to make a video recording of myself teaching in order to better evaluate myself. It was actually a childhood dream come true. I had wanted to be a teacher up to about the age of ten.
HN: In the PPF Group, however, you started out with a number of roles at the biotech firm Sotio, and only later moved into education. How did that happen?
Just as my time at Sotio came to an end, Mrs Kellnerová was looking for someone to open another Open Gate school in Prague’s Dejvice area. I took charge of this in 2016. In the end, however, the new school project did not work out.
HN: Why was the plan to build a new school dropped?
The planning application process dragged on for a long time and the Kellners eventually decided not to build another school. At the same time Open Gate’s head in Babice decided to retire and Mrs Kellnerová was looking for a replacement. She appointed me as managing director and my first task was to select a new head of school, which was not simple given my lack of experience in education. I am now in my fifth year leading the team in Babice.
HN: Do you and Renáta Kellnerová make a good team?
She is passionate about the school and about education – it is very close to her heart. We are in regular contact with each other. Mr and Mrs Kellner’s philosophy was to change society through educational excellence and that is exactly what they were attempting to do here in the Czech Republic. It is up to us to fulfil their wishes. We take inspiration from abroad and are building up a great teaching body, because a school is made by its teachers. When the teachers are enthusiastic so are the children and when the children are enthusiastic the parents are happy, which moves everything in the right direction.
HN: You are leading the school together with the head of school – how do you divide your roles?
The roles of managing director and head of school are interconnected so we work closely together . I represent the founders within the school. Open Gate is actually a commercial enterprise and I am responsible for it from a legal perspective. The head of school has an important role in relation to education and is answerable to the Ministry of Education because we operate as a Czech private school recorded in the Schools’ Register.
HN: So you are in charge of the whole campus?
Yes, but the school’s management comprises a team of eight people, who each take responsibility for a particular area. We have the first level primary school, the eight years of grammar school and the dormitories, which are mainly for children from the age of eleven who come from challenging social backgrounds and receive support from Mr and Mrs Kellner’s foundation. For three years now we have also run a careers advice centre and we employ specialists in the prevention of anti-social behaviour, a school psychologist and we have a counselling centre with therapists who work with children who may be experiencing psychological difficulties. In addition to this, the campus has a sports ground, a multi-purpose hall, an administrative building, a swimming pool and a library. We also keep horses and other farm animals and we operate a canteen.
HN: Apart from the fact that Open Gate is a boarding school, it also differs from most Czech schools in that students are offered the option of taking the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. How many students choose to take this exam?
This year, we had 38 students in their final year, 26 of them took the full international baccalaureate exam. Others took the IB in a few subjects. This is mainly because the international baccalaureate is not automatically recognised by Czech universities. Our students were extremely successful, with five of them achieving the maximum score of 45 points in the international baccalaureate examination. This is the highest number since we started this programme in 2009. Furthermore, four of the five were beneficiaries of grants from Mr and Mrs Kellner’s foundation. Just to explain – only nine per cent of all students on the International Baccalaureate programme worldwide achieved more than 40 points. This year at Open Gate, sixteen of our graduates achieved that.
HN: That means it pays to support students coming from a more difficult social environment?
The support makes sense and we feel good about it. The hardest thing is when you see that a student could do better but you need to find ways to motivate them. It is hard work from the age of eleven, which is when the children join us.
HN: How do you explain this year’s success in the international baccalaureate examinations?
This year we had two classes in the final year instead of just one, so it could be the larger number of students, their strong academics or the amount of time they and their teachers put into their preparation, that is also very important.
HN: How much time does it take to prepare a student?
The international baccalaureate exams are far more demanding than the Czech ones in terms of time requirements. The students start taking exams and writing required essays during the last two years of grammar school. They choose six subjects and usually study three at higher level and three at standard level. Another component is the Theory of Knowledge or critical thinking course and also the creativity-activity-service element, in which students work as volunteers. The teachers assigned to teach subjects included in the International Baccalaureate receive special training. Students who progress to prestigious universities abroad say that the international baccalaureate makes the transition easier because it uses a similar teaching system to the one used at world-class universities.
HN: There is currently a lot of debate in the Czech Republic over whether our secondary school leaving exams are fit for purpose or should be changed. Do you like the international qualification model?
I like it a lot, mainly because it leads the students in the direction of critical thinking and helps them to understand their strengths and weaknesses, motivating them to achieve their best. In my opinion, the weakness of the Czech system lies in the fact that it establishes top scores in all subjects as the ideal, but the world is not black and white. When the second Open Gate was to be opened, Mrs Kellnerová wanted me to check whether we were ready to include students at the lower grammar school and primary school in the International Baccalaureate programme. I looked into this but it was not possible. The programme for the lower years tells you how you should teach but not what you should be teaching. It says nothing at all about the content of the teaching, only about the skills the children should acquire. That would mean we could not fit into the educational framework that is binding for all schools in the Czech Republic.
HN: What are the differences?
The International Baccalaureate is a comprehensive programme which focuses a lot on the critical literacy of the children and on their ability to be introspective. In international schools the International Baccalaureate programme starts at a young age. The children learn to understand themselves and what it means, for example, to be informed, inquisitive and caring. A lot is made of inquiry-based learning, where the children start by setting out a hypothesis and then work out if they can fulfil it. In the Czech curriculum, pupils have to learn a set of clearly defined knowledge but there is no longer time for this in the International Baccalaureate system. Furthermore, all the materials are only available in English. At Open Gate we do not teach all subjects in English until higher grammar school. We therefore decided to include only certain elements from the International Baccalaureate programme in our primary school and lower grammar school.
HN: How does having the full number of points in the international baccalaureate help students? Do they have a greater chance to get into an international university?
Yes, exactly that. This year the students achieved places to study history at Oxford University, at Eindhoven University of Technology and at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. They not only have a greater chance of being accepted by a prestigious university, but also a greater chance of success once there. In the careers advice centres we begin working with students as soon as they start at the higher grammar school. Self-motivated students who know what they want to do next have a much greater chance of succeeding.
HN: And they know this at the age of fifteen?
Some do, some don’t, but you need to start talking about this with them ahead of time. It is important because they have to choose what subjects to take two years before completing the exams. In the International Baccalaureate programme this cannot then be changed. In the past, when students did not choose an international university until later, they would discover that they needed subjects they had not taken at the grammar school, and therefore they had no chance of getting into their chosen university.
HN: How have you handled distance learning when some students commute to school and some live in dormitories?
It was very difficult and we asked the Ministry of Education for an exemption so that some students at least could stay in their dormitories. We did not get this until the final weeks of distance learning. We regularly tested students for the virus. They studied online from their rooms in the dormitories. Our dormitories are special in that most of the students living in them come from challenging social backgrounds. Under normal conditions we also work with these children out of school, taking care of both their academic and social development. We help them to find a way out of their closed worlds. With distance learning this was, unfortunately, not possible. And that turned out to be a major problem for some of these students.
HN: How so?
During distance learning we lost four pupils from the lower grammar school. Despite working intensively with the parents or legal representatives and the children we were unable to hold onto them. When a pupil can switch off the camera and say the connection has failed there’s not much you can do about it remotely. As far as setting up online systems is concerned, we chose to keep things the same and followed the usual timetable. The students were not sitting in front of their computer from morning to evening, of course. Their teachers contacted them at the start of each lesson to say whether they would have a lesson together or carry on with individual tasks. It is difficult to keep children active when they are online, so we looked at different ways of achieving this.
HN: Did you find anything positive in distance learning that you would like to continue with in the future?
A lot of things proved to be effective. We used Microsoft Teams, for example, and we want to use it for sharing information and documents in the future. At the same time, we firmly believe that social contact is important for us and our school does not want to specialize in online teaching.
HN: How do you select the Foundation students?
The school has been in operation since 2005, so we now have a lot of experience at this. The children often come from difficult family situations and although they have academic potential, they cannot fulfil it because they are facing completely different problems. In the acceptance process we pay a lot of attention to the child’s motivation so that we don’t attribute to them a greater desire to study than might be expected. We have a coordinator at the Foundation who works with children’s homes and other organisations looking after families with children in foster care and they assist us in the selection process. This is extremely important.
I will give you an example I heard from a social worker. She organises days out for families, with various activities for the children. They often have little interest in games, however, and don’t stick at anything for long. However, she once noticed a boy who was finishing his work. She asked about him in school but was told that he was difficult and a poor learner. Despite this, she arranged an interview with us and we accepted him. We saw potential in him and we started to work with him.
HN: Will the death of Petr Kellner, who died in an air accident in March, change anything in the way that the school operates?
Nothing will change in the way that the school and the Foundation operate. Mrs Kellnerová strongly supports both the school and the Foundation. I always appreciated the fact that both Mr Kellner and Mrs Kellnerová understood the importance of long-term support and, to this day, that is still the case. Furthermore, I see the effort to bring about positive changes in society as Mr Kellner’s legacy.
Published: 30. July 2021, author: Markéta Hronová