BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Since 2018, The European Azerbaijan School has received both national and worldwide recognition, thanks to the significant improvements it has made to Azerbaijan’s education system. In an exclusive interview with Azeri Observer, its award-winning Director, Francesco Banchini, explained how he has led this successful process.
Four years ago, Francesco Banchini arrived in Azerbaijan to serve as CEO and Director at The European Azerbaijan School (EAS), with the firm purpose of providing children with an opportunity to dream and develop. In this short period, EAS has transformed its structure, improved its curriculum and invigorated the learning community. Moreover, this success story is being taken to the international field by establishing the “Experiential Learning” Conference, founding the Caucasus and Central Asia IB Association and being a representative at The Board of Trustees for The Council of International Schools (CIS).
Meeting a creative leader
Mr. Banchini is from the south of Italy, proud to have come from a non-privileged family. He started his professional path as a musician then changed his career, driven by the impact he had on students as a music teacher. Most people in directive positions of international schools have backgrounds and qualifications related to economics or business administration, but not necessarily related to the arts. Mr Banchini comments that he uses his experience in music to great advantage:
“My musical background allowed me to see things differently. First, I understood that as educators, we have the moral duty to make a difference, serving students, enabling them to improve, sharing knowledge and developing educational strategies, which benefit everyone. Then, as a performer, I am convinced that the learning process happens more quickly when we learn by doing; that is why we are developing the experiential learning concept at EAS. Finally, I used the skills I developed in musical promotion to build a network of people who share the same vision and values, and now I am supported by amazing colleagues to pursue our goals.”
Besides being a musician, Mr Banchini is an experienced leader, educator and researcher who has implemented innovative strategies in several international schools. He is the author of a number of publications including “Convergent and Divergent Thinking” and “Historical Musical Notation”. Mr Banchini has received multiple awards, such as the Golden Palm Award for successful activities in 2021 and recognition by The Ministry of Education of the Republic of Azerbaijan at the IV Republican Pedagogical readings on Humane Pedagogy.
It is very inspirational to learn how Mr Banchini started to materialise his vision.
“Based on the Azerbaijani identity, I found many links and connections with European culture and therefore have been able to promote international mindedness and encourage diversity. We began with a huge investment, providing professional development to all our teachers from primary to secondary. This initiative makes us unique because we involved about 250 teachers in this initative. I have had the experience of working in different international schools in Italy, Qatar, Kenya, and Switzerland, and none of them had the capability of training their staff in this manner. This is an ongoing process, because for us to make any impact, we need teachers to understand the IB curriculum, our values and mission,” he said.
EAS incorporates the challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) programmes throughout the different sections of the school. It is a worldwide recognised educational programme to develop students intellectually, emotionally, and socially by encouraging individual learning, critical thinking, cultural awareness, and service. It is within this framework that Mr Banchini has transformed the curriculum.
“We are among the schools with the best language programmes in Azerbaijan, offering seven different curricular languages: Azerbaijani, English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Chinese. For the next academic year, we will also include sports, beyond our physical education classes, like swimming, volleyball, water polo and rugby,” Mr Banchini added.
In addition to excellent academic provision, EAS assists students according to their needs and approaches them as individuals. To accomplish this support on a case by case basis, Mr Banchini has introduced a new dynamic which integrates parents into the learning process:
“Involving parents gives us the other side of the story. We don’t need to know personal issues, but we need to understand our students and, should there be an issue, we need to be able to support them. We are also in contact with our alumni and their families through a genuine interest to know how they are progressing in their futures; we would not be surprised to see some of them returning to our community to share the skills and experience that they have gained. Meaningful conversations and connections with parents allow our families to understand the school’s values, mission, curriculum, and assessment procedures, among other features of our educational provison. It also enables us to communicate with parents about what we need from them so that we can all move in the same direction for the benefit of their children, our students.”
Mr Banchini’s strategies already present measurable positive results: “For the last two years, we have received a 100% pass rate of IB Diploma students. They apply to world renowned universities, including Durham University and King’s College in the UK, and Harvard and MIT in the USA. The postive feedback that we receive from these instituions allows us to understand that we are certainly heading in the right direction.”
The resilience of the EAS learning community was demonstrated when they used the virtual capacity, developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, to support students living in Barda and Agdam after the second Karabakh war. As a result, the İşıq Toxumları (Seeds of Light) project was recognised with a special commendation at the International School Awards 2022.
“Throughout the project, we provided 350 students with the experience of attending classes in an international school. By developing multidisciplinary approaches, with subject-integrated and problem-based contextual lessons, we gave them a completely different learning experience. We also provided pedagogical support and professional development to 57 teachers based on the most current educational practices; developing student-centered approaches, and inquiry-based and skills acquisition learning in an authentic context,” Mr Banchini said.
Sharing the success story internationally
Over the last few years, EAS has become a centre of the IB, leading the establishment of the Caucasus and Central Asia IB Association and creating the Experiential Learning International Conference. Mr Banchini’s achievements were recognized as he was able to share his creative leadership expertise at the IB global conference in San Diego this year. The most significant international acknowledgement so far, was in the form of Mr Banchini’s election to The Board of Trustees at the Council of International Schools (CIS), giving Azerbaijan the opportunity for the first time in history to guide high-quality international education.
The Caucasus and Central Asia IB Association
At the end of last year, The Azeri Observer covered the launch of the first IB Association in the region. EAS, together with the Nazarbayev Intellectual School Nur-Sultan of Kazakhstan and the European School of Georgia, founded the Caucasus and Central Asia IB Association. Mr Banchini updates us on the development of the organisation:
“Nurturing one another in this relationship made us stronger; that is the main goal. Since I came here, I slowly connected with other schools in the area and met colleagues who were also keen to have an impact on education. I am proud of the alliance; it is not easy to create an IB Association. I was blessed by being supported by different partnerships, including the Azerbaijani government, and also from the IB themselves. At the beginning we were three schools starting this exciting journey, and now we are 35 institutions across the region, in Azerbaijan itself, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; in addition, we have a lot of requests from Russia.”
International Conference on Experiential Learning
It is an experiential time, where educators, leaders, managers, and human resource specialists engage in thoughtful discussions about the power of experience to achieve positive results together. Creating the Conference on Experiential Learning allows EAS to be a catalyst for leaders, teachers, and other people interested in making an impact in education. Last year the first conference took place; an event which summoned a large delegation from Kazakhstan and Georgia, and influential international speakers, all who shared their ideas on education and new ways of learning by doing.
“On December 9-11, 2022, EAS is organising the Conference’s second conference with the theme “Think Differently, Be Creative”; we expect the participation of around 600 people”. Experiential Learning is now our brand. We live this brand daily at EAS. When students are engaged, they learn faster than when educators stand, talking during the whole class; after 15 minutes, the teacher loses the students’ attention. Our purpose is to change the worldwide culture of having passive subjects as students, and the conference is putting Azerbaijan at the centre of this renaissance period for education.
“On the other hand, the theme “Think Differently, Be Creative” is how we embrace diversity. Going back to my experience as a musician, having been part of the music industry, I recognise the importance of team-work, where one person supplements and complements the skills of others.”
Integrating The Board of Trustees for The Council of International Schools (CIS)
The most recent recognition of Mr Bacnhini’s achievements at EAS has been his election as a CIS Board of Trustees member, a collaborative and globally-minded group of educational leaders who guide and develop this organisation’s strategic path.
CIS is a membership community working collaboratively to shape high-quality international education, connecting ideas, cultures, and educators from every corner of the world. The Council also has an accreditation process, which evaluates standards in all fields, such as health and safety, diversity, global citizenship and education. But what does it mean for Azerbaijan, specifically for EAS, to have a CIS Board of Trustees representative?
“I have been selected among different heads of schools. It is a recognition of our achievements; in Azerbaijan with EAS and in the region with the Association. The initial term is for three years, but that can be extended if we continue to make an impact on international education all over the world. Being part of the CIS Board of Trustees will allow us to improve international education by sharing our best practice. It is a strategic and relevant role that places EAS as a regional school in the global field, where we will be in the spotlight for international students.”
A strong network
To wrap up, in Mr Banchini’s words: “The most significant accomplishment is that a network was created. Alone, we will not go far; instead as a nework, we can discuss, plan, evaluate and improve through collaboration. Azerbaijan, with EAS, is catalysing this network to develop international education worldwide.”