Hugh McCormick, Founder, Copperfield International School

Hugh founded Copperfield International School and leads the team each day in its mission to provide an inspiring character-based education to all the students. Hugh’s vision was to open a school that put the students at the centre of everything it did.

Prior to Copperfield, Hugh received a First-Class BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, followed by an MPhil and DPhil in Political Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He then worked as an investment banker at Macquarie and UBS, before embarking on a teaching career at top British schools Harrow and Sevenoaks. In 2022, he graduated with a Master’s in Educational Leadership and School Improvement, with Distinction, from the University of Cambridge.

In an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Hugh discusses about the status of the current school education system, how Copperfield International School began its journey and conquered challenges imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the driving forces behind his personal success, and a lot more. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

What is the status of the current school education system? Is it preparing students to be flexible and adaptable?

This question is hard to answer because education systems are so different. This is because schools are community-centred, and each community has its own shared history and culture, which informs and guides what happens in the school. Modern educational research and practice certainly encourages flexibility and adaptability, by emphasising participatory learning: the student as an active protagonist rather than a vessel to be filled by the teacher. We believe strongly in this, hence our philosophy of having the courage to be imperfect: we encourage our students to embrace imperfection, and this is key to resilience and adaptability.

Your vision was always to open a school that put the students at the centre of everything it did. Do you think you achieved this when you opened Copperfield International School? Tell us about the establishment of the school. 

I do think we’ve managed to keep students at the core of each day. This is not a stable accomplishment: it requires constant effort and vigilance. Adults bring their own priorities into every situation, and our values compass has become very strong by constantly referring to what students need us to focus on in a given discussion. The more you do this, the sharper the difference between the way we do things and the way things are done elsewhere. New colleagues joining us immediately observe that the contrast shows itself in every meeting with leadership.

How did COVID-19 impact education worldwide? How did you mitigate those challenges at Copperfield International School?

In World War 2, most of the world’s schools continued to operate. In COVID, almost all of them closed, synchronously, in March 2020. I founded the school on 6 April 2020 because families I knew were not having their educational needs met by the schools that were having to close. So we began in COVID, because of COVID, and our systems and approaches began and have continued with a flexible and creative mindset. The schools that flourished are ones where leaders and teachers embraced the opportunity to try something different and came out of the pandemic with better systems and pedagogy than before.

Having recorded experience in the education sector, how would you describe the amalgamation of technology and education?

The pandemic accelerated a trend that was already in ‘lift off’, for technology to embed itself in every classroom. Nevertheless, my instinct is that there are areas where there are good reasons for traditional methods. For example, in teaching handwriting, there is research suggesting that there is something important about pen and paper; and also we have tried handwriting apps on iPads, which were developed for and enhance the work of Learning Support. I didn’t think a screen could replace a book until I used a Kindle. The key is to keep trying what is new and not stick to a current method just because it’s familiar.

What factors motivated you to shift from a fledging career in finance to foraying into the field of education?

At the end of my life, I want to be outlived by the impact I’ve made, and to see my fingerprints in the clay of life around me. Teaching is human architecture.

Throw some light on your recent interventions in education. What is unique about the teaching and learning approaches that make your school a cut above its contemporaries?

I believe the most significant is the most straightforward: we timetable several hours each week for staff to plan their lessons collaboratively. This is a practice that emerged in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s and is known as Lesson Study or ‘jugyokenkyu’: Jugyo means teaching and learning, and ‘Kenkyu’ means study or research. A group of teachers works together to identify and then solve a teaching problem that they want to solve. This is time-intensive and is also immensely impactful. It results in faculty getting on the same page about their students and curriculum more than ever before.

How do you stay abreast of the periodic technological and industry changes in a constantly evolving world?

Teachers make friends with teachers and things that work tend to spread quickly within the community. I also check in on a number of IB forums where school leaders share what is working.

Tell us about the network of professionals you have created. Can you shed some light on a few initiatives or techniques you are incorporating?

To recruit teachers? We get about 10 speculative applications every week. We keep all of these and refer to them each time we have an opening. The best recruitment happens via existing faculty and we make sure that our faculty knows what roles are coming up. 

What are some of the most significant milestones you have achieved so far in your professional journey? What has been the driving force behind your success as a founder of Copperfield International School?

When I started the school, I figured it would never work, so simultaneously I began an MPhil in Education at Cambridge. Doing both at the same was challenging. And it was also incredibly fertile: I learned about Lesson Study from the MPhil. As a school, the biggest milestone was the IB Diploma license: we got these 13 months after we began the process; the fastest you can technically do it is 12 months; so doing something so challenging at speed was a huge team accomplishment. And the driving force is the desire to make a difference: two of our students will graduate and go to university next summer, and this is the first time that this has happened in our part of Switzerland – there is no other high school within 50 km, and before we opened students had to leave the region in order to continue their education. That’s impact!

As a successful business leader, what would your advice be to youngsters aspiring to become business leaders and entrepreneurs in the future?

I co-founded the school with an entrepreneur called John Porter. He passed away in November 2021, when the project was still in its infancy. I asked him this exact question in our last conversation together and he replied, ‘Never look down.’ Steve Jobs said something similar: that the right way of thinking was not to compare success against failure, but to compare the risk of doing something against the risk of not doing it. People often don’t do things because they are looking down rather than up.

What projects or goals are you working on or leading currently?

This week we had our verification visit for the IB PYP programme, which went well, and we will hear the outcome of that in a few weeks. If and when we get that license, it will complete our programme of academic licenses for ages 3-18. The logical next step is to discover how one can be accredited to offer university-level training for aspiring teachers.

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