Peter & Connie Kenny: Revolutionising Education From Hong Kong

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

“My whole drive for education is just wanting to make it better with the focus on children and what experiences they should have. Education is the hope for a better world, it’s the solution to basically everything.”

Peter and Connie Kenny are on a mission to revolutionise education. Living in Hong Kong for the past 10 years, they established the Reach Education Organisation, Asia’s leading educational design, establishment and management organisation.

Advance spoke to Peter Kenny, a former aircraft engineering technician for the Royal Australian Air Force, about his incredible journey so far, and everything that’s in store for the future.

Tell us a little bit about your background. How did a former aircraft engineering technician for the RAAF find himself running schooling / education programs in Hong Kong?

The journey to education was long for me – I hated school as long as I could remember. I joined the Air Force basically to escape school. I spent nine years in the Air Force and really enjoyed the technical challenges of that. I love aircraft and engineering. Later on, after meeting my wife and playing football professionally (an injection of confidence) it made me think that I could go back to finish my HSC, and then hopefully go on to university. I was pretty astonished after I got my exam results back and had not only passed but had outstanding results! While I was finishing up at the Air Force, I began my degree in teaching, with a second major in music. I should mention it was only the night before I started university I taught myself how to read music…

Following that I got my first job as a primary school teacher in Adelaide. I really learnt a lot. I then pursued a Master’s degree and developed my own music production crew.

Eventually a job came out of the blue to work in Brunei, at one of the Sultan’s mega schools. I applied for it, got it, and that was life changing. I’d gone from working 24/7, around the clock, to a job as a head of music, in an international school, tax free.

My whole drive in education is simply to make it better with the focus on children and what experiences they should have. Education is the hope for a better world, it’s the solution to basically everything.

So how did you then wind up in Hong Kong?

From Brunei, my wife completed her teaching degree, and she became a master English language specialist. I was then offered to be a principal at an International School in Germany, I moved there with the whole family – my wife was the curriculum coordinator. It was a great experience, my three daughters loved it. That started our international journey. After spending time working in throughout Asia as the Regional Manager for the IB, The Hong Kong Government approached me to head up and establish what was the world’s biggest International Baccalaureate (IB)  school, which was our impetus for moving to Hong Kong. 

Connie and I have been in Hong Kong since 2006, so just over ten years, and we’ve done a lot of work “internationalsing” schools around the world.

We started our own International School design, establishment and management company “Reach Education Organisation (REO) Limited”. We see Hong Kong as the world’s most dynamic city, especially in terms of cultural diversity and international education. It is the NYC of Asia and provides an environment for business creativity, access to the world’s largest markets and has the cosmopolitan feel with a rich Asia cultural identity. I can still play AFL with the Hong Kong Dragons which is fantastic!

What are some of the key benefits from running a business out of Hong Kong as an Australian?

Hong Kong is very busy and friendly, it’s an ideal hub in which to build networks and reputation. As Australians, we understand the crucial link to Asia and how we need to be part of Asia in the next millennium. We also appreciate that as international Australians, we represent our nation, and define how others perceive our people, our multiple cultures and our own view of life and values.

Have you noticed an increase in Australian expats moving to Hong Kong in recent years?

There is a huge Australian expat population based in Hong Kong. I haven’t seen the numbers increase per se, but I’ve certainly noticed the impact of Australian businesses and entrepreneurs there. The links between Hong Kong, China and Australia have certainly grown in the last decade.

Is Hong Kong still the global headquarters in Asia?

I think Hong Kong is better-placed in terms of access to the bigger markets of China. It thrives on business and big deals. I think a city like Singapore competes well, but it doesn’t have the ease of access in terms of language, infrastructure and travel.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being at the helm of the REO? 

It’s quite simple really - it's having the honour of contributing to better education, access to quality education for children and creating and managing some of the world’s most iconic education institutions in Asia. These include Branksome Hall Asia, South Korea (an award winning school designed, established and managed by REO) on Jeju Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. United World College, China (The first UWC on Mainland China), Wilderness International Kindergarten-HKs leading centre for contemporary Early Childhood Education, and Mount Kelly School, the first British preparatory school established in Hong Kong. Connie and I started a charity and also have projects in teacher training and education access in Sri Lanka, Queenstown-South Africa, Aceh-Indonesia and Cambodia.

Do you think that education is a global concept? That is, can an education “model” in Australia be replicated other countries around the world – or does is take a deep understanding of social, political and cultural issues in that country?

Simply put, education needs a deep understanding of culture, and its people. Schools need to be mission-driven and reflect the values of the families putting their most valued gift (their children) in someone else’s responsibility. I think that Australian education has a great deal to learn from international schools and Australian education can contribute a great deal to international education authentically, rather than seeing Asia and Asian children as purely “fees”.

What is the key differentiation between education in Australia, and education in Asia? Were you inspired by your education experience in Australia to make opportunities like the ones you had more widespread?

The best International Schools contribute to a child’s world view, their cultural awareness, and their intellectual, physical and emotional development to the community. The educational experiences in Australia certainly had a large impact on us, however it’s been through our experience in Germany, the USA, Canada, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore that has allowed us to learn, to develop our own philosophy and actions. We work with UNICEF and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia) with the Syrian Crisis to improve education and its access. I recently completed an eight month deployment to UNICEF Middle East through DFAT. We believe that education and peace is the only hope for Syria and a better world.

Do you plan to scale the number of institutions around the world that REO works with? And if so, what regions do you plan to target?

We have projects currently in South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Ultimately we plan to establish Australia’s first Indigenous Academy (perhaps Australia’s first United World College) in Australia when we return. The school will be dedicated to Indigenous Cultures and languages around the world and bring 150 students each year to Australia in Years 10-12.

We also have plans for schools in Taiwan and the US next year. Ultimately to establish a world class International school in Australia would be fantastic. We have the funding and will be approaching State governments in the very near future to make this a reality.

What’s the biggest advantage of the schooling system in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is very densely populated; it’s impossible not to interact with many different people from different backgrounds. The kids get to experience that. For Asia, it’s a very cosmopolitan city. It’s very safe and there’s a lot happening here all the time – the kids have an extended childhood. We also don’t experience a lot of the problems that we see in Australia or in Britain in terms of teenagers binge drinking or an overt drug culture. They’re a little bit insulated from that here. Generally, the international schools here have great programs and great teachers.

What’s the best thing about Hong Kong?  

I think Hong Kong is a really easy city to live in, it’s really authentic. You’re in one of the most densely populated parts of the world, but in 30 minutes you can be in the mountains or on a beach. It’s a pretty special place.