An ambitious plan having impact across and beyond Kazakhstan
Olga Mozhayeva at NIS
Gulnar Kurmanbayeva at NIS
Indira Ismailova
Danara Abildenova





An interview by Kate Taverner at CIS with members of the management team of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, Kazakhstan. From left: Olga Mozhayeva, Deputy Chairperson, Gulnar Kurmanbayeva, Director of Quality Assurance Department, Indira Ismailova, Deputy Director Quality Assurance Department and Danara Abildenova, Senior Manager, Department for Education Quality Assurance and International Accreditation

An experimental and ambitious initiative was launched in 2008 to reform secondary education across Kazakhstan. Just over a decade later, a network of 21 “beacon” schools are setting standards for education, both across and beyond the country.

Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world made up of 2.72 million square kilometres. Its population of approximately 19.5 million people, an average of only six people per square kilometre, is rich with many different ethnicities sharing a collective Kazakhstan patriotism.

When the founders of the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS) embraced the vision of the country’s former President—to design and establish a modern, world-class, cost-free, tri-lingual education for children across this expansive country to capacity-build their leaders of tomorrow—they set upon a purposeful path to identify educational partners who would progressively enable their progress. What shape did their path take and how did CIS become involved?

To create NIS, the founders collaborated with several local and global organizations that were eager to help them examine and evaluate different educational systems around the world—including the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, Cambridge Assessment International Education, and Cambridge University Press in the UK, locally with Nazarbayev University, with the IB, with the educational measurement specialists, Cito in The Netherlands, with John Hopkins University in the US, and many others. Their thorough exploration and collaborations enabled them to learn new approaches to school management, design a new curriculum, ensure the curriculum was assessed to high global standards, recruit and train several hundreds of talented teachers in new teaching and learning styles, and ensure their schools would meet the best of global standards to achieve their mission: To enhance the intellectual capacity of Kazakhstan through the development and implementation of an innovative, mathematics and science-orientated, trilingual, model school system that integrates the best of Kazakhstan traditions, and that meets international standards of best practice. With their educational programmes in place, NIS then set about the work of identifying how best to quality assure the system they had built.

And so, in 2014, NIS contacted CIS, sending a delegation of leaders to Leiden to learn more about CIS International Accreditation, the protocol and framework for school evaluation. Arriving at CIS, the NIS goals were clear: they intended to achieve CIS International Accreditation for 20 schools in 4 years!

NIS student performance

Jane Larsson, Executive Director of CIS reports, “Before that pivotal meeting, we had many questions about the project and their ability to complete it, but halfway through the meeting, we looked at each other and collectively decided this was a compelling opportunity for CIS to be part of such a bold plan, and we committed to it. This project, fulfilling the NIS vision, has been among our most rewarding work in international education, and looking back now to that first meeting, we are really proud to report that NIS achieved their goal: 18 NIS schools achieved CIS International Accreditation within 3 years!”

My CIS colleagues who have been directly involved in this work, have eagerly described the impressive commitment of NIS leaders and principals to achieve the standards in all four drivers that form the foundation of CIS Accreditation protocol (global citizenship, learning, well-being, and purpose and direction). They maintained their focus throughout, expanding access to skills development in natural sciences and mathematics with advanced laboratories encompassing nano- and bio-technologies; introducing a robotics course to engage their STEM students in complex, strategic problem-solving; developing sports, implementing pastoral work, all with a trilingual approach in English, Russian and Kazakh.

I had the opportunity to be part of the development of three of the NIS schools. I was consistently impressed by the progressive approach the schools were taking toward implementing a high-quality and comprehensive educational programme to serve a new generation of students. NIS schools are designed in all areas to reach for and develop the best in international education and to establish nationwide models that focus on forming both a national and international identity. There exists a strong sense of commitment and pride throughout the NIS community in its common sense of purpose to lead innovative education throughout Kazakhstan.

Chris Maggio, School Support & Evaluation Officer

This project is about country-wide reform and Ms Olga Mozhayeva explained with great pride that the beacon schools are now cascading their experience to educators and comprehensive schools across Kazakhstan. Their new curriculum has already been rolled out to 7,000 schools and they created a Centre of Excellence to deliver professional development and teacher training to their peers in the country’s comprehensive schools.

“It’s a progressive approach to educational change, and it’s been a rewarding to see the incredible progress that has been made over a relatively short period of time.

Stuart McLay, CIS Director of International Accreditation Services

Balancing patriotism and global citizenship

The custodians of NIS believe that you can’t learn about the world unless you know where you’re from.

NIS are committed to the CIS Vision to inspire the development of global citizens and they achieved CIS International Accreditation based on their commitment to global citizenship. They invest in teaching and learning opportunities that ensure their students have a strong foundational knowledge and connection to the country’s traditions while opening their eyes to the wider world, ensuring they have one foot in Kazakhstan and one foot in the world beyond. It’s a delicate balance to achieve but local, national and global citizenship should not be seen as in opposition to one another and at the NIS schools our evaluators time and time again recognise this as a strength.

Chris Durbin, Associate Director of School Support & Evaluation
NIS student musicians

25% of their graduates are now attending universities around the world. The number is increasing every year as global recognition for the talent of their students grows, and locally, 13 Kazakhstan universities have created shortened courses for NIS graduates in recognition of their standard of education. CIS has also offered student recruitment fairs in Kazakhstan for our university members during the last two years.

Ms Indira Ismailova and her colleagues across the NIS community of 20 schools eagerly observe the impact of their efforts from the last decade and are looking forward to seeing how their graduates will have an impact both locally and globally in their lives beyond university.


When we first met with CIS in 2014, we had already started thinking about how to combine national and global perspectives in our new schools and curriculum, and our discussion with CIS, then diving into CIS International Accreditation, made us look at it far more broadly. At each stage in the process, CIS shared ideas and experiences from other CIS schools as an example of how we could learn from what was happening in the global CIS community.

Ms Olga Mozhayeva, NIS

Here are some of the ways they balance a celebration of Kazakh culture, tradition and patriotism with global citizenship.

  • NIS Shanyrak
    All of their education services are carefully designed to ensure that these themes are centrally threaded through them, from curriculum design that balances local and international content, to their team-teaching approach where both a local and an international teacher teach together.
  • A Shanyrak (see photo below) is the roof of a yurt or traditional Kazakh house that provides shelter and is a safe place for people to come together. According to Wikipedia, a shanyrak symbolizes well-being of family, peace and calmness. The traditions of shanyrak live on at NIS. The pastoral Shanyrak system was implemented for students to gather, share ideas and work together on projects and team work. The collaborative aspect develops skills and character. It’s a place where older students take responsibility for guiding, teaching and supporting the younger students, and where younger students learn to listen to and be guided by the older students, their elders.
  • Global perspectives are developed through student project work across local and global topics and issues. Social projects are designed for students to learn more about their own country as well as make them better researchers.
  • Summer schools with international universities provide opportunities to learn about the local specialties in the location of the universities. For example, some students attended summer school at Stanford in the US, Melbourne, Australia and Paris, France this year—at no cost to the students.
  • Annual overseas trips and cultural exchanges for all students to international universities and partner schools develop both academic skills and intercultural knowledge. They have swapped cultural knowledge and experiences with partner schools in Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, Moscow and several other locations. Again, with no charge to the students.

What NIS does really well is to leverage their connections. They fully realize the value of their CIS membership, attending workshops, events, and conferences—as participants and as speakers. They also participated in our first School-University Summit – identifying challenges across sectors. They do a great job of both increasing their exposure to new networks and learning opportunities while also using them as a platform to showcase what they are achieving in their country. They embrace the two-way street.

Stuart McLay
Kazakhstan Counsellor workshop 2019

Heading towards their 2030 strategy

The Kazakhstan Strategic Development Plan envisages “further introduction to the national education system of the renewed content developing functional literacy, critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real life.“ NIS will “realise its broad strategic aims through the systematic implementation of ‘one thousand small yet important steps’” with the main priorities to focus on the sustainable development of NIS and the continued dissemination of the NIS experience to the national education system.

With the number of CIS schools seeking CIS International Accreditation growing in Kazakhstan, the ‘NIS effect’ is clearly having an impact.

When our first NIS schools started CIS International Accreditation, different schools and comprehensive schools in the region came to us to ask about accreditation—what it is, the benefits, etc. We will continue to work with CIS to improve and maintain the high quality of our educational offering.

Indira Ismailova

Maintaining excellence is key. Continuing to build on mathematics and physics skills.

Staying relevant is also key. Ms Olga Mozhayeva explains their intention to keep up with trends and the skills they teach, continuing to seek the best teachers and students for their beacon schools, and sharing all they learn and develop with comprehensive schools. She says that they are also embracing their role as a national coordinator of education 2030 for the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4. In development, ‘NIS Engineering’ will foster more ‘creative maker’ skills, encouraging students to develop entrepreneurial and work-ready skills. Digitization and IT in education, is also on their list as NIS educators explore more flexible teaching and learning styles with blended and distance learning in mind.

When it comes to sending their graduates out into the world:

We welcome students’ higher education in different countries, it breaks down country borders and gives young people the opportunities to improve their skills wherever they are. By contributing to the global community, our students will also be contributing to their native country, as patriots and global citizens.

Ms Gulnar Kurmanbayeva

We continue to be excited about our role in supporting Kazakhstan's ambitious plans to change the face of education to meet the demands of its recent accelerated socio-economic developments. The country's investment in its youth is clear to see in their achievements

Stuart McLay