A principle couple

Whichschooladvisor, 03.01.16, HMC international member Mark Steed has taken over the role of Director of leading independent Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) one of Dubai’s long-standing and well-loved not-for-profit schools while wife Samantha has accepted a different challenge as launch principal of the Ranches Primary School (RPS) which opened its doors in September 2015. Whichschooladvisor caught up with the couple to find out how they were adapting to life in Dubai.

WSA: How do you see the school scene in Dubai at the moment?
M: The last year or so has been the first time when supply outstripped demand. It’s clearly a KHDA policy to provide parents with choice and that is a good thing. The consequence of this is that there will be increased competition which will result in some schools doing well and others which won’t. Competition means that parents will pay increased attention to key criteria such as exam results and the price of education as well as other factors both within and outside the classroom.

S: One of the key demands that KHDA has made of schools is that all heads have a masters degree and this is a tall order. Given the transient nature of the population in Dubai and the increasing competition for teaching staff globally I think that ensuring that we attract and retain high caliber staff will be a major challenge.

WSA: There are scheduled to be 21 new schools opening over the next two years. How do you see this impacting the market?
M: The model which clearly works is having a residential community with shops, clubs, sporting facilities and, of course, schools. So with JESS Arabian Ranches, Ranches Primary School and GEMS’ school in the Villa you can see the evident success of this model. Where I see problems is where schools are closer to town, where they don’t have an excellent reputation and where there are significant issues around traffic and parking. One of the key issues for parents is ease of access and travel time to school.

WSA: What attracted both of you to come to Dubai?
S: As a couple what attracted us to Dubai was that we were looking to come to a place which was undergoing an educational explosion. We were looking to find a place which was exciting, dynamic and that was a big draw for us.

M: We both come from a teaching environment which is highly competitive – the independent sector in the south east of England – so the idea of competition is nothing new for us. Our experience is that competition drives everyone to reach for the next level. What is important though is that the high performing schools collaborate. I don’t believe that the not-for-profit schools in Dubai really compete with each other so by working together and sharing best practice we can all help to drive up standards.

WSA: JESS is one of the original community schools. Ranches Primary new one. What is a community school? 
S: The feeling that the school is a part of their home. They can expect the warmth, a friendly face. It’s a school that has a heart. When I first saw Ranches Primary School I knew that this is a school where I could help nurture such an atmosphere.

WSA: Any lessons from JESS’s ten years as a developed community school?
M: Parking! We have a significant number of pupils who can cycle to school and a lot of people who don’t have to travel very far and that makes a significant difference. One of the key advantages of a community school is that it encourages independence – if children can make their own way to school it’s a big step. The danger in Dubai is that children are robbed of this opportunity since so many of them are delivered to school in a car and then picked up by their parents at the end of the day.

S: Parents are also looking for a community for themselves. They don’t have family members close so having two or three parents on the same street whose children attend the same school makes a big difference. The most common conversation I’m having with parents at Ranches Primary School is where can we park our bikes and that’s fantastic.

WSA: Some schools that have launched over the past few years have made active efforts to appeal to parents. They have, for instance, made sporting facilities available to them or set up coffee shops where they can meet. You weren’t tempted to build a coffee shop in the school, Samantha?
S: There’s one that’s easily accessible for the parents in the souq next door, so that was never considered. And also it’s important to remember that school is the children’s place, it’s where they come to work. Children behave differently when there are parents around.

WSA: A new unified inspection framework has been announced. How will this affect schools?
M: A good school is a good school is a good school. Inspection is welcome and is a part of any strong educational environment so good schools should have nothing to fear from inspection. As I see it with the new regime there’s a greater emphasis on Arabic and Islamic Studies and we have already put in place the systems and processes to accommodate this.

WSA: Wellbeing is a major issue. We’ve seen this in the UK independent sector in particular with the work that Anthony Seldon did at Wellington College. Is this a focus for you?

S: Both Mark and I have worked in an environment where children were expected to perform well academically and we worked with parents to help them understand that the children needed to have time away from their work and their prep. At Berkhamsted we became known as a school which had children who performed strongly but were also well-rounded individuals. At Ranches Primary School, for instance, children will not have any homework. If I had my way I would say that homework would have no place in primary education. Home learning, however, is a different matter – discussion with parents, going on a trip, gardening or cooking – these are very valuable activities from which children gain enormously. There is no evidence to suggest that homework raises academic ability – I’ve spent a lot of time researching this and the evidence is indisputable. As far as wellbeing is concerned principals need to be careful not to encourage the creation of these ‘spiky educational profiles’ where children achieve 5 A stars but they are socially awkward.

WSA: Another area which is receiving a lot of attention is the issue of resilience. Do you think it can be taught?
S: Absolutely. It’s one of our core values at Ranches Primary School. I spoke to the staff about this issue telling them that coming to a new country and engaging in a new school will test them and will require resilience on their part. We speak to the pupils as well about failure and how to deal with it. Failure is inevitable but it’s important that children realize that what’s important is to find out what lessons you learn from failure and that you use these lessons as you continue on your journey. Resilience is not taught as a discrete lesson, it’s very much built into the everyday experience of the children. There’s also a great danger in spoon-feeding children and making everything accessible and easy. Children should be taught strong thinking skills and that there is a need to apply yourself to difficult problems. In the time of Google and iPads we’re all very impatient for immediate answers.

M: The message we need to get across to parents is that children need to fail which is part of the journey of discovery. Dubai is a cultural melting pot and what’s clear is that in some cultures anything less than a perfect score is a failure and there are other cultures where parents are really laid-back and are more interested in a welcoming school environment but the way to address both of these approaches is to say ‘there will be failure but what’s important is what you’re going to learn from that failure’. There is the dream that education is perfect scores all the way but this isn’t realistic. The best maths teachers, for instance, are often those who didn’t get first class honours but who got thirds, struggled all the way but can empathise strongly with the struggle of children who take time to understand key concepts.

WSA: Is there anything about parents in the UAE that has struck you in particular?
M: I think parents here are aspirational. Some of them aren’t used to private education. They know that they’re paying for education but they don’t know exactly what they should expect so there is a learning curve there for parents about how these schools operate. The fact that parents here are generally aspirational and ambitious creates its own exciting culture. In the UK system you have more established structures whereas you don’t have those set hierarchies here in quite the same way.

S: In the UK independent sector what I found is that most parents who’ve had some experience of it take a hands-off approach. They generally trust you to get on with the job. With new parents, both here and in the UK, they figure that because they’re paying they treat you like staff. It takes them a while to learn that this is not appropriate. Because they’re paying they’re not paying you personally to tutor their child individually. One thing I have noticed specifically to Dubai though is sleep patterns. Many children appear to be up much later than they would be in the UK. We expect them to be bright and good to go at 8 o’clock in the morning and this is often not the case.

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