Principal speak: Reflections on the year gone by

As we draw curtains on 2023-24, principals from schools across the GCC share their major accomplishments, challenges and learnings from the academic year 

Dubai, July 1, 2024: As the academic year draws to a close, school leaders across the GCC reflect on the experiences of 2023-24, sharing their insights with Education Middle East. They recount major accomplishments, key challenges and significant learnings that will shape the next academic year. These reflections highlight the dedication, resilience and innovation driving their schools forward through a year marked by both notable achievements and considerable obstacles. 

Prioritising environmental sustainability and well-being remained at the forefront, while challenges such as a shortage of quality teachers, pandemic-induced student absenteeism and adverse weather conditions presented significant hurdles. 

From attaining top ratings and fostering student well-being to navigating the complexities of digital technology and embracing AI, principals celebrate their successes and offer valuable lessons for the future. 

 

Simon Crane, Head Master, Brighton College Dubai   

Simon Crane, Head Master, Brighton College Dubai

This year Brighton College Dubai’s KHDA rating has been upgraded to ‘Very Good’ – an achievement we are undoubtedly proud of.  Another highlight has been the success of our second-ever cohort of Year 13s, who have managed to secure offers from top universities around the world, including over a dozen Russell Group universities in the UK.  Among other things to celebrate is the growth of our student numbers to over a 1,000 and a high retention of staff.  We take pride in prioritising staff well-being and are very happy to see it paying off. 

The biggest challenge this year has been an ongoing rise of digital technology and associated concerns, including students’ screen time. Following consulting with the parents, those have been addressed by updating the relevant policies and increasing the age when students need to use an individual device.  Additionally, a ban on mobile phones is being introduced for the next academic year, applicable to students from Year 9 and below. 

Our major learnings from this year include the significance of well-being in every aspect of the school’s life, simulating students’ curiosity through innovative teaching, and the remaining focus on kindness as a core value and a part of our DNA.  

 

Sarah O’Regan, Principal/CEO at GEMS Wellington Academy – Silicon Oasis 

Sarah O’Regan, Principal/CEO at GEMS Wellington Academy – Silicon Oasis

I am proud to say that we have accomplishments across every year group. In Early Years, our Reggio-Emilia Nursery has been recognised as one of The Best Nurseries in Dubai, and for the ninth consecutive year, our Foundation Stage received a KHDA ‘Outstanding’ grade.  

WSO proudly accepted the Optimus Well-being Award for schools, reflecting the integrity and commitment to nurturing the well-being and growth of our entire school community. 

We hosted our largest-ever university fair, welcoming more than 80 universities, providing invaluable opportunities for our students to explore higher education options and pursue their aspirations on a global scale. Our teams also facilitated university trips to prestigious institutions such as NYU Abu Dhabi, RIT and Emirates Aviation University to broaden our students’ academic experiences and aspirations, preparing them to be world-ready leaders in their chosen fields. 

In performing arts we had 60 male students thrive in the UDO #BoyzCanDance programme on scholarships, showcasing their talent in dance, while promoting unity through shared passion and achievement. 

And lastly, the release of ‘The Climb – West End Stage Dubai – GEMS Wellington Schools Charity Single’ on iTunes marked a significant milestone, topping the UAE and UK Soundtrack charts. During the Wellington Performing Arts Gala, our community’s generosity shone through as we raised over Dhs30,000 for Harmony House orphanage in India, demonstrating our collective commitment to making a positive impact globally. 

A major challenge for this academic year was coping with the severe weather conditions that impacted the UAE. In addition to the obvious physical damage caused to many of our facilities, including our newly renovated Performing Arts, Foundation Stage and Nursery classrooms; a key challenge was the ongoing education of our students – many of whom were experiencing damage to their own homes. In this challenging circumstance our staff and teachers needed to provide a broad hybrid system of remote, live (online) and in some cases physically resourced lessons, ensuring that the rain disruption did not unduly affect our students’ progress. This was magnified by the timings of the exam schedule, with the academic examinations needing to go ahead. A monumental effort from the WSO staff meant examinations continued despite these challenges.  

The wider physical damage to the premises of WSO was managed incredibly by the operations and cleaning teams, ensuring the school was able to reopen safely to our students as soon as the rains had subsided. It is certainly a time few will forget but a challenge that was managed through hard work and a desire to keep our educational provision available to all students. Our ability to swiftly switch to remote learning and the systems and processes we have in place to achieve this have now been further strengthened, definitely something we will continue to carry into the next academic year if and when needed. 

 

Rebecca Coulter, Principal, Dubai British School – Jumeirah Park 

Rebecca Coulter, Principal, Dubai British School – Jumeirah Park

The 2023-24 academic year has been exceptionally successful for DBSJP, marked by numerous notable achievements. We have been awarded an ‘Outstanding’ rating by the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB). DBSJP is the first school in the UAE to receive the Inclusion Quality Mark, earning subsequent recognition as a Centre for Excellence. Our commitment to providing an arts education for all students has been recognized with the SchoolsCompared.com award for ‘Best School in the UAE for Theatre, Dance and the Performing Arts.’ At the Education Excellence Awards, our Foundation Stage team was honoured as the Team of the Year, underscoring their exceptional contribution to early childhood education. Additionally, our Sports Department was recognised as the best in the UAE, winning the Sports Department of the Year award.  

One of the biggest challenges facing education currently is the global teacher shortage. While Dubai remains an attractive place for expats to live and work, the shortage of high-quality teachers is palpable. To overcome this, Taaleem increased the international packages for teachers, which reflect the changes to current rental markets and the cost of living, which has been very positively received.  

We will continue to focus on the well-being of our staff, students and the wider community. Well-being is crucial for a school community as it enhances students’ academic success, supports teachers’ effectiveness and fosters a positive environment. Our ongoing strategic approaches to well-being have had a positive impact on levels of resilience, seen a measurable reduction in stress, and have ensured that everyone feels valued and empowered to reach their full potential. 

 

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, Principal & Director, Delhi Private School Dubai 

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, Principal & Director, Delhi Private School Dubai

Well-being has been a focus area in our school, and we were delighted to be rated ‘Outstanding’ in well-being by the DSIB team in our last inspection. We have made a proactive effort to disseminate our good practices to other schools, by entertaining school visits and holding an inter-school wellness conclave. Our wellness programme is built on the PERMAH pillars, and we work with all stakeholders and every phase of the school to meaningfully explore each pillar. 

One of the greatest challenges has been to dexterously manage the change post pandemic. We adroitly worked our way around the challenges of returning to the campus, compensating for emotional, cognitive and behavioural shifts. Learning gaps were identified and supported. Counselling and wellness strategies mitigated most of the concerning issues. 

Finding competent teachers remains a challenge as well as managing resources in a low fee school while retaining the excellent standards of our school. Fortunately, our commendable work ethic and high motivation levels have worked in our favour. We have emerged as one of the top schools in all external tests: CBSE, TIMSS, PISA, PIRLS, ASSET.  

Our greatest learning this year has been that it is best to embrace change. Rather than ban the use of AI, we have embraced AI to lessen the workload of teachers and have concentrated on testing the creative and critical thinking of students. This has often meant an agility in testing formats such as open book tests, case studies and project-based assignments. Students are enthusiastically learning how to ethically use AI for greater speed and efficiency. 

 

Darren Gale, Principal at Horizon International School 

Darren Gale, Principal at Horizon International School

Since 2018, Horizon International School has been on a significant school improvement journey.  While the school was never failing, it was clear that there was more that could be done to ensure it continued to thrive. The school had a strong sense of community and believed it could reach its full potential through the right culture, the right people and the right approach. We are very proud of all that we have achieved since 2018, while growing the school, significantly improving standards and outcomes and enhancing high quality provision for all. We have not lost our strong, authentic culture and have maintained our tireless focus on our students being the best versions of themselves. I am proud that the DSIB, BSO and NACE accreditations have ratified this year. 

The biggest challenge was maintaining a strong sense of trust and confidence in a very competitive market. School improvement and development, when done properly and authentically, takes time. Open, transparent, frequent and clear communication is vital to success, as is ensuring that systems and processes align with the key messages and aims of the school. In a rapidly growing school, it is crucial to ensure that no one is left behind and that we hold dear to our vision, values and key priorities. With developed trust and confidence, we can let the ‘runners run!’ 

Anything is possible, with the right people, in the right places with the right culture; the sky is the limit.  

 

Nicholas Rickford, Principal, Sunmarke School 

Nicholas Rickford, Principal, Sunmarke School

At Sunmarke, we take great pride in our commitment to environmental sustainability. Our initiatives span all age groups, starting with EYFS children enthusiastically collecting and recycling plastics, and Primary students assuming roles such as eco-monitor, wildlife watcher and energy saver. In Secondary, the Eco-committee continues to lead a variety of green initiatives, inspired by Year 12 student Sofia, who made a powerful call for immediate climate action at COP28’s Next Gen World Majlis event. 

A significant challenge for educators globally was integrating generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) into teaching and learning. We quickly established ourselves as a GenAI early adopter, committing energy and resources to investigating the power of AI to enhance learning. Within safe parameters, students of all ages experimented with text-to-image generators and managed to bring their ideas and even historical characters to life at the click of a button.   

One major learning has been the profound impact service and outreach can have in the community. While IB Diploma CAS students have been cleaning up Dubai’s beaches, Sixth Formers in our Civitas programme have been providing academic support to their younger peers and distributing gift boxes to the school’s support staff. Moving forward, we aim to expand these programmes, further embedding the values of service and empathy, and preparing students to make a positive impact as global citizens of the future. 

 

Robert Rinaldo, Head of School & CEO, GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi 

Robert Rinaldo, Head of School & CEO, GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi

Over the past year at GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi, we made significant progress in enhancing our academic programmes and fostering an even more holistic educational environment. We focused efforts on identifying academic needs and tailoring our programmes to improve literacy and numeracy skills. This included, at the upper levels, successful research and the introduction of the AP curriculum, to complement our existing American and IB programme offerings. 

We established a strong structure for our Special Education Needs (SEN) programme, supported by a team of inclusion specialists. Our focus on wellness and student-centeredness allowed students the opportunity to discover their pathways through diverse athletic, artistic, and club activities. The musical performances and school musical theatre productions across all divisions were once again one of our major highlights, showcasing our students’ talents and creativity. 

We continued to proactively identify learning gaps and address cases of student absenteeism stemming from the pandemic. To tackle these challenges, we modified and revised existing academic improvement plans and had attendance secretaries and deans actively engage in monitoring and motivating students to improve attendance and participation. 

Major learnings included the importance of accountability, rigour and active participation in fostering a quality education. Moving into the next academic year, we will continue to refine our academic programmes, emphasise student well-being, and foster a supportive and inclusive environment. We will continue to encourage students to be contributing members of their school community, both in and out of the classroom, to enhance their overall educational experience and personal growth. 

 

Jan Stipek, Principal, Regent International School 

Jan Stipek, Principal, Regent International School

Reflecting back on the school year, two accomplishments stand out for us. We continue to strategically create meaningful and diverse opportunities for our students in and outside of classroom. Whether it is STEAM challenges like F1 in Schools, high-level sporting competitions, semi-professional musical productions, or environment-focused Forrest School activities, our students continued to apply themselves fully and made us very proud by winning awards and trophies, or generally by being polite and collaborative human beings representing their school and their peers.  Another accomplishment is consolidating our Secondary years into a cohesive programme and therefore making Regent a through school from Early Years to Sixth Form. 

Although our campus was relatively unaffected by this year’s flooding in the UAE, the situation probably presented the biggest challenge as it was about managing the ‘unknown’, much like during the COVID years. Ensuring we act in full compliance with the local authorities, and coordinating the right and timely closure, update and re-opening messages took a lot of effort. Thankfully, I am surrounded by extremely professional and dedicated staff – both academic and operations – who showed amazing cohesion, reliability and pragmatism in this situation. It also helped that we have an existing robust online learning approach, which we could deploy to ensure continued teaching and learning for all students.  

This was my first year in the UAE and so the main learning for me as a leader is the inspection framework and process. Although I have participated and led many evaluation visits in my three decades in education, every accrediting body is different. I am very proud of how well we did on the last inspection, especially as it came very early in the school year which was also an opportunity for me to jump straight in as the new Principal. 

 

Timothy Roberts, School Principal, Raffles World Academy 

Timothy Roberts, School Principal, Raffles World Academy

Our largest accomplishment this year was the huge improvement in the performing arts department.  We had a deliberate push to bring these items, particularly to the fore. We invested heavily in staffing and resources (pianos, drums, other instruments). Our proudest achievement was the creation of our school song, which has already improved the school spirit and been a huge draw for parents. The goal now is to extend whole class/year group performances throughout the school. 

I believe a sense of community and purpose can be embedded in the school through the power of music.  Additionally, it gives the older children a sense of confidence in their talents that music and performance is not just for those who happen to be very talented. 

 

Edward Pearce, School Director, Fairgreen International School 

Edward Pearce, School Director, Fairgreen International School

One of our most notable accomplishments is being appointed as a COP28 school partner. The partnership allowed several of our students to attend the Green Zone at COP28, where they met with ambassadors and government officials to advocate for climate change policies and contribute to the Global Climate Manifesto. 

Another highlight is Fairgreen’s performance in the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. Our secondary students participated in this international study in 2022, and the results were significantly higher than those of other private schools in Dubai, surpassing the National Agenda targets and international averages in Maths, Science, and particularly strong in Reading. 

Fairgreen also achieved the ‘Green Schools® Certification – Platinum,’ recognising our holistic approach to sustainability in categories such as Waste, Water, Green Space, Energy, Health & Safety, and Sustainability Education and Innovation. Our curriculum and operations reflect this commitment, driven by our values and student engagement. 

We are also thrilled that our secondary students reached the Junk Kouture World Finals, representing Fairgreen and the UAE in this sustainable fashion competition, promoting active climate change initiatives. 

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