Aldenham Prep Riyadh: British Education in Saudi

The Head of Aldenham Prep School Riyadh, Matt Aston, talks to about the Saudi Arabia’s roadmap to transform education and how his new role offers the opportunity for fresh challenges and growth.
Aldenham Prep Riyadh: British Education in Saudi
By Carli Allan
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What’s in the name of a school? For the many international schools worldwide that have opened carrying the branding of well-known UK independent schools, it can be everything. Families are attracted to the reputation, familiarity and standards of British schools; and while these overseas branches will not be carbon copies of their UK schools, parents can and should expect certain similarities in their offerings.

When Aldenham Prep School Riyadh opened last year, it was not a question of a strong connection to its 425-year-old Hertfordshire-based prep school in the UK, but a matter of direct ownership and operation by the parent school. As Matt Aston, the new Head at this Riyadh-based prep school, says:

“We haven’t just given the Aldenham name to this school in Saudi. It’s not set up in name only, but the Saudi school is owned by the UK school and the evidence of this can be seen in the curriculum, the broad activities, and the underlying principles of a well-rounded, holistic education (including the pastoral care). They are all here at Aldenham Prep Riyadh.”

Mr Aston is moving from a successful headship at an international school in Kazakhstan, also an outpost of a distinguished UK independent school. At Aldenham Mr Aston saw an exciting opportunity to focus on a British education while continuing to work internationally and be at the forefront of the Saudi Vision 2030.

He takes on a school with British roots that date back to 1597, and one that, when it opened in the As Sahafah area last September, made the promise to “mirror exactly what happens in our Aldenham UK School, which is famous for its focus on an excellent all round education”.

And so far, so very good: The school’s offering of a traditional 'British' education in a modern setting is proving highly successful. The school has doubled in size within its first year and is nearing full capacity for 300 students. It’s an even mix of Saudi and international students, with expat families coming from the UK, Spain, China, Brazil and India, which is reflective of the nationalities who are relocating to Saudi. Local families are being encouraged by the Saudi Vision 2030 to offer their child the highest quality of education in genuinely international schools.

As Aldenham Prep Riyadh now moves into its second year, Mr Aston will lead the growth of this school. A former psychology student (and a keen Ironman and marathon runner), Mr Aston moved into teaching to “guarantee that he had the opportunity to help people”. And, as Mr Aston talks to, his vision for the school and passion for education and building relationships with families suggests he can steer this school in a positive direction.

Matt Aston is the new Head at Aldenham Prep School Riyadh; he was previously Head of School at Haileybury School Almaty, Kazakhstan.

You come to Aldenham Prep School Riyadh with previous international school experience in both Asia and the Middle East – as Head of School at Haileybury School Almaty, Kazakhstan for the past eight years and, prior to this, as Deputy Head of Primary at Kuwait English School for four years. 

How will you build on this previous experience to lead the school into the future? 

“My first international posting at Kuwait English School was a long time ago (2009-2014) now – but that’s when I fell in love with international teaching. As much as I enjoyed inner city Birmingham at the start of my career, international teaching brings its own rewards and challenges. 

“I can see parallels between Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia, and similarities between my role at Haileybury and my new role at Aldenham. While Haileybury was more established (it opened seven years before I joined), in my eight years as head I took it from its beginnings as a recruiting school to a fully-established school. I implemented systems, cultivated a positive culture and fostered the strong sense of community that shaped Haileybury into the school it is today – and I am very proud of that.

“The seeds are already in place at Aldenham for me to work with and nurture. I visited the school in May when I met the children, the teachers and also the parents; I really got a sense of pride, passion and excitement for the school and the direction in which its going. There’s a lot to be excited about – and my experience speaks to that. 

“There will be some differences, though. Coming from the Kazakhstan winters of - 30 to the Saudi summers of 45+ being one!"

Aldenham Prep School Riyadh has almost doubled in size since opening in 2022.

How does the move from an established, 15-year-old school in Kazakhstan to a new school in Saudi Arabia offer the opportunity for fresh challenges and professional growth?

“Saudi is a very ambitious country, and in many ways so was Kazakhstan. Having only declared its independence in the early 1990s, this was a new country with an ambitious population seeking to forge its own identity and invest in education.

“I don't think I realised quite how exciting the opportunity to work in Saudi was at the point of making the job application, but while preparing for the interview I quickly realised that Saudi is such an exciting and vibrant place to be.

"The entire educational landscape is changing here, and my role at Aldenham presents an exciting opportunity to be at the forefront of the Saudi Vision 2030. It goes beyond the development of the school; it involves actively shaping the education sector in Saudi. To embrace this challenge and take on this responsibility is very exciting and inspiring.”

Teaching at Aldenham Prep School Riyadh combines the National Curriculum for England with the International Primary Curriculum (IPC).

What do you think parents are looking for in an international school in Saudi Arabia, and how does Aldenham meet those demands by combining the strengths of the UK curriculum with aspects of an international education?

“British education is widely recognised by parents as a stamp of excellence. I think they’re very keen to sign up for the British approach to education, appreciating the high standards and the quality of well-trained teachers that the UK is internationally recognised for. In the case of Aldenham Riyadh, this is further strengthened by the involvement of Aldenham UK in the recruitment process.

“Our teachers are interviewed by Head of the Aldenham Foundation, Alex Hems, alongside myself; while Alex is probing teachers on the Aldenham philosophy and the British independent school philosophy, I’m asking how they will relate that to the cultural context of being in a different country and working with children from all over the world. While our families are looking for that distinct British education, there's also an understanding that the school aims to develop and nurture global citizens.

“Our curriculum at Aldenham follows the 425-year-old philosophy of our UK school, which focuses on developing well-rounded individuals. English, maths and science follow the National Curriculum for England, and we’re taking the lead from our UK school by using the Hertfordshire learning for English. The International Primary Curriculum (IPC) is used for subjects such as history, geography, art and music, which offers a broader focus and allows students to explore topics from a global perspective.

We are combining the ambitious nature of the UK’s age-related objectives with the more cross-curricular and enquiry-led approach of the International Baccalaureate learner profile. We are focused on empowering our students to develop lifelong learning skills such as adaptability, resilience, resourcefulness, and the ability to ask insightful questions.

Aldenham Prep School Riyadh was led in its opening year by Vicky Gocher, who after 10 years as Principal at Aldenham Prep School UK relocated to Saudi Arabia.

Aldenham Prep School Riyadh was led in its opening year by Vicky Gocher, who after 10 years as Principal at Aldenham Prep School UK relocated to Saudi Arabia. This is clear evidence of the Aldenham Education Group’s intention to ensure that the Riyadh school is genuinely an operation led from the original school.

How will you continue to bring parents a very British education?

“There are plenty of international schools worldwide with the name, and we know that in different situations that name means different things depending on the level of the franchise agreement. This isn't a franchise agreement, it's an owner operated structure. 

“When I applied for this job, I couldn't help but feel like I’d hit the jackpot. It was an incredible opportunity to continue working internationally while fully immersing myself in the British educational experience. The prospect of combining both aspects was truly exciting.

“Aldenham has been really excellent in helping with the set-up of the school. Mrs Gocher, my predecessor, came from the UK as the founding head to ensure that the school was not being established in name only. The evidence of this can be seen in the curriculum, the broad activities, and the underlying principles of a well-rounded, holistic education (including the pastoral care). They are all here at Aldenham Prep Riyadh.

“Identically to the UK school, we focus on academics with an holistic approach that focuses on providing well-rounded opportunities for all children. We have the resources and facilities here – sports facilities, an art and design studio, wellbeing room, science laboratory, library and digital services – and our extra-curricular programme takes place during the after-school period until 4pm each day.

"As the school has expanded, we have welcomed more teachers to our team, enabling us to provide a wider and more diverse range of offerings to help children discover their passions. Through our carefully designed curriculum and high expectations, we strive to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve their full potential. 

“We're now really excited about the future direction of the school. There are huge benefits in working together on initiatives like teacher recruitment, and we're also looking to enhance our efforts in teacher training, curriculum support, and pupil exchanges. We want to maximise this opportunity and build on the strong foundations we have already established. Despite being just one year old, the school feels a lot more mature, and I hope to create new opportunities for our pupils and staff in the near future.”

Fees at Aldenham Prep School Riyadh start from 46,000 SAR for Nursery and Reception.

What do you plan to do in your first 100 days as head at Aldenham Prep School Riyadh?

“I'm going to be greedy and have two lots of 100 days! I've had from the beginning of April until I moved to Riyadh in July, where I had a chance to recruit teachers and find out more about the school. I've already had those 100 days, so I feel that I’m starting from a strong position and not from a standing start. 

“What’s key for me, though, is the first 100 days with the whole school community. The focus has to be on relationships and listening. Everyone in the school is a stakeholder and everybody has their own journey to complete. I value people, I listen to them, and I work out what is achievable. It’s important to communicate what we can do, and where we need to adapt as we move forward. 

“I always focus on building strong relationships, so I look forward to meeting parents and getting to know the children. What’s really exciting about moving to a school that's only one year old is encouraging the pupils, teachers and parents to make their own contribution towards strengthening our community. Together, we can create a warm, kind, caring, and welcoming environment – and together we can lay down the foundations of a school that will be known for years to come.

“I think it's appealing to come to a school that is new, very open to welcoming new parents, and gives families the opportunity to be heard, but in the knowledge that we have hundreds of years of experience and history to support us. We have the chance to make this school what we want it to be today, and in the future.”

Fees at Aldenham Prep School Riyadh start from 46,000 SAR for Nursery and Reception, increasing to 51,750 SAR for Years 1 and 2, and then rising to 63,250 SAR for Years 3 to 6.  The school offers a discount of 1,250 SAR for each sibling who joins.

For information on how to apply to Aldenham Prep School Riyadh, click here.

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