Correcting His Grammar: Meet William Deacon

Turning a school around doesn't always take big budgets and costly PR; sometimes all it needs is determination and a drive to create something better...
Correcting His Grammar: Meet William Deacon
By C Hoppe
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LET'S GO

“This school needs and deserves love and attention,” says principal William Deacon. “Our parents deserve it; our children deserve it and our teachers deserve it.”

Deacon is talking about the Acceptable rated Grammar School, a 1,200 student UK curriculum school located in Garhoud, Dubai.

Until last year, parents at the school had very little to celebrate. Grammar was hovering at the lower end of Acceptable, with uninspired teachers and underperforming students.

Today though, things are very different.

A take-over by Athena Education in late 2015 and the recruitment of Deacon and his wife Margaret in early 2016, has seen the school and its community chart a new and positive course.

“They [Athena] has supported me, they’ve found money when I needed money and although our tuition fees are low, the new owners have said that for the first five years, they will not take a single penny out of the school and it all gets reinvested.”

“What we’re looking at is a low fee… yet highly sought-after school.” And, at Grammar the fees are certainly low; priced at AED 4,600 for Foundation to AED 6,500 for Year 12.

However, word is clearly out across Garhoud, that things at Grammar are on the up.

Back in 2015, KHDA inspectors noted that 180 students had left along with almost 50 percent of the teachers. Today however, it’s a very different story.

“We have 400 new students this year alone,” he says. “That’s one third of our school and we have a waiting list in every single year group.”

 

Scots, William and Margaret Deacon are an unlikely duo to take over the management of the once-beleaguered Grammar School.

Experienced teachers both in the UK and abroad, with Middle East experience and several years spent managing schools, the couple are an improbable coup for a school which has only, in the past few years, risen from Weak to Acceptable in its KHDA inspections.

However, it would seem the Deacons really rather enjoy a challenge.

“I came from a business background,” says William, “so it’s the challenge that attracted me.”

“We realised very quickly, this school was based on boys and girls being segregated.”

“We got together and said, we’re going to turn this into a British type school, and that means we’re going to phase out segregation.”

“This September, we introduced coeducation and mixed ability classes and we have not had a single objection,” he says.

“In fact, our parents were 100 percent behind us.”

 

Improving Teachers

“When we arrived teacher-turnover was between 40 and 50 percent,” he says, “this year, only one teacher left.”

“That said, we have replaced some of the weaker ones, our teachers are now observed over the year and need to achieve a minimum of Good or above, if they’re not, we will not renew contracts.”

Grammar’s teachers are mostly young and hail from either India or Pakistan.

“We take young teachers, because the salaries are low, as the fees are low… but they must have a teaching qualification.”

“But, a teaching qualification from Pakistan or India is not comparable to that of the UK, so what we do is have stay-back training twice a week.”

“We are now a Professional Learning Community (PLC), so my job, with my team leaders, is to bring my teaching staff up to a UK standard, as a very minimum.”

Deacon also has five teachers from the UK who joined him at Grammar.

He points out that they followed him from his previous posts and while their salaries have dropped from what they were previously earning, they are still incredibly driven.

“They’re teachers who know it’s a challenge and want to roll up their sleeves,” he says of his small UK team.

“They’re in the classrooms teaching, training, developing, monitoring and mentoring our young teachers.”

“Last year I had three UK teachers who were teaching and team leaders, this year I have five and they’re non-teaching. They have specific roles… improving teaching and learning in the classroom… target setting and data management.”

“Now this costs us a lot of money,” he says. “A UK teacher is a lot more expensive than any other teacher here, but, all my young teachers are looking up to my UK teachers and learning and loving the fact they have someone to go to get help.”

“We can’t pay big wages, and they know that, but what we do have is teachers willing to learn, happy to put it back into practice and we’re driving the school forward.”

 

Monitoring and Assessment

The Deacons identified assessment as another immediate priority at Grammar.

Under the previous administration, the KHDA had continually highlighted the need for external benchmarking and improved student tracking.

In response, the Deacons began rolling out a whole-school international assessment policy.

“In 2016, we said we were not happy with the [student] results, so we persuaded the owners to give us a budget to GL and CAT 4 test every student.”

A costly move for the school, considering the KHDA requires only three specific age groups for external assessment.

He says of the initial results, “attainment in the GL test was low, but as the KHDA said, you can not penalise the Grammar School for doing something truthful for the first time.”

“We’ve got true results… a baseline that’s truthful… fantastic data- really, for the first time.”

However, although the school may have generated its first set of genuine results, they were far from impressive.

“In 2016, when we CAT tested every child, 82 percent of our children were at the low or very low level.”

“We have such a high proportion of low ability children, although they are capable, they have simply not experienced good quality teaching and learning.”

 

“In June this year, we repeated the exercise and the proof is there, the results have risen significantly,” he says.

“Our results for FS, plus Years’ one, two and three, went up significant amounts because we had a year’s influence on them.”

Deacon notes that further up the school progress is slower— although still positive. Given the gaps in student learning, he understands older children require a little more time.

“The IGCSE have gone up, but only slightly this year, it’s a huge task… the exams are a three-year ongoing project.”

“So we now have to work hard with additional help, learning support, parents helping to bring these kids up to an acceptable standard,” he says.

 

Resources and Campus

Development of the classrooms and campus is also continuing at a significant pace. Throughout the school, classrooms have been restructured with new furniture, décor and of course equipment.

“Every classroom now has a projector and a screen… we have five interactive boards, on wheels which will move about. Every teacher has a laptop and every child is now required to have a school tablet.”

“Our job this year is to improve independent learning, and research skills that is why we have told parents you must buy these tablets.”

Corridors across the school are now utilised as breakout spaces and there’s even six classes of FS students working side by side in the gym hall, awaiting the delayed completion of their brand-new Foundation building.

“We have 150 new FS students this year- about to go into new classrooms,” he says.

 

Although things are improving across Grammar’s classrooms, Deacon is also contending with other issues inherited from the previous administration.

Of significance, is stamping out the culture of fee avoidance.

“They just drop them off and expect their children to be let in, he says. “But we’re on top of registration now and know who they are. They get taken to a room and the parents called to collect them,” he says.

Clearly there are some who have abused the system for several years, and while he won’t say, we suspect he’s dealing with historical and possibly significant outstanding debts.

“Every space they are taking is a space we could fill with someone who does actually pay and then we have the money for more improvements,” he says.

Deacon is quick to clarify the difference between ‘refusing’ to pay and being ‘unable’ to pay, highlighting the assistance offered to those who can’t pay.

“We also have quite a lot of parents who are funded by charities. If a parent comes to me and tells me they have lost a job and they have been with us for some time, of course we will not penalise those children.”

“We say right, given them the list of charities and a letter from me… and 90 percent of these, get their fees paid.”

 

“These children deserve the same education as anyone else in Dubai, he says. And my goal is to make it [Grammar] Outstanding.

“My goal is to double the school roll, get attainment up, and one day, this school will be Outstanding.”

However, William remains adamant that while the school improves, the fees will remain attractive to the current demographic group.

"We will not abandon our parents many of which work two to three jobs to pay for this school… we don’t want to lose any of them."

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