School Brands: Are You Getting 'The Real Thing'?

School Brands: Are You Getting 'The Real Thing'?
By David Westley
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By Mark Atkins, Headmaster, Foremarke School Dubai. I have no less than three Cartier watches. Oh yes. But despite the very attractive price, a saving of some six thousand pounds on the UK retail price, I have to say that I have been disappointed with the quality. True, all of the watches keep good time but on the first, the minute hand has fallen off, on the second, the winder has dropped out and on the third, purchased just 3 months ago, the glass has vanished.
“Without lighter touch regulation individuality and quirkiness are lost - a key component of UK private schools, and probably the key to their difference."
I am beginning to suspect that, possibly, they might not be the genuine article. When not searching for ‘bargains’ in Karama, I also play golf. Badly. Every week I dutifully buy a supply of golf balls from my local sports store. Soon afterwards, these are hooked, sliced or topped into a watery grave. But even knowing this, I always buy the more expensive quality balls as used by the professionals, eschewing the store’s own brand in the sure and certain knowledge that they will serve me better and earn the respect of my playing partners – good ball, good player, right? Wrong. My watches and my golf balls are just a deception, they may create the illusion of success and confidence but it is a flimsy smoke screen. I suppose, like most of the world, I am a sucker for a brand. A Timex would keep accurate time and not fall apart and an own brand ball would serve my game just as well as a Titleist but something about the name entices me and prevents me from applying common sense. And now we have branded schools. UK brand schools have been in the UAE for some time and more are on their way. My question therefore is, are these an imitation of the genuine article, a ‘Karama Cartier’ or welcome product of real quality?   Brands and the UAE, Hand in Glove When Repton School launched in Dubai in 2007, it was the first old English independent school to open a branch in Dubai. Repton followed the success of Harrow and Dulwich College in the Far East where the ‘brand school’ had proven popular, successful and profitable. Seven years on and even with the well-documented ups and downs associated with starting any new school, Repton is thriving and is viewed internationally as one of the more successful partner school operations in the world. On the back of this has followed Repton in Abu Dhabi, the prep school spin off ‘Foremarke’ and ambitious plans to take the brand all around the Gulf. More schools are coming. Brighton College has been operating in Abu Dhabi since 2011, Cranleigh in Abu Dhabi opens in September, Kent College and Durham School are bound for Dubai, Millfield is on its way and hardly a day passes before another prestigious British school is linked with the Gulf fuelling the hungry and expanding UAE market. It is not surprising that school brands should do well here; the UAE loves a brand. Dubai itself is a hugely successful international brand that has become synonymous with luxury and success. Dubai boasts the world’s richest horse race, the world’s only 7 star hotel, the world’s tallest building, the world’s finest dining. Indeed it is the only place in the world where you could be issued a speeding ticket from a policeman driving a Bugatti Veyron.  Dubai based brands also lead the world: Emirates has become the world’s leading airline and the Jumeirah Group one of the world’s leading hotel chains, all of this astonishing success and growth in a country that is only 42 years old. It is natural, therefore, that the UAE would fall in love with branded education. School operators have long recognised the benefits of a famous name. Indeed, there have been schools operating in the UAE for many years with names strongly associated with, but with no connection to, leading UK independent schools. With the establishment of Brighton College and Repton, the arrival of other partner schools is eagerly anticipated.   Brands: Opening the Right Doors? Cranleigh is a good example of how a strong brand name has the advantage over other schools. Competition for prime sites (and even not so prime sites) is fierce but a famous name will open hitherto locked doors. Boasting the largest campus in Abu Dhabi, it is the prestige associated with the Cranleigh name that has managed to secure seven hectares of prime real estate on Saadiyat in comparison to the usual inferior plot sizes and locations awarded to education. It is the same in Dubai where land for education is hard to find on a scale that a good school needs. However, landowners, always keen to maximise their asset, are quick to capitalise on the value of the brand. An approach to a landowner with a new  name is unlikely to elicit a positive response but bring a famous UK name and suddenly anything is possible. The brand alone will increase the value of the developments in the surrounding areas and, importantly, allow the landlord to bask in reflected glory of association with the school. Compare this to the struggle that a less well-known British school is having in getting a foothold in the UAE. Some six years on from its first attempt to establish itself in the UAE the school continues to struggle to find land and backers. True, it is not a particularly big name, in fact it is hardly known at all outside of London and the South East of England and yet it has been consistently recognised and praised by Ofsted for the quality of education and ‘ground-breaking’ work in the field of special needs. Consider, what the UAE needs most: Another famous academically selective brand or a school providing excellence in much needed SEN provision, a woefully under provided market? Sadly it seems that brands are just more sexy; the name mightier than the necessary. Authorities are aware of this. In a recent meeting about brand schools a government spokeswoman said, “We do not want Dubai to be brand oriented but education oriented.”   What We Need, Not What We Want I have long argued that the UAE needs smaller, more affordable schools focussed on quality but concentrating on the basics and able to cater adequately for pupils with a wide range of learning needs. What the UAE actually gets are large, sometimes impersonal, predominantly expensive and almost singularly profit oriented schools, providing luxuries focussed on a narrow band of able children. All this is not to say however, that famous UK independent schools do not bring value, or that there is no place for these top end focused schools. UK independent education is successful because it is often *very* good. Relative freedom from governmental interference has ensured that academic standards have been maintained and are the best in Britain, facilities for sport are exceptional and high quality music and drama programmes and facilities combine to produce some of the UK’s finest sportsman, musicians and actors. The question most relevant to those of us living overseas is, are the overseas partner schools providing the same quality? In short, are they worthy of the name and the fees?   The Advantages of Branded Schools Partner schools do have some important distinguishing qualities. While accepting that there is significant financial advantage to operating overseas, there is also great risk. The greatest risk of all is that of devaluation of the brand. This works strongly in the parents favour. In their desire to protect the good name of the school, UK schools are motivated to ensure that standards, as far as they are able, are maintained. In real terms for parents, this means quality assurance visits to make sure the quality of teaching and learning meet expected standards. It means that facilities will meet with stringent requirements and it means a robust voice on the Board of Governors to ensure that management of the overseas school is effective. Furthermore, UK schools have a strong say in the appointment of headteachers (subject to UAE authority approval) and also in the appointment of teaching staff (again, subject to UAE authority approval) and this should help ensure that headteachers and teaching staff of excellent quality are appointed. There are other advantages; firstly, partnerships between the home school and the overseas school allows for straightforward transfers from one school to the other and many pupils from UAE schools have taken up places at the UK school as a result. Likewise pupils have moved the other way, from the UK to the UAE. Teachers too get benefit from an exchange programme. In partner schools it is common for teachers to spend time in the school in the home country as well as overseas partner schools thus spreading knowledge, expertise and strengthening the ties between the schools. Lastly, partner schools are making the most of opportunities to offer combined training programmes to staff wherever they teach and it is common now for staff from UAE schools to spend time in the summer training with colleagues from the home school in the UK. So in contemplating a partner school for our children are we pondering purchasing a copy,or are we getting the real thing?   Impediments: The Missing Building Blocks I believe that the intention from all involved in bringing partner schools to the UAE is to provide the genuine article. However, currently it is impossible actually to recreate the original experience - in its entirety. Without lighter touch regulation individuality and quirkiness are lost - a key component of UK private schools, and probably the key to their difference. Overseas partner schools are strictly regulated. Whilst I understand and admire the desire to protect the paying public, I believe that this dilutes the very essence of the school. Regulation in the UAE covers every aspect of school management. The calendar is controlled, the curriculum is controlled, the admission of pupils is controlled, the appointment of headteachers is controlled, the employment of teachers is controlled, the fees are controlled and policies and operating procedures are controlled. All this regulation leaves us not with an independent school as we understand it in the UK or US but a strictly regulated private school with less room to distinguish itself from any other in the country. Regulation is right and necessary to ensure quality and monitor standards but if it is overdone, it runs the risk of turning all schools into the same homogenised offering.. Educationalists have long recognised the value for treating pupils as individuals to get the best out of them and I believe that the same also applies to schools. Finally, parents themselves in the UAE can be a roadblock to delivering that authentic experience. In the UK or US, parents make a conscious decision and often, a huge financial sacrifice, to send their offspring to independent schools that best suit their children. In the UAE, like it or not, many parents select a school on the strength of the brand and not the strength of the school. The result is often less interest or understanding of the school’s intended aims or ethos.   Longer Term Causes for Optimism Ultimately risk of reputational loss on the part of the home school will ensure that Governors, as far as possible, are fully engaged in the maintenance of academic standards and quality of teaching staff. We should all understand too that schools, like children, take time to mature. It is unreasonable to expect any school to be the finished article in just a few years, especially when the original may have taken hundreds to develop. Brand schools do add value to the educational landscape and, as far as they are able to, offer children and parents something a little bit different. As more branded schools come into the country and the UAE becomes more comfortable with the concept, greater autonomy will be given to these schools that will allow them to become as good, if not better than their alma mata. The hope also is that in time, we will become less concerned with the brand and more focussed on broader educational provision that meets the needs of all our children of every ability and at every price point. Our ultimate mission surely is to serve the needs of all of the children of UAE.  

 -- xx --

This article has been written by Mark Atkins, Headmaster, Foremarke School, Dubai.


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