The UAE's Educational Influencers 2018

If you want to know who has made the biggest impact on education in the UAE over the last year, read on for's Most Influential People within education in 2018.
The UAE's Educational Influencers 2018
By C Hoppe
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Founding Principals

It takes a special kind of person to oversee a school from drawing-board to first day and beyond.

For most principals the process starts long before the building is even under construction, with site visits, building adaption and constant consultancy.

A founding headship is a dream come true, yet often fraught with nightmare-ish decisions and of course always a whirlwind. It takes nerves of steel, market knowledge, business acumen, dedication and more than a little bit of luck!

In 2018, we recognise three very different people, who took the leap of faith, opened a new school and achieved something really rather extraordinary...


Matthew Burfield and Janet Foley: Founders School Al Barsha 

Matthew Burfield might have initially seemed an unusual choice as founding principal for the first school in the new low-fee GEMS Founders brand.

The position at Founders, would be his first experience in the UAE, having arrived from a UK curriculum school in Greece. Yet, backed by Janet, who has amassed years of experience in senior leadership roles across many of GEMS’s most affordable UK curriculum schools, they have become a formidable pair.

Together, the unflappable partnership has overseen an unheard of, initial student intake of 1,500 students on launch day, plus a further doubling in numbers-the following year.

Founders took the sector by storm, astounded the critics and is already one of the biggest success stories in UAE school history!


How long have you worked in the UAE? 

Matthew: Since July 2016

Janet: I came to the UAE in October 2004 to join my husband who was working on the construction of the Jumeirah Beach Residence development. I sent my CV off to several schools and after a few interviews joined the faculty at the newly opened English College Primary School in December of that year.

What made you choose the education sector?

Matthew: I remember as a child always seeing my mother come home happy from work which was always different to my friends parents. My mother worked her whole life in education retiring recently as a Deputy Head and SENCO and still loved her job. This inspired me to take the first step into training to be a teacher and have not looked back since.

Janet: I have always loved to learn new things and had considered teaching as a profession when I was at school. I was undecided about my career choice when I finished my A levels so took a temporary job as a local government officer. Then marriage and children came along so everything went on hold for a few years. When my children were attending playgroup and nursery I would volunteer to read stories and take music classes, so when a position came up at the nursery they asked me if I was interested in the job and said yes. After a few months I took a playgroup supervisors course and was encouraged by one of the tutors at the college to train as a teacher. I applied to Westminster College Oxford and was offered at place as a ‘mature student’.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE?

Matthew: The challenges of education are always the same as far as I am concerned. The challenge of trying to prepare children for a world which we as adults are still trying to work out. Our world is constantly changing and evolving  but many aspects of education are still operating in the same way as they were a couple of hundred years ago. As educators we have to constantly look for ways to innovate so that we can give our children more opportunity to be prepared for this ever changing world.

Janet: I believe that the rapid pace of change is a massive challenge in education. Schools need to deliver a creative and adaptive curriculum and I feel it is necessary to shift from an over-traditional approach so the next generation are prepared for the workplace and lifestyle of the future, one that we can only guess at. Obviously there is a lot of competition out there and schools need to have something unique to offer.

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

Matthew: My first milestone was as an NQT starting my careen in South London teaching History and Citizenship. It was a big step as I grew up in a small village in Norfolk and certainly the differences were clear. Since then I have had the privilege of opening and running a new Sixth Form College in the London Borough of Lambeth which was a huge challenge. As a Principal my two biggest milestones were my first Headship in Athens, Greece and then of course the largest opening of a school in GEMS history with GEMS Founders School.

Janet: The first teaching position after I graduated was as a Year 2 teacher at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, that was an important point in my career. When I joined GEMS as an Assistant Principal was a key career milestone as it was my first senior leadership position.

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date - and why?

Matthew: My greatest individual achievement as a teacher was with a particular student that had many challenges in their life and was in extreme danger of exclusion and ultimately prison. Working with this student on a daily basis with many of my colleagues I was able to see her turn her life around, go to university and is now performing her own music. This is still one of the proudest moments I can recall as a teacher and when I see her or get in touch with her she still makes me smile.

Janet: Undoubtedly opening GEMS Founders School, Al Barsha in September 2016. I think it is fair to say that we weren’t expecting the demand for places to be so high and we really needed to be flexible and think on our feet as things changed.  Coordinating the project construction, ministry approvals, recruitment, admissions and resources so that the school opened on time was a massive achievement for the whole team and I was excited to be involved.

Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

Matthew: The thought of a new day working with the amazing team I have at GEMS Founders School.

Breakfast with my daughter and wife so that each day starts with positivity from the most important people in my life.

The fact that I get to meet and greet so many of our children in the morning and see their excitement as they come to school.

Janet: I love working with our team, coming to work has to be fun for me. I enjoy bringing positivity to work and hope that this influence the well-being of those around me. I also relish the challenges that working in such a busy school brings, every day is different.

What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

Matthew: I would really like to continue to grow Founders so that the initial success continues and it becomes synonymous with great value education. I would like to be a part of opening more Founders Schools across the UAE and the rest of the world so that parents and children can benefit from the high quality education we offer with an affordable fee structure.

Finally, I would like to work with Principal’s and schools in an advisory capacity towards the end of my career so hopefully I can share those little nuggets of truth that I have been fortunate enough to hear from many of colleagues.

Janet: Naturally I want to see GEMS Founders School do well in its first DSIB inspection, but personally I hope to continue to work in the field of positive education. I would like to see this movement become more widespread and recognised.

What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success?

Matthew: Everybody has to make their own path and journey through their life and their career. It may sound cliché but being true to yourself is really the most important advice I could ever give anyone. Ultimately you have to be proud of who you are and you must be comfortable with the decisions you make. Beyond this nothing can replace a good work ethic and I still now value this quality above all else when looking for new employees. A good person who works hard can be trained in the skills needed for their job but if they don’t begin with these qualities it is a far greater challenge.

Janet: Be prepared to adapt but never let go of your principles and goals.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education?

Matthew: Obvious I know but it is the children. Every day they make you smile, teach you something and give you the opportunity to learn with them. They are forgiving, understanding and excited to see what the day brings for them. I hope we as adults hold on to some of this throughout our life.

Janet: For me it’s those ‘lightbulb’ moments that are most rewarding. These can happen when you are working with children or with colleagues. You hope that you are making a difference and that you will be remembered but I suppose passing on knowledge and understanding gives you a kind of immortality.

To read more Matthew and Janet's work at Founders go here



Keith Miller: Sunmarke School

Keith is Executive Principal at Sunmarke School and oversees operations at both Fortes schools, (Sunmarke and Regent International School.)

In 2017, the brand-new Sunmarke school took the extraordinary decision to request a KHDA inspection, only a few months after launch. Even more extraordinary, was the 700-student school received a Good for the DISB team with more than a few indicators scoring Very Good ratings.

Within the report, Keith was recognised for his knowledge of best educational practice, his implementation of policy and procedures ‘ambitious vison for high quality education.’

Keith originally arrived in the UAE to work for GEMS Education and held a variety of roles, including; Principal at both Wellington International Sheikh Zayed Road and then Wellington Academy Al Khail.

Good friend and ex-colleague, Hartland International School, principal Fiona Cottam says of Keith, “his influence and impact on the education field in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi where he was initially working has naturally been significant and he has taken both new schools to good on first inspection in each.”

She goes on, “Keith is also an incredibly collaborative leader and works with other Principals across the city, sharing good practice and also engaging on discussion forums. Most of all, Keith has education and the students at the heart of all that he does and is a good role model for those who aspire to be Principals in their own right.”


How long have you worked in the UAE? 

I arrived with my family in August 2011, so I'm in my 7th year in the UAE.

What made you choose the education sector? 

I started teaching in 1986 and I still remain as passionate about student learning as I did back then. 

Is there a better job than being part of the process of developing and supporting students into very well qualified and rounded young men and women, who will contribute to and change the world that we live in?

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the industry in the UAE?

How do we balance the need of ensuring that our students academically exceed their potential, against developing the necessary 3rd Millenium skill sets that will fully prepare our students for work and life in an ever changing and challenging world?

What are the key milestones in your career so far?

Having my practice in the classroom being judged has outstanding both by my school and by OFSTED

My first Headship in 2003

Moving to the UAE to lead an International School in 2011

What do you think is your greatest achievement, in education, to date - and why?

I've been fortunate enough to have worked in a number of fantastic schools both in the UK and the UAE, but the last 2 academic years with Fortes Education and being part of the team the opened Sunmarke has been my greatest achievement to date.

The reason why I have chosen this achievement is because of the amazing progress that has been made at Sunmarke in such a short period of time. These achievements are not simply because of my leadership, but down to the dedication and skills of my very talented leaders and teachers, our amazing students, our supportive families, and the full support of the Fortes Board of Directors

 Name three things which get you up and motivate you each day?

The smiles on our students faces when I meet them at the start of each day.

Being part of a team who has the drive and determination to ensure that our students are happy at school and exceed their potential academically.

Having the opportunity to ensure that all students have positive choices in life.

 What would you still like to achieve in your professional life?

 To lead a school whose ethos and outcomes go beyond outstanding and  become exceptional.

 What is your advice for others hoping to emulate your success?

Work hard, listen, be reflective, take onboard advice given, and don't be afraid to take risks.

Lead through staff and empower them to make decisions and drive strategy.

When things don't go to plan be strong, don't make excuses, dont be impulsive, and work with your school's community to overcome the difficulties together

What is the most enjoyable aspect of working in education?

Watching your students and staff grow and improve; being part of process that enables all of your school's community to work towards achieving their dreams.

Keith was nominated by our 2017 Influencers 



Jump to

Founding Principals

Principal Influencers


Campaigners & Advocates

Educational Entrepreneurs

Influential Leaders

The 2017 and 2018 Influencers in full


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