GEMS Nations Academy: Tom Farquhar

GEMS Nations Academy: Tom Farquhar
By C Hoppe
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“This is the capstone of my career,” says Farquhar.

“Why? Because here you can really do something. It’s future focused. This is hard for well-established schools. They tend to be focused on the past.”

For a man who’s spent over 28 years of his career in the prestigious and ultra elite schools of Washington DC, it must surely have been a decision of magnitude to leave and head for Dubai and the pre-launch of GEMS Nations Academy.

Reading between the lines though, maybe it wasn’t particularly unexpected. It would seem Farquhar didn’t always find the staid tradition and aversion to innovation easy.

“I  have experienced the inevitable friction you find in very well established and very highly regarded institutions. Those are the very places which have the most difficulty with change, because they become self congratulatory.”

“It then becomes a risk to change, because they are so successful, there’s a long waiting list. If we change, do we threaten that? Well- yes we do.”

“I met (GEMS Chairman) Sunny Varkey in New York... he told me, “come over and bring your wife and I will introduce you to Dubai and show you some schools.””

“He showed me three schools, GEMS World Academy, Dubai American Academy and  Our Own English High School for Girls.”

While Farquhar was impressed by all three schools, he seems to have been particularly inspired by the efficiency, fees and sheer operational size of the Indian school, something he says he’d never before encountered.

It would seem the visit to Dubai and Our Own English High School in particular, not only changed his perception of the commercial education sector, but opened his eyes to the city’s possibilities.

“I come from the non-profit education world and this is the first time I have been in a corporate setting. Of course there are differences in how they operate. In the non-profit world, there are inefficiencies... which in a company wouldn’t be tolerated, and I actually think that can be healthy.”

He says Mr. Varkey always had a school of Nations calibre in mind. “He puts together the structures and supports the resources, then he has a general feeling for the way in which he wants the school to work, but in terms of the technical details on the programme delivery, he delegates that to others. He invites principals and educational leaders to come and help  put it all together.”

 

For a man who has not only spent a large part of his career as a hands-on principal, developing curricula and now having free rein to craft the curriculum at Nations, the school won’t just be gaining a ‘figure head’ but someone who knows intrinsically how and why the curriculum has been designed and the methodology behind it.

 

Facilities aside, the main USPs at Nation’s must surely be the faculty and curriculum.

“Our lead teacher, co-teacher model will be unique,” says Farquhar. “The calibre of the co teachers--who would be called teachers’ aids in other schools--is quite distinctive.”

“Ranging in age from 22 to 28 years, they have a level of comfort with the technology that will be beyond that of most teachers. They are digital natives and have grown up with it.”

“They’ve grown up in this culture and they’re ready to lead in technology integration.”

“Nations will have a traditional timetable; however the pedagogy will be enhanced. Digital technology will be utilized in many ways to extend and deepen learning.”

“Every child will have a device... there’s so much information available through this (Farquhar holds up his mobile phone). Does it make sense to  lock this away during the class, so the teacher can do all the talking and take us back 50 years to  a bygone era?  This is simply not taking advantage of the current opportunity.”

“We will be integrating the access to the digital information more organically into the life of the school during the day; students will understand these digital devices are not just an opportunity to be pushing icons around, to be consumers of the digital information. Instead we will  support their growth  into ‘digital creatives.’”

This won’t be a ‘curriculum-in-a-can’... it will be personal at times, inquiry based at times and always emerging.”

 

Nations will be seeking accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASAC), Farquhar says, “but we also will be  pursuing recognition from the Council of International Schools (CIS) and applying for approval to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma.” Farquhar is driven by the idea of innovation.  “For Dubai  to become a world leader in innovation, and our government here aims for nothing less, then we can’t just be replicating other models from other places. We need to create a ‘Dubai-esque’ educational reform that’s innovative and very rigorous.”

“Who knows how to do that in the world? Is there a place better than Dubai to figure this out? Here we have none of that static legacy of doing the same thing for the last 30 years.”

“We have an opportunity to create this whole system, to be inventing a 21st century educational matrix of different curricula, different price points...  it’s really exciting.”

 

Farquhar has other ideas he plans to implement too–ideas that come from his time spent in academically high achieving schools.

“If you went into an art gallery, you wouldn’t try and figure out which (piece of art) is the best, the worst and those in the middle, yet that’s exactly what we’re doing with kids. Now if it’s wrong to do it with art, how very, very wrong is it to do it with people?”

“The thing I really don’t like about prize night is that it relies on some effort to measure people and identify the best. It turns out that there are poor correlations between the kid who is best on prize night and those who are achieving 20 years from now.”

“We will have a prize night at Nations Academy, but  we will also have exhibitions,” he says with a smile.

Over his career, Farquhar has spent 15 years at Sidwell Friends School, starting out as a science and math teacher, before working his way to Upper School Dean of Students and eventually returning to Sidwell as Head of School after 21 years as Head of School at Westtown School and Bullis School.

Both Westtown and Sidwell Friends where Farquhar spent over 24 years collectively, are Quaker schools. Sidwell being the school of choice for the offspring of  US presidents, including   the children of Obama, Clinton, Nixon, Theodore Roosevelt, and Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore.

The Quaker school system includes many of the top schools in the US,  but why?

Farquhar believes it is as much about the ethos as the rigorous academics, noting, “Quaker schools have a ‘loveliness about school community, that is fostered consciously, and wouldn’t you want that in any school in the world?”

“There is value in creating a deeply caring community where there’s a mutuality of caring and respect, but not only caring about those within your school community, but also concern about the welfare of the world. We have a universal responsibility to the entire human family.”

Farquhar has absolutely no plans to simply be a big-name principal ‘representing’ the school – and paying only lip service to Dubai. He has quite obviously connected with the potential of both Nations and the city and is actively involved and invested in both.

Yes -Al Barsha might be a long way from Washington DC and the centuries of tradition  Farquhar left behind, but we suspect this is exactly what he’s wanted for quite some time.

There’s no doubt, Farquhar’s  experience in some of the top schools in the US will shake up the local education sector, but WhichSchoolAdvisor.com thinks it might well be the things he didn’t have the opportunity to implement across the pond, but dearly wished he could- that will have the biggest impact on Nations, the GEMS Education Group and potentially the wider UAE.

 

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