We put the WhichSchoolAdvisor.com questions to Chris McDermott, founding principal at Oaktree Primary.
Why should Oaktree Primary be on the parents’ shortlist?
Oaktree Primary School should be on every parent’s shortlist because it is, in many ways unique.
It is unique, first because of its size. In a world in which huge schools and large student numbers are the ambition of many school organisers, Oaktree Primary School has made it a deliberate policy to remain small. Our total size, when the school is full, will be 608 students; with 32 classrooms, this means that we shall have a ratio of 19 students per classroom overall, with a limit of 18 in the Foundation Stage and 22 in Key Stages One and Two.
If you combine this with our location in Al Quoz, close to The Oasis Centre, you will see that we are right in the centre of Dubai, so there is easy access across the city.
We have not only concentrated on size and location. The school has a high-quality teaching staff, recruited mainly from the United Kingdom, and a Principal who has led Outstanding schools in Dubai and England.
Why do you think prospective parents are less receptive to sending their children to a new school?
One might imagine that it is because there is always the fear of the unknown in all of us, and that this fear is even greater when we are considering what we should do for the most precious people in our lives, our children. It is this sense of security and certainty that has led parents, over the years, to seek schools that emphasise tradition. We often hear schools talking about traditional values, which provides greater assurance in an ever-changing world.
Similarly, there will always be emotional reasons behind people preferring more traditional artefacts. There will always be a market for old oil paintings and vintage cars, but, certainly in the case of the vintage cars, they need a good deal of maintenance and, even then, they could not possibly complete with brand-new modern cars in terms of performance.
We need to be very careful when we allow ourselves to believe that because something has been around for some time it is, therefore, better, or even more secure. We need to question what we mean by the word ‘new’. If an established school is wedded to the educational practices of the past, turning its face away from all modern research into how the brain works and how children learn, is it really what we should be looking for?
Further, if an established school has had a high turnover of teaching staff, and this is more likely in a transient society such as Dubai, is it really ‘established’ in the way we might imagine?
I went to a very traditional school myself, one where we sat in rows and did not speak unless asked a question by the teacher. As the saying goes, Ours was not to reason why. Our role was to follow rules, listen to our teachers and take notes. Did this prepare us for the modern world? Of course not, but we had to pass an exam to get a place at this school, so my parents felt that it had to offer something better.
At Oaktree Primary and in the modern world, we believe that the opposite is true. It is every child’s job to reason why and every teacher’s job, working with parents and carers, to stimulate that sense of curiosity, to ask Why? and then, often working with others, to search for possible answers.
What do you think are the ‘cons’ of sending children to a new school?
In a nutshell, I would say that it is this: if you start a new school, with all the sense of excitement and wonder that that entails, and you do not attempt to put in place systems and build relationships in advance, then the new school can suffer from the type of teething problems which can cause concern amongst parents.
After over twenty years working as a School Principal, I would say that the two most important aspects of the internal workings of any organisation are: systems and relationships. At Oaktree Primary School we have already appointed our teachers for the new school year and involved them in aspects of school life such as the selection of resources and systems for planning. By doing this, we are simultaneously addressing the issues of system building and relationship development.
What questions do you think parents should ask of a new school and what should they look for on their tour?
Broadly, the questions should be the same as those the parents would ask an established school i.e.
How do you ensure my child is safe?
What do you do to ensure that all children are happy?
Given a diverse range of children, from diverse backgrounds and with a diverse range of needs, what are you doing to make sure that all children achieve their full potential?
What provision does the school have for children with specific learning needs?
What are the sizes of the classes?
Where were the teachers trained and to what level?
What provision does the school have for children who do not speak, in our case English, as a first language?
What is the school’s attitude towards learning in the modern world?
What are the systems for communication between home and school so that I know how my child is progressing?
What systems are there in place so that the school functions smoothly and efficiently?
Services: is there is bus service? Is there school meals service? Are there medical services?
There are many more questions that parents could ask, but these are a few to start with!
In terms of what to look for on a tour, parents should consider the state of readiness of the building in terms of its completion and the facilities on offer. They should remember that although wonderful facilities can create a very positive impression, it is not the facilities that, in the end, will ensure that their child is a happy and successful learner, so the most valuable part of any tour can often be the impression given by the conversation that unfolds, rather than whether or not the school is able to boast deluxe facilities. At Oaktree Primary School for example, we are able to boast our own swimming pool on site; however, we do not believe that this should be the primary reason that parents should make our school their school of choice; rather, it should be our warmth, care and ambition for their offspring.
How would you suggest parents go about assessing the suitability of a new school in the absence of KHDA inspection results, parent testimonials etc?
If the school is open, speak to the children as you walk around. Remember that Principals, and hopefully staff, will always speak well of their school. But what do the children and their parents say?
If there are no children and parents to speak to, then reflect on the way that you, and your child, have been treated when you visited the school. Were the people greeting you welcoming and helpful? Did they seem to care about you and your child? Did they seem knowledgeable about the school? Beyond this, look at the track record of those working in the school, including the Principal and other senior staff. What have they done before, what does this tell you about them and what you can expect from them in the future, remembering that the best predictor of future performance will always be past performance.
At Oaktree Primary School we believe that our track record as educators bodes well for a very positive future for the children in our care.
We believe that newer is not always better, but sometimes it can be. Come along, say ‘Hello’ and see if you agree with us in our views and decide whether what we aspire to achieve for your child is what you too would aspire to for that most precious of all people in your life: your own child.