Dino Varkey Interview: Welcome To Dubai's US Super-School

CEO of GEMS Education tells WhichSchoolAdvisor.com the new school will add up to being more than the sum of its parts, and that Nations merger with DAA should not be thought of as a school closing...
Dino Varkey Interview: Welcome To Dubai's US Super-School
By C Hoppe
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In an exclusive interview with WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, Dino Varkey, CEO and board member of GEMS Education, was keen to tell us the real story of Dubai American Academy, Nations Campus is the creation of something new and exciting, not the closure of what had been seen as the school's flagship school, GEMS Nations Academy.

This, he said, will be,"greater than the sum of its parts".

"It’s an integration, rather than a closure of a school, where we create an equation where one plus one equals three."

Improbable maths calculations aside, what is undoubtedly true is that Dubai American Academy (DAA) just needed the new facilities. 

Those who have visited the decade old DAA, know the buildings and campus are seen by parents and teachers alike as tired and far from the calibre expected of a top Dubai school. They are also no match for the newer premium schools DAA has increasingly been in competition with.

Loss of potential customers, and the school's Outstanding rating have obviously been top of mind for the GEMS Education leader. Varkey told us: “Obviously from a licensing perspective, DAA needed to move… the Outstanding rating, which is very important, needs to move as well."

"We’ve actually been engaged in very difficult negotiations with our landlord on the DAA site.” That uncertainty, "was not something he wished to put the school community under".

“Even if we were able to successfully renegotiate the use of the site the level of investment in upgrading the DAA site would require, fundamentally means we couldn’t have the school operating there anyway.”


What will Nations students gain from the move?
While it is obvious what DAA parents and students get, it is not so clear what Nations parents get. Varkey is adamant however in the merger both DAA and Nations students win.

If anything, the integration of DAA into the Nations proposition actually allows us to get to that new paradigm in education quicker than Nations would have on its own.”

"For Nations to reach its aspirations it would still have taken 5 to 7 years."

In the letter to parents sent on Wednesday, Varkey highlighted other benefits for Nations students, including more course offerings, more specialist teaching, enhanced college counselling advice, more sports teams and more ECAs – and more value for money as the tuition fees for 2017/18 and beyond will follow the DAA fee structure..."

 “At the same time, we are continuing and we will continue to fulfill all of the future focused promises which we have made to our Nations families,” he said.


Co-Teachers and Staffing
Probably the key promise, aside the beautiful buildings, is in how Nations delivers its lessons with an impressive, but costly co-teacher model.

Given the move to DAA's substantially lower fee structure it would be a considerable win for parents at the school were this to continue, at that significantly lower price point.

From what we could understand from the GEMS boss, the answer is that the school will continue to use the model but with lower cost staffing. DAA Nations Campus will use trainees in the secondary teaching role, Varkey said, adding the school would be "a teacher training lab". 

"The co-teacher model at Nations will remain, yet evolve".

Currently at Nations the lead teacher in a classroom holds a Masters qualification, and the second teacher a Bachelors degree, both with accredited teacher qualifications. 

Nations more junior, but fully qualified teachers who had previously been in a secondary role, will now lead DAA classrooms, Varkey told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com.

That is, should they stay.

According to Varkey, all Nations staff will be retained if possible: “All jobs are secure and teachers can stay with us for as long as they would like to be with us."

One member of staff that has declined the offer however is Tom Farquhar, GEMS Nations founding principal, who retires in June.

“I’ve worked with Tom now for three, three and a half years. When he finished at Sidwell, he was actually going to go into retirement. It was many months of very compelling conversation to get him to look at this exciting journey,” says Varkey, "and I remain hugely grateful to him..."


2017/18 and beyond
Given the move to a new building Varkey told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com he expects there to be a "rush" for places in the next academic year - before noting that "places will be very limited".

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com hopes very much Varkey's optimism pans out. GEMS Education clearly took a huge risk in Nations, and it deserves credit for doing so. What's more, the best companies learn from their mistakes, and while the GEMS boss would not like us to consider Nations in that way, there is no doubt the journey to DAA - Nations Campus will have brought much for the the group to think about, process and ultimately gain insights from, in a way it and parents across its schools will hopefully benefit from.


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